How To Deal With a Psychologically Unsafe Workplace – The Authentic Way

For those who were able to attend our webinar on Psychological Safety we want to thank you for attending and for the overwhelmingly positive responses. If you missed it, here is the link: https://youtu.be/80oVGPcXimc
Please pass along this link to anyone you believe would find value from it. Our hope is that it will generate some productive dialogue with your team and the people in your life.
The number one question we received from the webinar is, “How do you effectively deal with a psychologically unsafe workplace?”
Here are ten suggested strategies. We get it. You’re likely busy today. If you don’t have time to read all these go straight to the last one.
We sincerely hope to see you in the upcoming Masterclass.
Know you aren’t alone. When you are in an unsafe situation and feel like you can’t be honest, it’s natural to feel isolated and alone. However, in reality, everyone meets this kind of experience at some point in their life and chances are many of your colleagues are dealing with the same experience. You’ll want to resist the tendency to create a “culture of complainers,” but it is important to create a support network – people who provide encouragement and who challenge each other to take responsibility to change.
Be honest about the avoidance and assess your investment. Reflect on how you have avoided facing the reality of the situation. Hiding is an understandable and human response, done in a variety of ways: gossiping, complaining, blaming, or simply withdrawing. Although it is safe for a while, the problem with hiding is that you stay stuck wherever you are hiding. Honestly and carefully evaluate if you are committed to facing this. It is a risk to courageously stand up in any relationship that does not feel safe. We can’t promise that this will be an easy, comfortable journey or that it will result in a transformed workplace or relationship. What we can guarantee is that you will come out of it a better, stronger person.
Connect before you expect. This is a fundamental leadership principle that we teach in all of our leadership programs. However, it doesn’t only apply to your team or to the important relationships in your life. It can also apply to people that you don’t feel safe around. Before going any further, be sure that you have done everything you can as far as encouragement, appreciation, recognition, and commitment to your work.
Identify precisely what you don’t feel psychologically safe about. Ambiguity is a formula for mediocrity. If you are going to change something, you have to shift from a vague, inarticulate emotion to a well-defined understanding of the problem. For example, do you feel judged, dismissed, or evaluated unfairly – and if so, how? Do you feel someone is bullying or harassing you – and if so, what exactly are they doing? Do you feel that someone in a position of authority is expecting something from you that compromises you in some way – and if so, what exactly are they demanding? Do you feel like your ideas are not respected and valued – and if so, how?
Distinguish between safety and security. Safety is not the same as security. Safety is external in that it originates from the environment around you; security, on the other hand, is internal. It originates from within you. While the line between the two is sometimes muddled, be careful that you don’t expect your boss to make you comfortable, secure in your position, or happy. Facing some discomfort, increasing your confidence, and growing your job satisfaction are on you, not your boss.
Face the lack of safety responsibly. Approach the person you don’t feel safe around, or your manager, with both honesty and personal responsibility. This means being as precise as possible about what is happening – without blame and without compromising who you are. Express your commitment to do your part to learn from the experience and to make the necessary changes on your end, without diminishing your self-respect.
Control what you can. It’s never a good investment of time or energy to attempt to change another person. If you set out to change someone else, you’re destined for frustration and despair. It’s simply not realistic. That said, although we can’t completely control the world around us, we can influence how we act within it and the way we react to it. Each person’s behavior impacts the formation of an organization’s culture, and your small, seemingly insignificant contribution does matter, even though its impact might not be immediately apparent.
Ask for an agreement. While listening to the response to your concerns and requests, at some point you need to identify a clear request and get a well-defined agreement as to whether the person you don’t feel safe around will make the necessary changes. What is within your sphere of influence is to identify a request and seek an agreement to respond to that desire.
Weigh your options. If there is no good will, the responsibility lies on you to assess whether it supports your self-respect to stay in that relationship. One option is to leave. Another is to decide to leave at a later date. Another option is to stay as authentic as you can be and remain in the relationship even if it isn’t 100% safe. Another option is to continue to hide in a toxic situation and avoid facing the reality. What’s important is to recognize that the choice lies in your hands.
Assess your growth – and persist. Every challenge creates a growth opportunity. While you may find yourself saying, “Enough already! I’ve had enough growth opportunities this past year to last a lifetime!” keep your chin up and keep walking. Know that if you are committed to staying authentic, growth will be your reward. Dag Hammarskjöld, the Swedish economist and diplomat who served as the second Secretary-General of the United Nations, put it this way: “When the morning’s freshness has been replaced by the weariness of midday, when the leg muscles quiver under the strain, when the climb seems endless, and suddenly, nothing will go quite as you wish – it is then that you must not hesitate.”
A psychologically unsafe workplace is not something anyone should have to tolerate, but unfortunately this is the reality for far too many. For committed leaders, creating a psychologically safe workplace is among the most important steps you can take. For those grappling with how to deal with the situation, sometimes the best you can do is to honestly face your emotions and find a residue of growth. What’s important is your own self-respect. Don’t let anyone take this from you.
Feel free to reach out to us for support or guidance.

Lessons From a Restaurant Manager

The past few weeks I have noticed just how much caring there is in the world around us. Perhaps it is because I have written a book on caring and I believe that what you focus on is what grows. It’s the simple acts of kindness that have a powerful impact on the people around us. As Maya Angelou, the American poet, singer and activist reminds us, “People may not remember what you did, or what you said, but will always remember how you made them feel.”

My daughter, Chandra, is a supervisor at Moxie’s restaurant in Market Mall in Calgary. She works long hours to pay for her education at the University of Calgary. While she is getting an excellent education at the U of C, her schooling these days goes beyond what she’s learning in the classroom.
Recently, when three women came into the restaurant, Aaron, her general manager, checked on the table, only to discover that these three ladies came from the Foothills hospital, where one of them had just lost her husband. Aaron took the time to listen through their tears. He bought them a bottle of champagne. At the end of the evening he brought them their bill – with a zero balance. And with the paid meal came a $100 gift card for a future dinner at the restaurant.
Chandra has had some remarkable mentoring from this general manager. When we talked about the experience she explained how she learned that the motive behind caring isn’t because it’s good for business. You care because it’s good for life. And if you do what’s good for life, it will be good for business.
Here are three lessons about caring from Aaron the restaurant manager:
  1. S-l-o-w d-o-w-n. Caring isn’t a program. It’s not a technique or a strategy or a ploy. Caring is who we are. Caring, like beauty, is all around us. But we have to pause long enough to see it, to let it come through us, to bring it out to the world around us. On my bookshelf is a book I inherited from my mother at the time of her death. It is book written in 1930 by Nellie L. McClung, and signed personally to her family when mom was nine years old. Nellie became an inspiration to Joyce all her life. Within the pages, Ms. McClung makes a most profound statement: “We are clever people, efficient and high-powered, but in our zeal to get things done we are forgetting the simple art of living.” The simple art of living requires us to slow down enough to observe what is around us.
  2. Everyone has value. Years ago, in a university class taught by the late Dr. Stephen R. Covey, we were given a mid-term exam with a question, “What’s the name of the person who keeps this building clean?” While we all failed the test that day, I didn’t fail to get the lesson. People are what matter. Caring transforms the “bank teller,” the “restaurant server,” the “janitor,” or the “customer,” from an object into someone with a name and a story, with needs and wants, goals and aspirations, and a desire to belong and to feel good about their contribution. At Moxie’s that night, it wasn’t about the free meal or the champagne or the gift card. It was about someone taking the time to acknowledge another’s pain, even in the midst of a busy shift. It was about taking a few brief moments to listen and thus nourish the human spirit. It was about the value of human goodness. It was about taking the time to care.
  3. It’s about passion and purpose. Last week I had the good fortune to speak to a group of school teachers in an elementary school in my community. Before my presentation, Greg Woitas, the principal, took me around his school and shared the love that his teachers put into their work and their students. I was struck, as I am by so many leaders in education, by his passion and sense of purpose. He beamed when he introduced me to his staff and spoke so highly of their efforts and their deep love for children. It was an old building, but on the inside it shone brightly with the power of caring.
A sequoia can live two thousand years. A domestic cat does very well if it makes it to twenty. A mayfly: born at sunrise, gone by nightfall. Each life is complete in itself. The quality of an individual life has nothing to do with how long it lasts, and everything to do with how it is lived. Sometimes people come into our lives for a moment, a day, or a lifetime. It matters not the time we spend with them, but how our lives are impacted during that time.

Stop Evaluating People and Start Holding Them Accountable

In recent months, smart companies are finally seeing the futility of the old, outdated rule-based, bureaucratic “evaluation systems” of performance management. Many organizations I work with are abolishing their “rank and yank” systems that assign employees a performance score relative to their peers, while punishing or firing those with low grades. Other organizations are wisely rethinking their practices. Whether you agree or disagree with UCLA researcher Samuel Culbert’s assessment that performance reviews are “a curse on corporate America,” it’s nonetheless clear that performance reviews and evaluations are finally losing their appeal.

Why Performance Management Fails

First, the world has changed. Today’s employees want open communication and collaboration with their peers and with their bosses. They want partnerships, not parents. Today’s employees are also far more apt to want to know more immediately how they are doing and if they are meeting expectations and heading in the right direction. The world isn’t on an annual cycle any more for anything.

Second, being evaluated is demeaning. It’s based on an outdated parental, parent/child model of supervision that is founded on the belief that because a person is given a title they have authority over people. What right does anyone have to evaluate another person? No wonder performance reviews breed all kinds of unnecessary fear, resentment, and resistance. Leadership today is about service, not submission, supervision, and self-centeredness.

Third, if organizations want to develop highly engaged, contributing performers, managers must be equipped to coach and empower them. Today’s workers don’t see their managers as experts in specific subject areas the way their predecessors did. After all, the information they think they need is readily available to them online. Instead, they look to their managers for coaching and mentorship and find purpose through learning, contributing, and growing on the job.

The truth is that employees don’t need annual performance reviews to know how they stack up against their peers. Companies need to stop merely managing performance and start actually developing it.

The Alternative: Accountability Agreements

Instead of evaluating people, start holding them accountable. Here’s how:

Step 1. Build trust. Accountability without trust is compliance. Make the connection. Be trustworthy. Keep your promises. Be accountable. Genuinely invest in people lives. Be interested in what matters to them, what motivates them, and how you can support them to grow. People need to feel safe so they can be honest without fear of punishment. The key is not just walking around; it is opening up, paying attention, and being in touch. People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.

Step 2. Engage. Accountability without passion is drudgery. Do all you can to help and coach your employees to find their unique abilities, passion, and goals and how work fits into the context of their life. Be sure you have done everything you can to help them find a fit. Fit people; don’t fix people. Stay away from evaluating people and focus on how to support each other to grow and achieve clearly defined success.

Step 3. Clarify Expectations. Ambiguity breeds mediocrity. People need to be clear about what is expected and how success is defined. Clarify operational (competency) expectations, as well as describing in behavioral terms the kind attitude that is required and what results are promised. Before you make an agreement, be sure the willingness, the resources, and the capabilities are in place.

Step 4. Clarify Agreements. A request is not an agreement. If you want to hold someone accountable, you must get their full 100% agreement. If you don’t get an agreement to a required request, then go to Step 6.

Step 5. Clarify Support Requirements. To be committed and engaged, people need to feel that they can talk openly about the support they require to achieve their accountabilities. They need to feel that you are committed to do all you can to help them find the resources and capabilities to do their job and grow in the process. What support is needed? Your employee’s negotiated support requirements will be your accountability to them. The support requirements of your employees will be their accountabilities to you.

Step 6. Clarify Consequences. With no consequences there will be no accountabilities. Always start with positive consequences (motivators). Motivators are the internal or external results of delivering on your accountabilities. Motivators are meant to inspire you to achieve your accountabilities. If these don’t get the job done, then go to negative consequences.

Step 7. Follow up. Follow up means a clear understanding of a plan for follow-through, including how often you need to meet and with whom to ensure that you hold yourself and each other accountable for honoring the promises you have made to each other.

Personal Accountability

A participant in my leadership program this week, Al Brown, President of Industrial Scaffold Services on Vancouver Island, shared a great quote with me:

These require zero talent:

  • Being on time
  • Work Ethic
  • Effort
  • Body Language
  • Energy
  • Attitude
  • Passion
  • Being Coachable
  • Doing Extra
  • Being prepared

Al gets it. He’s built an amazing organizational culture around some timeless principles of personal accountability.

How are you, as a leader, modeling the way?

Hire For Character; Train For Cashiers

The title of this blog came from an executive at Nordstrom Department Stores when I asked him about his hiring philosophy. “We hire for character; we train for cashiers.” Far too often people get hired on the basis of competence, and fired on the basis of attitude.

I am often asked, “So how do we hire for attitude? How do we ensure that the right people are hired? How do we ensure that just because a potential employee has technical competence, that they are the right fit for our culture?”

Here’s a five-step process for hiring the right people in your organization.

Step 1. Clearly define the kind of culture you are committed to create and the kind of attitude you need from your employees. Be sure you have an answer to the following questions:

  • What values do you need your staff to exhibit?
  • What behaviors do you expect from your employees that will demonstrate the kind of attitude you expect?
  • What behaviors do you expect from every employee that will demonstrate your espoused values?

Step 2. Be committed to take your time in the hiring process. The management guru, Peter Drucker, had a favorite saying: “Hire s-l-o-w-l-y; fire quickly.” Depending on the position, the best organizations are prepared to take up to several hours getting the right people on the bus.

Step 3. Bring the right questions to the interview process. Note that accountability is described as:

  • The ability to be counted on
  • The willingness and ability to take initiative
  • Taking ownership for the environment you work in
  • Taking responsibility for the mistakes you make
  • Seeing all blame as a waste of time
  • Choosing service over self-interest
  • Choosing gratitude over entitlement

Here are some sample questions for the interview to help you assess if a candidate is accountable. You can adapt these questions to any of the values that you are hiring for.

  • What does accountability mean to you?
  • Why do you feel that accountability is important in your work and in your life?
  • Where did you learn to be accountable? How was accountability instilled in you?
  • Tell me about a time in your work when you took initiative, ownership, and personal responsibility. What was the result?
  • Tell me about a time when you weren’t accountable. What was the result?
  • Tell me about a time when your accountability was tested under pressure, or when it was easier to be lazy and complacent or have a sense of entitlement instead of being accountable? How did you respond? What were the consequences?
  • When have you had to stand alone from the crowd in order to live this value?
  • How do you anticipate living this value (e.g. accountability) in the job that you are applying for?

Step 4. Be sure that all stakeholders – or as many as possible – in the organization who will depend on this person have an opportunity to ask these questions. Be sure that the questions are asked and answered from a variety of perspectives.

Step 5. Observe the candidate in action under pressure, if at all possible. Depending on the role, a probationary period where you can observe how they are living the value in their job, especially under stress, is recommended.

In the boiler room while you wait in line for the Tower of Terror ride at Disney you will find a sign with a rhyme, written by an American poet named Ella Wheeler Wilcox. It’s fitting to include it here, as no matter how brilliant a person can sound in a job interview, you don’t really know them until they are put under pressure.

It’s easy enough to be pleasant, when life hums along like a song.  But the man worthwhile is the man who can smile when everything goes dead wrong.

After a stay at a Marriott Hotel where I experienced great service from every employee all weekend, I asked the checkout clerk if everyone gets training in good customer service. After a moment of reflection, she responded, “Well… you can’t train someone to be nice. What we do here is hire nice people and train them how to use the computer.”

A well-designed culture starts with hiring the right people. I’d love to hear from you about how you use in the hiring process to get the right people on board.

The Lean Management Approach – Five Keys To Building An Accountable Culture

Last Thursday I had the good fortune of attending a one-day Lean 101 course, hosted by POS Bio-Sciences in Saskatoon. The Lean approach has been integral to their success, and I wanted to learn first hand how the tool of Lean is used to help build the “POS Way.” POS has inspired me over the years by their leadership, innovation, and customer driven entrepreneurialism.

I also had another reason for attending. Being passionate about accountability, I wanted to learn how the Lean management approach can help strengthen the accountability process I help organizations implement.

What I learned about Lean

Lean is a philosophy, an approach to business, and a set of tools designed to eliminate waste while adding value for the customer. At its core, business is a set of processes for delivering results. And Lean is a mind-set for continuously improving these processes. Lean turns employees into leaders by encouraging and empowering ownership and better contribution at every level.

But Lean isn’t just a business philosophy. It’s a philosophy for life. Who, after all, doesn’t have waste in the way we do our work and live our lives? Life is a series of processes, whether it’s doing the laundry, finding your keys, managing stress, or improving a relationship. Whenever you are systematic about improving these processes, you are practicing Lean.

As a novice to Lean, I am making it comprehendible by breaking it down and outlining a five-step approach. Below is a process you can use for applying the Lean philosophy to any aspect of life.

Take a look at anything in your life that is frustrating to you. It might be as simple as finding your keys in the morning or as complex as an under-achieving sales team.

Do a Value Stream Map of your process:

  1. Define your goal. Your goal can be as simple as having your keys in your pocket as you walk out the door – with zero frustration, or, in the case of your sales team, having achieved a specific sales quota.
  2. Clearly identify all steps in the process to achieving your goal. For finding your keys look specifically at what you do with your keys when you come home right through until you need them the next morning when you leave for work. On your sales team, break down the sales process from the time a salesperson enters the door to the end of the month when celebrating your team’s success. It is best if you do this with everyone who is involved in the process. With your keys, you might do it with your spouse, who experiences the impact of a stressed marriage partner in the morning. With your sales process, get the whole sales team to help you identify all the steps it takes to make it a successful sales division.
  3. Identify each step as value-added or non-value added. Value-added means it moves you closer to your goal and decreases frustration of everyone. It’s also what the customer is willing to pay for. Non-value added is waste: anything that doesn’t add value to the customer.
  4. Identify and remove waste. It’s a waste to hang your pants up in the closet with your keys still in the pocket because you’ll have to run into your bedroom the next morning when you can’t find your keys. It may be a waste for your sales team to be coming in to the office and returning emails unrelated to sales when they need to be spending time following up on leads.
  5. Focus on process execution. Once you have identified and removed waste:
    1. Decide who will own the process (one person needs to be accountable for the accomplishment of the process).
    2. Identify the most effective step-by-step process to accomplish your goal.
    3. Ensure everyone understands the process and their part in making the process a success.
    4. Get agreement on people’s contribution to the process.
    5. Monitor for success. Lean has a term called, “Hansei,” which means, essentially, “Looking back with critical eyes.” Self and group reflection is critical to process improvement. You will likely decide to hold regular meetings to see how the process is working. Above all, make it safe for anyone to identify waste and make suggestions for improvement at anytime. Always question. Don’t just accept what’s there. The only failure is failure to learn ways to improve.
    6. Don’t hold people accountable for results. Hold people accountable for following the process. If the results aren’t there, don’t blame the people. Instead, change the process and ensure that everyone understands it.

I am aware that this short summary from my rookie mind-set of Lean is incomplete and overly simplistic. I look forward to learning more and continually improving the processes that run my own organization and the processes that help me manage my life with the greatest ease. I also look forward to continuously learn about how to use the Lean philosophy in helping foster accountability in organizations – without blame.