Engagement, Integrity and Psychological Safety

  • Engagement is an outcome of culture
  • Integrity is a key component of culture
  • Leaders must ensure psychological safety, reinforcing integrity

A good friend of mine once observed, “Once someone becomes an Archbishop, they never get a cold meal…and they never get the whole truth.”  Is that true in your organization?  How much of the real story gets to the executive suites?  How much of what is coming down from leadership is accurately relayed to and heard by the folks doing the work?  Great cultures have the knack of flowing communication up and down the entire operation with limited distortion and filtering.  The result is high performance and employee satisfaction. 

Why does this matter?  In a word, Engagement.

What does engagement feel like?  It is the simple perception by team members that, “The work I do here matters.”  When people believe that, “I understand my role – what I say and do is important to the enterprise,” communication flows and productivity soars, as do retention, workplace safety and innovation.

Simple, right?  Easy?  Maybe…What do leaders need to do to foster and enhance this type of environment?

Organizations have minimum requirements below which people are no longer permitted to work there.  Show up on time, provide a certain quantity of deliverables, play well with others… The challenge is that while this form of “appropriate excellence” (just enough to stay below the radar) may permit a company to survive, it is far below what is needed to thrive in today’s competitive marketplace.  In other words, to achieve an organization’s goals, team members must be willing to volunteer their vast creative genius to bridge the gap between the minimum requirements and the standards for excellence.

Leaders must rise to the challenge of keeping workers engaged and connected. They have the responsibility to assure “flow,” a sense that the team is executing without friction and in a state of high concentration and collaboration.  As organizations become more physically dispersed, team members can find that it is more difficult to engage with one another. In a global environment or during a pandemic, impromptu hallway conversations disappear.  To encourage socialization, leaders need to link workplace strategies with social technologies and work policies.

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Socialization has other requirements.  Team members must have high integrity and be willing to say what they think.  In fact, many of the so-called “meetings after the meeting” exist because some are unwilling to express themselves fully within the original gathering.  In this context, it’s easy to see that psychological safety is not at an acceptable level.

Every organization seeks to develop among their employees and touts the notion that they display high commitment, energy, and integrity.  But that’s the point, isn’t it?  Just as two thirds of all licensed drivers believe they are above average drivers, an overwhelming majority of employees claim that they have high integrity.  Despite what they believe about themselves, scores on culture assessments often reveal lower than desired integrity ratings.  Leaders have the obligation to create the proper, psychologically safe environment to foster integrity within the culture

There are several items that comprise integrity.  Beyond the universal concept of “retaining one’s personal integrity,” there are other areas that deserve notice.  How many times has someone “stared at their shoes” in the moment instead of saying something contrary or controversial only to speak their mind in informal conversations after the meeting concludes?  How much time and productivity gets lost in this type of asynchronous communication?  

Do employees actually do what they say? How often is doing “whatever it takes” misinterpreted as to go to extreme lengths, regardless of morality or legality, to achieve a desired result?  Whose agenda and values get trampled in this kind of environment?    Fear is the controlling factor here.

Leaders who: succeed in creating clear expectations; connect people to the larger purpose of the organization; and relentlessly model the values they expect to see followed, can expect to create an environment where people feel comfortable to speak their minds.  When they do, they develop the greatest opportunity for flow and high performance within their organization.

Sustaining psychological safety requires constant attention. It is a mindset that must be cultivated to empower interpersonal risk-taking. Psychological safety is the why behind our responses to the questions, “Can I speak up? Will I be punished or ridiculed for sharing my opinion? Can I be honest about who I am and my perspective?”  Leaders and team members need to alert themselves to conditions that lower or raise interpersonal fear. Because we are experiencing a time in which issues of equity, diversity, and inclusion take center stage, leaders must recognize that psychological safety contributes to a culture that promotes integrity, and thus engagement.

In the final analysis, engagement is an outcome of culture, which is informed by the levels of integrity throughout the enterprise.  Encouraging a climate of psychological safety creates the opportunity for integrity through high communication flow.  It is a winning combination well worth the effort to sustain it.


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