- Harrison Monarth is the CEO and founder of Gurumaker, an executive coaching company.
- He says working under a difficult boss can take a psychological toll on even the strongest of employees.
- To protect your health, align with your manager’s expectations and find your greater purpose at the company.
- See more stories on Insider’s business page.
There are numerous benefits to creating a psychologically safe work environment; chief among them being happier, more engaged employees, who experience increased confidence, creativity, and a sense of belonging in their organization. Productivity increases, too, when people feel appreciated and inspired at work, by as much as 12%, according to a 2017 Gallup report.
But just because that knowledge is out there, doesn’t mean it’s being applied by employers. Management expert and psychologist Dr. Robert Hogan said in 2016 that “seventy percent of American workers would take a pay-cut, if someone would fire their boss.”
Employee disengagement, one of the most prevalent negative consequences of a psychologically unsafe workplace, continues to hover between 54% and 69% year after year, as measured by the Gallup organization.
A vast majority of workers are simply trading their time for a paycheck, without bringing their best ideas and efforts to the job.
Granted, a lack of psychological safety at work doesn’t necessarily have to involve toxic managers who yell and threaten their employees or demean and patronize them.
The most insidious threats to a psychologically safe work environment are more likely to come from managers who deal in ambiguity and use information as currency. Similarly, managers who fail to communicate with clarity and purpose, who shift priorities at random, and who change direction without explanation are often to blame for rampant anxiety and soaring stress levels among their teams.
Just a few months ago, a talented systems engineer who’d just handed in his resignation at the Silicon Valley firm where he’d worked for seven years told me he’d have stayed if his manager had just been willing to give him occasional feedback beyond his annual performance review. “I never knew where I stood, whether what I did mattered, or what my options for career growth were.” He’d felt “rudderless,” he told me — like he was just doing a job, without a greater purpose.
Here are three strategies for creating a sense of psychological safety yourself when your boss creates an environment that is unpredictable.
1. Align on expectations
An unpredictable work environment can create a threat response in our brains, and when managers routinely demonstrate a range of impulsive behaviors — such as moodiness, meddling, and frequent criticizing — employees tend to get anxious, which inhibits their analytic thinking, creative insight, and problem-solving abilities. In fact, predictability is one of the most valued qualities in a manager, according to internal research at Google, as it empowers employees to feel a sense of autonomy and freedom to get their best work done.
The best way to create more predictability around a difficult manager is to be crystal clear about their expectations. Managers who don’t clearly articulate goals, or establish vague objectives can make it impossible for employees to thrive, causing misunderstandings, delays, and poor results, exacerbating an atmosphere of anxiety and dysfunction. The remedy is to proactively engage and find out exactly what outcomes the manager is looking for, expected timelines to get it done, and how success will be measured.
Ask questions to get clarity, the more specific the better. Check for alignment by sharing your understanding of what expectations are, and agree on periodic check-ins to make sure you’re on track. If possible, get this information from the manager both verbally and in writing to allow for accountability in both directions.
2. Find your purpose
Seeing the meaning in our work can do more than make up for the unpredictability and anxiety a temperamental manager creates. From lifting our mood to motivating us to work harder, finding purpose has also shown to increase our resilience to adversity.
The best managers work to understand what motivates people and spell out the purpose — the why — of the task at hand. If this isn’t your manager, you can take matters into your own hands. Think about whom your work benefits, and whose lives you improve by what you do on a daily basis. By tapping into our hard-wired sense of altruism, which neuroscience research has shown to provide us with feelings of warmth and love, we can counterbalance the distraction a difficult manager can create.
This may seem easier for some professions than others, like healthcare workers and teachers, but it helps to look at the big picture. A commercial pilot, for instance, doesn’t just transport masses of passengers from point A to point B; he brings families and loved ones together; he may be the first step to a person’s new life, or the vehicle that delivers much needed resources to people in need.
We’re all part of the huge network of humanity, where even the smallest of contributions have an impact on someone down the line of an invisible supply-chain. We just have to follow it far enough to see it.
3. Invest in your excellence
When we practice learning agility and continually invest in our professional development, we create an unshakable foundation of confidence. Acquiring strong expertise in a technical or professional domain and a clear understanding of how our specialized knowledge benefits the organization allows us to stand up for ourselves in the face of unfair treatment by biased managers.
When former PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi worked as a young consultant in Boston in the 1980s, male partners at the firm wouldn’t even make eye contact with her in meetings. Whenever she’d make a point, somebody would say “good theoretical approach,” and then ask a male colleague what they thought. They, in turn, would make the same point and were praised for its “practicality”.
However, with her learning agility and drive for excellence as a foundation, she’d start pushing back and gained their respect. On a leadership panel in 2015, Nooyi said, “In my heart I knew I can do this better than anyone else can, and if everything else fails, they’re going to come to me and say, ‘Fix it,’ because I know I’m that good.”
Why put up with all this in the first place? Why not just leave? The fact is, not everyone has the luxury or emotional resolve to up and leave a job they otherwise like, or can’t afford to leave, as it were. For those reasons, employees may benefit from practicing these coping strategies until the volatile manager is either replaced, or gets coaching to improve their leadership style, something, thankfully, more and more organizations invest in.
Harrison Monarth is the CEO and founder of Gurumaker and author of “Executive Presence: The Art of Commanding Respect Like a CEO.” An executive coach, he teaches C-suite leaders, senior executives, high potential managers and other top professionals effective leadership and positive behavior change for professional and organizational success. Connect with him on Twitter @HarrisonMonarth and LinkedIn.
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