About Leadership and Psychological Safety #SHRM19



Customer Loyalty

Loyalty. It's an important word in business. There’s a lot of talk about increasing customer loyalty. Businesses know that keeping a customer is much more important and less expensive than gaining them. Reducing customer churn is vital for growth in a competitive world. 

When are customers loyal? It’s clear. Customers are loyal when they trust the organization, they do business with. Trust is a result of what is offered – products, processes, know-how - and how it's being offered. Very often the how is more important than the what. The how illustrates loyalty and integrity. But I admit that this is relative. It’s remarkable how fast customers forget about transgressions an organization and its management make. So it’s not always about ethics, but about how the organization impacts the personal sitiation of its customers.

A company will be trusted when it is loyal and acts in the interest of their customers. At least, the pereception must be that it does.

Employee Loyality

The same is valid for employees. Employees will stay if they trust their employer. And they will trust employers when they are both competent (the what) and loyal (the how). 

And what happens if they don't trust their employer but they stay nevertheless?

Then, you have the problem of mental dismissal. People are hitting the brakes. They are disengaged. They don't carry their weight. They will commit small acts of sabotage.

When we talk about employee retention, it's not just about keeping people within the organization. It's also about making sure they stay and are willing and able to contribute. Retention is more about energizing people, than it is about gluing them to their chairs.

Employee Experience

Employee experience and designing the right context for employees can be seen as a trend. Or a hype. We talk about touch points and employee journeys. We talk about how to connect people to a purpose. We think about employer branding for both employees and candidates. We devise ingenious schemes for internal communication. We think that enterprise social networks will do the trick. We design elaborate leadership programs.

But I believe these are often fancy words that hide the simple but hard truth that many organizations have dehumanized their operations. Many practices that we have installed are demotivating. It’s painful to see that many companies try and improve the varnish but do not care for the wood. They resort to easy, cosmetic measures.

And if you look at it carefully, you’ll see most companies focus on efficiency, not on experience. And if they have to make a trade-off between efficiency and experience, the balance usually goes to the efficiency side. In times of crisis, many leaders seem to have forgotten the words that people are the single most important source for competitive advantage.

The focus on employee experience, with all its technical newspeak, often hides an emotional emptiness. As if the design of an office will win over people’s hearts. It’s not because someone works in a fancy office environment, that they are fully present and eager to serve their customer. People can work in a dump and be excited. And they can work in a palace but feel totally depleted.

Basic Human Needs

We are looking too far. If we want people to be loyal and productive, we must give them an environment that fulfills their basic human needs. The single most important characteristic of that environment is trust. Or if you wish, psychological safety.

And this is not achieved by just launching big engagement programs or designing sophisticated employee journeys that nudge people into the right kind of behavior.

It’s achieved by allowing people to behave naturally.

Only when organizations offer a psychologically safe environment, people will act naturally. And when they do, magic happens. People debate, dare to dissent, exchange, create, … Think about it, when do you feel like being vulnerable and launch a crazy idea? When you know that people won’t hold it against you. When will you take risks? The answer is clear: when it is safe to do so. When you know people will help you and not condemn you when it goes wrong.

If people feel the need to cover up their mistakes, are vigilant for backstabbing, have high levels of fear, do not get any slack, … they will behave accordingly. They might not leave, depending on their personal goals, values and mobility. But they will adapt their behavior for sure. In such environments toxic behaviors can root which makes it worse.

I am always amazed how people robotize their behavior when they are caught in such a work environment. They give what they are expected to give. They stop thinking and act in ways that fulfill expectations.

Sometimes we talk about dehumanized environments. But that might not be the right word. Toxic behavior is very human, even when it is not desirable. You can find it in the playground of schools, in college, at work and in homes for the elderly. We should not be naïve and think that we can eradicate these behaviors just by hanging values on the wall. Creating safe environments requires hard work.


The role that leaders play in this is huge. Leaders shape the psychological context in which people work.

Leaders create a psychological experience based on simple, human behaviors like empathy (we listen to understand), fairness (we treat people with dignity and equality), kindness (humans make mistakes, have difficult moments) and reciprocity (give and take).

Humanity in Business

I believe we should go back to the essence of human behavior in business. If there is humanity in business, there will be business in humanity.

When I talk with business leaders about the idea of humanity, some of them seem to withdraw. Using one’s humanity is the only sustainable source of leadership, as I wrote in my book on Sustainable Leadership.

In many organizations showing humanity is no-can-do. It seems weak. Someone who shows their humanity can win a lot, but only when the context allows that. It takes some courage to be human in a competitive world.

Leaders working in a toxic environment often create bubbles of humanity. They decide to do it differently. Within the team they focus on safety, but outside of the team they focus on politics, survival. This is a very precarious situation for these leaders as they need to develop two very different sets of behaviors. The behaviors that make them great leaders, might weaken their position in the competitive arena of toxic organizations.

Vulnerability and the Courage to Lead

I am looking forward to Brené Brown’s keynote during the upcoming 2019 SHRM Annual Conference & Exposition. She talks about vulnerability and about the courage to lead. It’s good to have voices that tell business leaders that the source of leadership cannot be position, power, pressure or popularity. Being a decent human being is often the major part of the answer to what makes people great leaders.

And the good thing is that we all have the potential to be decent human beings.



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