By now, it’s well established that the modern workforce is not okay. We’ve been through a rough string of years, defined by political divisions, racial tensions, violent crimes, and a pandemic that won’t quit. Many of us have had to work remotely, sometimes juggling at-home childcare or schooling with a full-time job. It’s all been a bit…much.
Yet, in many workplaces, employees are expected to soldier on like everything is fine. Many people feel pressured to divide themselves into two parts—the part that shows up to work, and the part that deals with every other aspect of life. And that division can be stressful.
A recent study revealed that 64 percent of employees are nervous about being their authentic selves in the workplace and 70 percent tend to adopt an entirely different “work persona.” In environments where people are trepidatious to be themselves, mothers might not talk about their children, LGBTQ+ employees may keep their relationships to themselves, and those facing mental health challenges may keep quiet about their struggles.
Through our own research and coaching experiences, we have learned that people cannot perform at their peak when they are anxious about bringing their whole selves to the workplace. They might withhold differing perspectives, engage infrequently, or be reluctant to deliver negative feedback. In short, those who feel somewhat uncomfortable at work tend to clamp up (not great for innovation and out-of-the-box thinking!).
According to an in-depth study conducted by Google, the best indicator of team success is psychological safety. To quote the study: “In a team with high psychological safety, teammates feel safe to take risks around their team members. They feel confident that no one on the team will embarrass or punish anyone else for admitting a mistake, asking a question, or offering a new idea.”
How can you, as a leader, facilitate an environment of psychological safety? How can you encourage your team to show up as their full, authentic selves?
Get started with 3 steps:
Lead By Example
When leaders intentionally model vulnerability and transparency, they set the stage for incredible transformations. A vulnerable, authentic leader admits to mistakes, asks questions when they need clarification, and dares to reveal their flaws. Vulnerability is humanizing. When employees see their leadership team as people instead of untouchable figureheads, they are more likely to open up, ask questions, communicate doubts or deliver negative feedback, and bring their authentic selves to the workplace.
The biggest name in workplace vulnerability, sociologist Brené Brown, has found through her research that vulnerability is the root of social connection. It takes courage to open up to your team, reveal personal details, or own up to mistakes, but it is vital for fostering a culture of transparency and openness.
Facilitate Honest Dialogues
Imagine a workplace where people freely convey their perspectives, no matter if they diverge from the “norm.” Imagine a place where your team members are comfortable confiding in you when they’re dealing with personal challenges (a divorce, health struggles, aging parents). Imagine a work environment where employees do not shy away from delivering candid feedback.
Reshaping workplace culture takes time, but you can start with a few important steps:
Respect confidentiality. Always.
Create several channels for idea-sharing and feedback (one-on-one or small-group meetings, anonymous surveys, online forums).
Withhold judgement and welcome all ideas and perspectives.
Model open communication by asking questions, requesting advice or guidance, and owning up to mistakes.
Practice active listening.
Regularly check in with team members, get to know them, and encourage them to speak up when they need guidance.
Provide Meaningful Support
If your team members begin showing up as their whole, authentic selves, will they have the resources and support they need?
Will they be uplifted through workplace affinity groups, relevant resources, and action plans that advance positive change? Will the company work with them to provide support where they need it most (childcare assistance for parents; networking groups for marginalized/underrepresented employees; healthcare plans for both physical and mental health)?
When people are supported in meaningful ways, they tend to be more content, energized, and productive. We have found this to be true time and again as we’ve worked with emerging female leaders and senior-level teams through our cohort programs. The best investment a company can make is in its people, as long as that investment is meaningful, relevant, and a catalyst for enduring change. It’s not enough to throw money at employee enrichment programs and hope your people undergo meaningful transformations. Instead, prioritize resources and programs that are evidence-based and personalized for your team.
This crucial step, along with modeling vulnerable leadership and facilitating honest dialogues, will empower your people to bring their whole, authentic selves to the workplace. And when that happens, incredible transformations and innovations become possible.