Buckle Up! Ways to navigate the ongoing turbulence in workplace culture

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Disruption, anxiety and high levels of turbulence are no longer being referred to as exceptional. Arguably you could say we are becoming rather numb to tales of the unexpected.  No fuel today at the local petrol station? Empty shelves in the supermarket? Colleagues walking out the door in pursuit of another vocation? Rapidly rising cases of inappropriate conduct and behaviour in the workplace?  There are plenty more examples of so-called surprises that are not wholly unexpected in today’s world.

The recently published ‘State of Ethics and Compliance in the Workplace’[1] reported a 33% increase in observed misconduct, 81% uplift in reporting (based on general misconduct reporting question) and, shockingly, 61% increase in the rates of retaliation over 2015-2020.  Add into the mix the impact and trauma of a global pandemic from early 2020 onwards, these statistics should be sounding loud alarm bells to every single business leader who aspires to create a high performing organisational culture where high levels of trust, transparency and integrity form the bedrock of the organisation’s values and shared sense of purpose.

The effect of ongoing turbulence on our sense of identity and attachment  

The deeply unsettling nature of the pandemic and emerging threats have caused many people to re-evaluate their personal values and sense of purpose.  After the initial acute stress response to the pandemic threat which we all naturally experienced during 2020, for many there has been a shift towards a line of self-enquiry which questions ‘who am I’, ‘why do I do what I do’, and ‘where do I belong’.

Experience tells us a desirable workplace culture does not happen by default.  It requires mindful and purposeful design, ongoing vigilance and a level of intentionality that many leaders underestimate at their peril.  On this basis, as leaders, what are we actively doing to support our people as they move through this period of re-appraisal and self-determination? How explicit are we being about why they matter and are genuinely valued?  How can they contribute to a greater good, over and above financial performance? And can what they do make a real difference and deliver a wider societal impact?

More so than ever, if leaders are not being intentionally inclusive and purposeful in their leadership behaviours and actions, then the risks of unintentionally excluding and severing vulnerable attachments to the organisation are significantly heightened.

Psychological safety is a collective movement, not a single moment

During times of stress and anxiety, we must focus on the ability of team members to feel psychologically safe and for everyone to be able use their voice, if we are committed to a high-performing culture built on trust and respect.  Defined by Amy Edmundson as ‘a shared belief by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking’, psychological safety is not about being nice to each other.  It is also not limited to one individual or a single moment in time.  It is about having courageous conversations, giving and receiving constructive feedback and admitting we all make mistakes.

The ongoing levels of uncertainty in the workplace can have a multiplier effect on the volume of the voice in the workplace. Suddenly one person speaking up can come across as a sonic boom in a volatile world where self-preservation and survival are primal responses, and the use of voice draws unwarranted attention.  When it comes to psychological safety, managers have traditionally focused on enabling candour and dissent with respect to work content[2]. With hybrid working, the boundary between work and life has become increasingly blurred, and managers are making staffing, scheduling, and coordination decisions that consider employees’ personal circumstances, a whole new dimension that many may feel uncomfortable with.

Unless we all feel psychologically safe at work, no-one will. The courage it takes to be vulnerable, to step up and to speak out without fear of retaliation is self-pollinating – the more we do it, the wider it spreads.  But to develop that psychological safety ‘muscle’, especially during a time of ongoing turbulence, is brave and hard work, and it takes real effort.  As happens quite often in other areas of our lives, if we’re finding it’s easy, then we’re probably not doing it right.

It’s time to take hold of culture

In the context of the ongoing change and uncertainty, leaders need to take a hold of the liminal space that every healthy culture needs and is being threatened by excessive workloads, remote working and other pressures. Liminality is a term used to describe the psychological process of transitioning across boundaries and borders. This process creates time and space for reflection and a shift of focus, for example, when we complete a task and move from one to the other, when we finish work in the office and travel home, and when we decide to use our voice and speak up in the face of authority. These boundaries have become increasingly permeable. They will continue to be challenged as the pace of change prevails and as we continue to unravel the consequences of the pandemic in the workplace, the environment and on wider society.

Create the cultural breathing space

Leaders must protect liminal time to enable people to question themselves on what they stand for, why their work is meaningful, and how they can contribute to the bigger picture.  The integrity of our leaders and our depth of trust in each other need the time to accumulate and to be believed in. Especially during a period of ongoing turbulence, we need to create and nurture cultural breathing space to use our voices and to be heard, as an expression of our shared identity and sense of common purpose.

[1] https://www.ethics.org/global-business-ethics-survey/ – accessed 19 November 2021

[2] https://hbr.org/2021/04/what-psychological-safety-looks-like-in-a-hybrid-workplace