Many Australian employees have now returned to work duties and are navigating a ‘new normal’ in their working lives. This new version of normal, for many, is vastly different to even six short months ago. Some have experienced job loss while others may be experiencing decreased work hours, redeployment to a new role, return to work after being temporarily stood down, or even a combination of the above. In a recent piece for HBR, Merete Wedell-Wedellsborg argues that employees have been on a crisis trajectory moving through the emergency phase to what she describes now as a regression stage. From this perspective, many may now be experiencing crisis fatigue wherein the ‘adrenaline rush’ we used to respond quickly and effectively to the pandemic emergency has now worn off leaving us feeling depleted, exhausted and frankly, a little sick of the new norm.
Wedell-Wedellsborg suggests you might experience feeling tired or feel as though you lack purpose or may even be forgetting to do arbitrary things, like eating or drinking (or over-indulging). Notably, these feelings can occur in workplaces wherein organisations may also experience a lacking sense of purpose or may even be consciously going through a process of re-defining what their mission, market or even vision is moving through 2020 and beyond. Without intervention, these experiences at the individual level may result in decreased morale, or even poor psychological health and wellbeing – a workplace in which everyone is feeling tired, exhausted or lacking in purpose, is likely to be a workplace that is somewhat uncomfortable to be a part of. At the organisational level, organisations may be at risk of losing the trust of their employees where they fail to appropriately re-engage their teams or may risk ongoing viability where they fail to re-define their purpose. Overall, these consequences are deleterious to both psychological health and wellbeing and business bottom-line. The good news is that research from organisational psychology sheds some insights on how we might tweak behaviour in support of re-establishing healthy workplaces. Discussed below are a few of the incremental steps we can all take to foster psychologically safe working environments characterised by intra-team trust and robust workplace morale.
Morale in the workplace captures the collective sentiment of an organisation’s employees and can be broadly considered as the collective enthusiasm, confidence and goal-directed behaviour of team members within an organisation. Morale is now drawn upon to facilitate the active description of work groups with regard to their cognitive, emotional and motivational standing on group goals and tasks. Whilst morale can be understood and applied at an individual level, the concept of morale can also be applied to describe groups of individuals (including sport teams or schools, for example). According to Peterson and colleagues (2008), morale comprises multiple elements including (but not limited to):
- Enthusiasm for the work activities of the group;
- Optimism that success will outweigh potential failures;
- Leadership focused on the engagement and inclusion of all group members
- Confidence in the group’s ability to reach their goals and objectives with their extant skills and capabilities;
- Loyalty amongst work colleagues and the organisation,
- Social cohesion amongst group members,
- Common purpose that draws together individuals and teams across the organisation,
- Resilience in the face of adversity or challenges as they arise, and;
- Mutual trust and respect between team members, between teams, managers and executive leadership as they fulfil their respective roles.
Positive team morale is personified by employee groups wherein there is shared excitement and enthusiasm toward workplace agendas, goals and outcomes. Moreover, workplace morale is positively linked to productivity, such that the relationship between work effort and productivity is strongest when morale is high. Positive morale is preceded by job security, safety, salary and benefits, realistic advancement opportunities within the organisation, relevant resources to perform work, and the social value attributed to organisation’s work objectives. Importantly, morale also offers motivation to teams, resulting in perseverance in the face of adversity and subsequent team success on work team tasks.
Under certain conditions, team morale can suffer. For example, in times where work objectives are a little ambiguous, or your organisation is reimagining their vision given the vastly different parameters of work, morale may be taking a hit. But … morale is everyone’s business, meaning that subtle changes at the individual, team, and organisational level can bolster and improve morale for everyone. Subtle shifts can include:
- Individual: communicate clearly with colleagues including when, what, how and why to facilitate understanding. Clarify your intended message was heard and Listen to your peers as they communicate with you following the same framework above to support your hearing and understanding. This may be challenging while communicating with your team through a computer screen, but you can still show that you are actively participating in the conversation through showing non-verbal cues. While eye contact may be difficult depending on your technical set up, simple things such as nodding along, and smiling could help show that you are listening to their message.
- Team: celebrate your ‘wins’ and your ‘us-ness’. This doesn’t need to be extravagant, but rather an acknowledgement of when goals have been met, intended consequences have been realised and how doing it as a team has contributed to your success.
- Organisation: foster and develop the systems (policies, procedures and structures) under which your employees can develop self-efficacy in their work lives (i.e., their belief in their own ability to achieve goals and objectives at work). Organisations can set the conditions for self-efficacy through providing vicarious experiences (e.g., role models, mentors, a day-in-the-life-of training); encouragement (e.g., timely feedback, praise); opportunities to ‘master’ a task (e.g., stretch tasks with support, practice opportunities), and; psycho-social support that encourages team members to strive toward goals and objectives. In other words, a work environment characterised by psychological safety.
Psychological Safety, a term first coined by Harvard scholar Amy Edmondson, describes the experience of working within a team or organisation in which you can ‘show up’ as your true and authentic self without fear of negative repercussions to your career trajectory, self-image or status. In psychologically safe work teams, members feel safe sharing and learning from mistakes, they feel safe bringing up difficult issues or tough problems, they feel safe to ask their peers for help and support, and comfortable taking risks, amongst other features. In these psychologically safe environments, working through conflict is a collaborative experience, instead of blaming others team members adopt a level of ‘curiosity’ around what alternatives might have been realised, and feedback is offered and requested in equal measure (and delivered with respect and humility). The experience of psychological safety is not too difficult to recognise, for example, think about a time where you’ve felt comfortable discussing an error you’ve made in your work. Within that relationship or team, could you also recognise other features of psychological safety listed above? Chances are, in such an environment, other features that underpin psychologically safe relationships are likely present.
The good news is that we can each contribute to cultivating psychological safety within our teams, whether these be work-related or outside of work. Some such strategies could include:
- Show that you are engaged at work through listening and responding to your peers, being ‘present’ during team discussions and asking questions to facilitate your understanding.
- Express when you understand others’ opinions or suggestions (e.g., I understand what you’re explaining) and avoid ‘blaming’ when mistakes happen and instead, focus on the lesson and solution (e.g., what can we take away from this? What should we do differently in future?).
- Actively include others through soliciting their input, expressing the rationale when you make a decision and call-out behaviour that is not consistent with an inclusive culture (e.g., step in when someone is ‘cut-off’) and verbally acknowledge your peers’ contributions and strengths.
Whilst it would be desirable to have a magic wand that could create psychologically safe workplaces, it is through the incremental behaviours outlined above, amongst others, that we can each foster a workplace we all want to be part of. This is particularly vital at the moment, when collectively, we risk regressing to emotional coping strategies that may prompt behaviours that undermine morale, intra-team trust and the psychological safety that presently exists in our work teams.