Creating a Culture of Trust For a Psychologically Safe Workplace

Apr 22, 2020

The landscape of work is changing. Physical distancing, remote work arrangements and a shift in work focus mean we find ourselves needing to connect and interact with our teams in new and different ways. Add to this the increased stress and uncertainty of recent events, and the psychological and physical wellbeing of our people has never been more at the forefront.

For many, being faced with making sudden and difficult decisions about individuals’ employment, temporary or permanent business closures and the impact these have on families and communities can be devastating. Now more than ever, the degree of trust a leadership group has with their employees is key.

In this webinar we explored:

  • Culture and psychological safety
  • The science behind trust
  • How to create an environment that is safe for interpersonal risk taking

Session Q&A

I’m a leader who has already implemented a lot of the suggestions in today’s webinar. I have a team member who demonstrates aggressive and ‘finger-pointing’ behaviour in team settings. It’s starting to negatively affect team morale. What is my next step as a leader?

To an extent, you get what you tolerate when it comes to the way that you lead people. If you’re feeling that way, there’s a fair chance that there’s a number of people within your team feeling that way as well.

You can performance manage individuals and still build trust within the team. The way to do that is to be very clear and transparent with the way that you raise your concerns and the steps that will be taking place as part of that management process. Including milestones that you can work towards together to help you get to the desired outcome is also important. Putting this in writing is helpful to ensure the individual understands the process and expectations. Then, let the process serve its own purpose. So, starting a performance management process can actually work to foster trust if executed well.

What doesn’t work is tolerating poor behaviour for an extended period of time and then implementing what seems to be a very strong reaction without following the appropriate process—e.g. waiting until someone performs a safety breach and then terminating them. This has the direct opposite impact on trust within the team. We encourage you to do the work and to take the time to go through the appropriate process, especially if it is becoming a performance management issue.

We have an ongoing issue between two distinctively different parts of the business (i.e. white collar and blue collar; indoor teams and outdoor teams). Despite efforts to remove the barrier, I’m finding it difficult to break it down. Do you have any suggestions?

This is a really common challenge faced by a lot of organisations, especially in the resource sector. It often comes from people not understanding the perspectives and experiences of the other parties.

A concept that we use in our programs talks about playing green cards or red cards. These are behaviours that either help or hinder us in achieving our goals and our directives together. Surveying, having conversations and gathering information that gives other parties other perspectives of one another becomes really important. It can also be useful to get people in a room and align them on a clear objective of what we are collectively trying to achieve while talking through this.

If you have a senior manager who has a directive leadership style, how do you approach them about building trust in the workplace?

A directive work style gives a leader an immediate sense of accomplishment and is a very difficult thing to address unless the leader can see the negative by-products of this style. The first step is to make the person aware of the need to change. You can do this by having a conversation with the leader, if at all possible, about the helpful and hindering aspects of the style and making them aware of the impact their style is having on the people around them.

The next step is to start educating them. Providing tools that enable them to explore ideas and concepts for themselves are useful here. Coaching can also be a valuable tool to help leaders begin to consider how their behaviours are impacting on others.

On the flipside, if you have a senior manager who takes a very ‘hands-off’ approach, how do you ensure middle management are sending the right message down the line?

In situations like this, structure is your best friend. Use of tools like quarterly success profiles that clarify expectations of roles and accountability ensure clear messages get to all levels of leadership. You can also use infield interactions as a mechanism to check understanding of messages by the team and to allow them to ask questions. If it does not seem like the right messages are getting to the floor, ask the relevant leaders about their understanding of the messages and provide guidance about how to communicate them to their team.

Can speaking up early and often lead to a culture of white anting?

In the right forums, speaking up early and often can actually have the opposite effect. A white anting culture is often driven by people feeling they are not being heard. White anting is most severe when leaders don’t hear what is being said and as a result issues are driven underground. The challenge that we are likely to face in this scenario is predominantly in the frames of leaders. People like Daryl, from our webinar scenario, often have a lot of value to add. However, the way that they communicate can be intense and this can trigger a threat response within leaders. So, the challenge for leaders is to overcome their initial threat response within themselves and to listen to what’s being said instead of how it is being said. Following through on actions also means that ‘white anting’ is less likely to take place over time.

How do you move forward when trust is lost with a worker and they don’t accept their 50% in the situation?

Trust is a two-way street. In order to get trust, you need to give trust. It is built and earned over time. Sitting down and having a frank conversation, or a what we call a ‘straight talk’, with the individual and setting agreed expectations becomes really important. During these interactions it is important to allocate time to follow through on these expectations and to have open and honest conversations if you feel one party isn’t meeting their part of the deal.

In instances where performance is being impacted, as issues arise, you should be having those conversations early and often. Ultimately, if people can’t make it through that process, the idea would be that you are having enough conversations that eventually lead to a mutually agreed outcome. This may include the person leaving the organisation.

How do you move out of a culture of blame and avoidance, to one of trust and ownership?

Trust and psychological safety become a critical point, but ultimately leaders set the tone. So, your culture will only mature as far as your leaders develop. In order for your overall organisational culture to start to move into the Collaborative and Safety Citizenship spaces, you need leaders who are willing to give and take trust, and operate from that headspace themselves.

We also recommend exploring our free resource, Driving a Positive Safety Culture, that takes a deep dive into this very topic!

Any recommended reading as a starting point to gain a better understanding around general psychology and its application in the workplace?

It’s great to hear that you’re looking to learn more on the topic. Some of our recommendations include:

  • The Fearless Organization, Amy Edmondson
  • The 4 Disciplines of Execution, Sean Covey
  • Legacy, James Kerr
  • Nudge, Richard Thaler
  • Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman
  • The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, Patrick Lencioni
  • Just Culture, Sidney Dekker

Supporting Resources

  1. Webinar Slides
  2. Complementary Worksheet – please download to your computer and open with Adobe Reader to ensure any responses you add are saved for future reflection.

To learn more about Sentis’ diagnostic tools, our Insights-to-Action Roadmap and how we can help you to create safety culture change in your organisation, get in touch.

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