Pushing the reset button on engagement

Psychological safety will be more important than ever as employees get back to work after the COVID-19 crisis.
By: | May 12, 2020

By Jen Colletta, managing editor at Human Resource Executive (HRE).

“When, in your lifetime, have you had the opportunity to push the reset button this totally: personally, professionally and organizationally?” Michael Gillespie asked participants on a webinar this week on employee engagement.

While the founder and CEO of BlueEQ—a consulting, coaching and training organization—noted that the coronavirus pandemic has been “catastrophic,” the potential it has presented for HR leaders is undeniable. Particularly as employers begin strategizing how to resume operations as the peak of the pandemic appears to be behind us, HR has the opportunity to be a strategic partner in tackling what could be a significant challenge: employee engagement.

Among the many dimensions HR leaders will need to consider in the pursuit of engagement is the physical environment: whether they will allow work-from-home arrangements on a permanent basis, how to account for social distancing in the workplace, and even testing and other health monitoring, Gillespie says. But even more important is psychological safety.

Gillespie polled the audience on his webinar to gauge their personal concerns about heading back to work: They reported they are concerned about dealing with fearful employees, a potential outbreak at the workplace, children who are still at home, a renewed long commute, productivity, their own health.

“Leaders today have to be competent and understand how to deal with all of this stress, anxiety, fear and doubt in the workforce,” he says.

Gillespie encourages clients to envision psychological safety on a scale—the “Red Zone” representing low levels of safety and the “Blue Zone” the highest, with varying states in between.

In an unsafe environment, he says, managers may have hidden agendas, demonstrate inconsistent behaviors, micromanage and lack trust in their employees—and, accordingly, workers are primarily motivated out of fear. Research from Harvard, Gillespie says, found staggering business results with such approaches:

  • 80% of individuals lost work time worrying about an incident connected to psychological safety;
  • 80% said their commitment to the organization declined because of the atmosphere;
  • nearly half decreased their work effort and time spent at work; and
  • 25% took their frustrations out on a customer.

On the other hand, Blue Zone environments involve high levels of trust, openness, candor and inclusion—and, in turn, peak engagement.

“It’s a place where people freely innovate, can be creative and know their contributions matter,” he says.

Given the fears workers will be already bringing with them back to the office, that type of atmosphere is a must for engagement in 2020, Gillespie notes. So, how do organizations move closer to that Blue Zone?

Psychological safety, he says, can be broken down into four quadrants that employers can actively promote:

Learner: A safe environment for individuals to discover, ask questions, learn from their mistakes and look for new opportunities.

Challenger: A “speak-up” culture, where employees can safely expose problems.

Collaboration: Colleagues interact freely, there’s mutual access to information and open dialogue.

Inclusion: People are valued, treated fairly and trust that their ideas and experiences matter, regardless of their position within the organization.

Attaining each of these is “not a linear process,” Gillespie notes. For instance, bringing people together for a project promotes both collaboration and learner safety.

“It’s a very dynamic process but one that, if it’s embedded in your culture, becomes magical,” Gillespie says. “It becomes the catalyst to get things done, to collaborate, to help organizations innovate. Psychological safety will become the competitive advantage for organizations in the future.”