The Role Of Authenticity In A Psychologically Safe Environment

Psychological safety has been a hot topic in leadership forums, articles and conferences for years now. Researchers have conducted numerous studies into the benefits of a psychologically safe environment in a business. They have found that not only does it create highly functioning, productive and cohesive teams, but it also ultimately increases a company’s bottom line. Verdict: Psychological safety is vital for a healthy business.

However, despite the knowledge of its benefits, leaders do not always know where to start fostering psychological safety in the workplace. Despite knowing that we desire to make our employees feel safe and valued, a research survey from McKinsey indicates that only 26% of team leaders effectively promote a positive and safe workplace.

We have some work to do.

The first step is to think about what an unsafe psychological environment looks like. What makes people feel like they must hide who they are and makes them unwilling to voice their opinions? Most often their hesitation stems from uncertainty and fear of being disliked or saying something “wrong” or “stupid” and being punished for it in some way.

The next step is evaluation—both of yourself and your team. What type of environment are you creating? Does everyone actively participate in meetings? If not, why not? Are you specifically asking for opinions and placing value on others’ thoughts? Are there some people who speak up more than others, and why are those quieter voices staying silent? Perhaps some team members feel valued and confident to speak their minds while others do not. Why?

During my coaching sessions, I have walked through some of these questions with clients. Through their answers, we have identified opportunities for improvement. Some have also recognized patterns in their leadership style that inhibit employees from speaking their minds. Often the remedy to those undesirable patterns is authentic leadership.

For example, my client Robyn was undertaking a self-evaluation of her role in promoting a healthy and supportive workplace environment and realized that she was inadvertently being inauthentic when asking for her direct reports to speak their minds.

She was newly appointed to a team leader role and wanted to make a good impression. Though she did ask for input on a regular basis, she usually did so at the end of a meeting when things were wrapping up, most decisions had already been discussed and teammates were anxious to get out and on with their work. The timing was off, and most times no one said anything.

After some consideration, Robyn realized that she was choosing that time on purpose because part of her was afraid of opposing viewpoints and looking foolish in front of her direct reports. She was letting that fear alter her otherwise authentic leadership style, therefore blocking the route to a psychologically safe workplace.

She decided to face that fear, to remind herself that opposing (yet respectful) points of view are healthy—if not critical—to company health and are not a reflection of her poor leadership or a personal attack. They are simply part of normal business conversations.

Keeping this in mind, she began honestly requesting feedback much earlier during her meetings and, over time, saw a marked difference in staff contributions and dialogue.

Robyn is an intelligent and hard-working leader, and course-correcting to an authentic leadership style makes her perform even better in her role.

Authentic leaders communicate with intention and honesty. When they ask for input, they really do want it. (As opposed to inauthentic leaders, who ask for employee feedback as a mere formality with no intention of consideration.)

Authentic leaders display emotional empathy and recognize that for some people, it can be challenging to express an opinion—especially a contradictory one—to someone “higher up” who may have certain control over future job opportunities or pay raises.

Authenticity requires a leader not only to be open to others’ perspectives but also to respond to that input humbly and openly. Sometimes that input will help guide a decision and other times not. Regardless, simple acknowledgment is enough to encourage employees to contribute again and set an example for other co-workers to do the same.

On the other hand, an inauthentic leader will shut down a safe environment pretty quickly, whether intentionally or not.

Leaders display inauthenticity and decrease psychological safety when:

• Asking for thoughts and ideas on how to solve a problem while already knowing how they plan to solve it.

• Quickly or publicly dismissing opposing viewpoints out of pride or fear.

• Outright ignoring input.

• Asking for opinions that incite a challenge (e.g., “I think this. Anyone disagree?). Few will feel comfortable voicing an opposing view because they may be afraid to challenge their boss’s authority.

While some companies verbally encourage the idea of a “speak-up” culture in which all employees can voice their opinions, inauthentic leadership will quickly shut down that policy. Psychological safety is dependent on how leaders receive, acknowledge and utilize their employees’ ideas. Mismanaging staff thoughts and opinions will deter further contributions and diminish the safety of a team’s work environment. Authenticity is crucial for managers and directors to guide and encourage open dialogue in an emotionally safe workplace.

This article has previously been featured on Forbes

Leading Real People In An AI World

Generative artificial intelligence (GenAI) has been an increasing topic of discussion in the workplace in almost every industry. In 2023, we witnessed the heated writers’ strike in which AI was a key factor. Both writers, actors and studio owners recognized the vast and nuanced potential of using AI in their field and its need to be discussed in-depth.

Professor David Gunkel, an expert and author on GenAI, examines how it can affect the social, legal and moral structure of today’s workplaces and societies. In an Associated Press article regarding the Hollywood writers’ strike, Gunkel expressed his belief that “no one is able to anticipate everything that might come up with generative AI in the creative industries.” So after five months of ongoing conversations, both sides came to a tentative agreement but acknowledged that “the legal landscape around the use of (generative AI) is uncertain and rapidly developing.” Continued conversation and negotiations were written into the settlement.

What does that mean for business leaders in other industries?

Involve All Stakeholders In The Decision

The first step is including all levels of the organization in the decision-making process to acquire certain technology. Sometimes higher-level executives will take on technology that they themselves will not use with any consistency and then leave the workers to figure it out on their own. However, by including employees who will be using this technology daily in the conversation to create or purchase a new software program, better decisions can be made. These employees can provide valuable insight into what to look for in software needs.

Once innovative technology is decided upon, commit to having an open and genuine conversation about GenAI with your team. Each person may have a different outlook on adapting this technology to their day-to-day life.

In a recent McKinsey Talks podcast, Melissa Valentine and Bryan Hancock discuss the idea of GenAI as a “co-pilot” designed to augment human potential. I find that concept intriguing and accurate. Valentine explains that most workers warm to the idea of AI completing mundane tasks that enable them to focus on other aspects of their role. Who wouldn’t want that extra help?

Explain The Day-To-Day Benefits

Several of the clients I work with are finding two main strains of resistance in their teams when it comes to AI: aversion to learning new technology and a lack of understanding about the usefulness of said technology. I personally have sat through presentations where a leader has ranted and raved about the benefits of a new system to the company, which is fantastic.

However, those lectures do not translate to the day-to-day job of an individual. Leaders should present the technology on a more cellular level and explain the benefits to the worker or team. Specifically, how will this AI improve performance, aid in everyday tasks or save time? Once someone understands the benefit, they are generally more excited about sitting down to learn the nitty-gritty of how to incorporate technology into their role.

Ongoing Training

Another crucial factor in leading people to successfully maximize AI is to supply ongoing training and even brainstorming sessions. A team of nurses I met in a hospital expressed frustration over this lack of training. The hospital they worked in had recently switched owners and had changed not only several tech systems—but also medical supplies and products that nurses were expected to work with and administer to patients daily.

They were provided with a 30-minute video PowerPoint presentation to watch in their own time, and that was it. Because they were a tight-knit team, they were able to work together to figure out the ins and outs of the system as well as brainstorm the best uses of each product to use during their shifts. However, the lack of hands-on training from their leadership was disheartening, to say the least, and the successful incorporation of these new products and systems took much longer than it should have.

Wrapping Up

AI has exciting implications and potential for companies in all industries if employees are encouraged to embrace a learning mentality and explore the benefits of technology in a practical capacity through informal conversations, hands-on-trainings and follow-up brainstorming sessions provided by their leadership team. Only then can the new AI be welcomed into the workplace as the excellent co-pilot it was designed to be.

This article has previously been featured on Forbes

Visual Cues: Designing First And Lasting Impressions

Shall I address the elephant in the room? Appearance can be a very taboo and sensitive subject. In the workforce, there is an unfortunate history of discrimination based on appearance, gender, race and color. To be clear, I am an advocate for diversity in leadership. My clients come from all sorts of backgrounds, genders and nationalities. When I discuss appearance with them, I am not talking about size, skin or hair color, or anything of that sort.

Instead, my clients and I focus on posture, body language, facial expressions and clothing choices—all aspects of their appearance that can be leveraged to contribute to their executive presence as a business leader. While these visual aspects are not the most critical factors in defining a successful leader, they can be harnessed to help establish a confident demeanor and boost a team’s trust.

Like it or not, many people make snap judgments based on appearance, so once we accept that fact, why not stack the deck in our favor? Then with the knowledge of the type of leader we want to be, we can make small adjustments to make sure that the visual cues we send to others match up with the image of ourselves we wish to project.

In a recent session, my client was preparing to make a company-wide presentation at her staff’s annual conference. She wanted to make a good impression, so we discussed what type of statement she wanted to make with her appearance.

When preparing a presentation, most people focus solely on the content of their presentation—the meat and potatoes. And they 100% should. However, experience has taught me that a presentation launches from the moment you enter the room. Your appearance and demeanor speak volumes long before you begin to verbally communicate.

Together, we concocted a plan to help establish the leadership image she wished to convey, using specific visual cues. She wanted to go for a business casual look—approachable yet professional and competent. She chose a pair of dark blue boot-cut jeans, a tucked-in cream blouse and a sleet grey blazer with discreet necklace and earrings. She would wear her hair back in a sleek ponytail so that her hair would look coiffed and not get in the way of her making eye contact with those around her.

As for body language, she would walk into the room with her documents and phone tucked in a leather bag on her shoulder so she could be available to keep her head up, make eye contact with those around her and have her hands free for a handshake to those who offered it.

By making these small but intentional choices, my client is setting herself up for success in this presentation. She is leveraging posture, body language and apparel to boost her executive presence in the room.

Have you ever considered what visual cues you are sending out to others? Some leaders have created vision or mood boards to brainstorm the aesthetic and image they hope to project. Intentionally preparing your appearance in terms of body language, apparel or facial expressions can be a powerful tool in boosting your image and how others perceive you—ultimately contributing to your overall leadership presence.

This article has previously been featured on Forbes

Harnessing Conflict To Create An Ideal Company Culture

Conflict and debate are subsets of communication that we often find extremely difficult, and yet healthy debate is often the key to a thriving and innovative business. Conflict and debate are especially useful when brainstorming or problem-solving. Though leaders may find it emotionally or mentally challenging to navigate differing points of view, diversity of thought provides the ingredients for creating the ideal company culture.

Understanding power dynamics in a company hierarchy is the first step. Leaders must ask themselves if employees are openly encouraged to speak their minds or if are they worried about a public power struggle in which they might lose face. Are there cultural differences and perspectives that stop team members from expressing themselves to authority figures? Are team members clearly told where and how they can provide feedback to directors and upper management?

Assess cultural differences. Some team members may believe that compliance is preferable to participation in decision-making or problem-solving conversations.

Marie is a senior executive at an HR firm, and she realized that when she led meetings, some of the newer team members stayed quiet because they were afraid to speak up in front of the boss. She now asks junior executives to lead meetings so that her voice and opinion do not override the conversation or squash potential participation from those with differing ideas. By taking a step back and listening more, she also inherently demonstrates her willingness to absorb conflicting points of view.

While conflict and debate can be healthy for a thriving company culture, leaders can only harness them for good using clearly communicated guidelines. In the article “Into all problem-solving, a little dissent must fall,” McKinsey & Company advises leaders to “consider questions relating to team structure and rules of engagement: What does success look like when it comes to contributory dissent? What topics and behaviors are out of bounds? Who will lead the discussion, and how will comments be captured? Who has the final say on decisions, or which decisions can be delegated, and to whom?”

If done correctly, drama and conflict can revitalize your meetings and company culture. However, meetings are not always the best forum for communicating dissent or conflicting opinions.

My client Philip came from a company in which speaking out against a leader’s point of view was strongly discouraged. When he transitioned into a leadership role at a new company, he found himself in a culture where a diversity of opinions was welcomed and encouraged. As he was new to the idea of team brainstorming, public dissent in meetings seemed disrespectful to him because he viewed it as a condemnation of his leadership style. However, he also quickly recognized the benefits of brainstorming and healthy debate, so he knew that he needed to put aside his discomfort with dissent and work on adapting to this new style of leadership.

Philip decided to take small steps by establishing times and places in which team members could talk about their thoughts on initiatives. At the beginning of each meeting, he explains that he wants to hear feedback on certain topics and encourages participants to take time after the meeting to digest the information they have been provided. Once they have time to form thoughtful responses, they are welcome to come to him for a one-on-one conversation or a small, informal group chat.

The ideal work environment encourages open communication and provides psychological safety for team members to share their views and opinions in a respectful way. Cultivating this type of workplace takes time, practice and training. Effective communication is a skill that not all employees are taught, especially when it comes to expressing dissent or differing points of view.

Occasional training, coaching sessions and/or other materials may be necessary to teach team members how to communicate respectfully. Courses can walk through theoretical conversations and provide practical tips on how to thoughtfully explain one’s point of view without offense or personally attacking those who see things differently. Coaching sessions could also be a valuable resource so that teammates can have a person available to help them evaluate real-life scenarios that they may encounter. Often business coaching can include role-play in those scenarios that allow people to practice their new skills.

Successful leaders acknowledge and appreciate a diversity of voices—even the dissenters—in their company culture. Although those who speak out against a course of action in business may not ultimately sway the final decision, they can provide valuable insight and information for creating future decisions and contribute to forging the direction of the company.

This article has previously been featured on Forbes

Empowering Middle Management Superheroes

“Middle management” seems like a humdrum and antiquated term, yet these business roles are often unsung company superheroes with the power to decrease employee burnout, empower and maintain intelligent and hard-working team members, create lasting interdepartmental connections, translate and implement company-wide decisions and ultimately increase a business’s bottom line. They are the “Clark Kents” of the workplace—with a superhero suit hidden beneath their business attire.

Unfortunately, over the past few decades, the term “middle manager” has developed a negative connotation. Zahira Jaser, deputy director of the MBA at Sussex Business School, sadly reports that even MBA programs have traditionally glorified “leaders” and executive-level workers while simultaneously dismissing middle management as mere administrators. “The idea of middle managers as unexceptional, mediocre supervisors has been around for decades. …These ideas are still central to what’s taught in many MBA and executive development programs, where there’s a tendency to educate managers on how to ‘upgrade’ and become leaders,” Jaser reports (registration required).

However, this negative stereotype needs to change. The future of thriving businesses depends on these key players. Jaser’s experience and research taught her that “the division between leadership and management increasingly sounds anachronistic, even obsolete. It is time to reunite leadership and management in one concept, and recognize middle managers as connecting leaders.” Their work is of vital importance in a successful company and needs to be valued as such.

Other experts agree. More research is being poured into the power of middle management and its future. In a McKinsey and Company interview, authors Emily Field, Bryan Hancock and Bill Schaninger discuss the current model of middle management in many companies and how it needs to drastically change to support the changing needs of the workplace. Hancock explains, “Over the past 20 years, managers have increasingly been asked—and increasingly valued—not for their management but for their individual-contributor work. And given the complexities of the future of work, we need to flip that around. We need to get managers back to managing.”

He also shares the surprising statistic that “middle managers are spending less than a third of their time on people management.” They are being asked to complete mountains of administrative work and create and implement plans based on top-made decisions, which eats up their time and takes away from managing teams. However, with the Covid-19 pandemic, remote workers and the Great Attrition, people management is of greater and greater importance in decreasing burnout, identifying quiet quitting and maintaining high-functioning teams.

C-suite level execs can prepare and adapt to the changing needs in their company and set middle management up for success with soft-skills training to better manage and communicate with their teams.

Executive leadership should also check in for burnout. Middle management can encounter a lot of pressure both from above and below. Stave off burnout by asking questions such as:

• How much time are you spending on each of your tasks?

• Do you feel that you are allotted the time you need for each responsibility?

• What are your thoughts on the workload?

• How much time are you dedicating to administrative jobs?

• Do you have any suggestions for how we can support you?

• Are you receiving enough information from me to help communicate top-level decisions to your teams?

Routine check-ins with middle managers are a crucial way to show that they are valued and supported. Consistent evaluations of their responsibilities and job expectations might reveal a workload that is not feasible. Together, executive and middle management may need to redefine and update the role to reflect achievable work goals and productivity markers. Clearly defining expectations is a major win for a middle manager who probably feels pulled in many directions and is unclear on what the priorities are.

Lastly, be sure to include “people management” and “talent development” as criteria in their annual evaluations. Roles such as director and senior manager should spend a lot of time managing their people—communicating ideas, training teams, developing relationships across departments, etc.—and those crucial tasks should be treated as such in their evaluations.

It’s time to change the narrative and start empowering middle management again. Investing in employees at every level contributes to the health and growth of a company. The work can sometimes seem invisible and unappreciated, but the work they put into their people ultimately contributes positively to the long-term success of any business.

This article has previously been featured on Forbes