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As a coach for both executives and early career leaders, there's been an interesting question on my mind lately. Post-pandemic (whenever that will be) and after the dust settles on the "Great Resignation," what will the workforce look like? What will be the most pressing challenges that leaders and employees face at work, and just how different will their work environment look?

There was an interesting article in the New York Times magazine in February 2022 entitled "The Age of Anti-Ambition," about the emotional relationship of American workers to their jobs and their employers. The author speculated that, although there are a wealth of interesting headlines and stories coming out of this era of discontent at work, in the end not much will change because we still must make money to live and as humans, we will organize at work the way we always have.

I choose to take a more optimistic view of the permanent changes to the workforce that will occur because of the current disruption. And the most important permanent change will be a demand for psychologically safe workplaces. The term psychological safety was coined by Dr. Amy Edmondson, Harvard Business School professor. It's defined as the "belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes," such as questioning a team leader's decision.

Early in my career as a lawyer and then sales leader, if someone asked about the level of psychological safety at a law firm or company, they would have been dismissed as "woo-woo" immediately. There was, and unfortunately in many workplaces still is, an unspoken understanding that you must "pay your dues" when you are just starting out. That means you run the gauntlet of listening & learning, uncertainty, embarrassment, and succumbing to the prevailing culture as an early career professional. You don't question the way things are and if you don't like it, you go elsewhere. These days, organizations are finding very quickly that approach costs them good employees and threatens their viability.

My daughter graduated from college in 2021 and began her first professional role. She was hired as one of four case managers at a non-profit. Less than one year later, she was the last of the four to leave the organization. Lack of support, education, and responsiveness to employee concerns were big drivers behind her departure. She could list several examples of she and her colleagues being criticized for mistakes and having their requests dismissed or disregarded. Speaking confidently for her generation, she has said "we're just not going to put up with that at work anymore."

The Gen Z generation may not be familiar with the term psychological safety, but they know they want a healthy life-work balance that includes a work environment where they can be themselves without any pretenses; that they do not have to "fit in" and are comfortable bringing their whole, authentic selves to work. They want to feel free to speak up and confident that their voice will be heard and respected. And right now, the labor market generally puts them in the driver's seat, so they can be selective in what job offers they accept and where they stay. Bottom line: employers must prioritize creating this type of work environment if they want to attract and retain good employees.

What early career professionals are demanding also aligns with what the research indicates are foundational for high-performing teams. Google's Project Aristotle, conducted in 2012, compared the overall performance of teams in different areas of work and found that psychological safety was the single most critical element for teams to deliver the highest degree of performance. Where team members feel comfortable speaking up and sharing ideas without reservation on an inclusive and equitable basis, creativity thrives, and the best collective ideas emerge.

In our work at The Bailey Group with executives, the skills required to successful business and transformation in the workplace are relatively easy to name: empathy, resilience, decision-making, effective communication, execution, strategic thinking, and agility top the list. But what about early career leaders? They are the future of our workforce and our world. What do they need to learn and practice now to be effective in their current role, and preparing for senior leadership in the future? As organizations prioritize psychological safety in their cultures, how can the next generation of leaders prepare now to maintain and continue to improve those environments?

With my emerging leader clients, I go back to the fundamental qualities of great leaders and help them to develop an awareness and understanding of how to grow these skills: perseverance, resilience, active listening, collaboration, taking feedback, initiative, confident humility, and empathy. Then, I dig a little deeper. I ask them to reflect on what specific circumstances make them feel safe at work, and what actions leaders take to create that type of environment. Then, I ask them to reflect on whether they are doing their part to make the workplace safe for others. Are you taking similar actions, and displaying the same leadership qualities, as those who are creating a positive culture? Are you working on those same skills that you ask of your leadership?

Safe, thriving work environments can never be a "one and done" initiative. They are dynamic. It takes ongoing effort, learning from mistakes, recalibration, and constant review to create and maintain a healthy workplace. That effort involves every individual in the organization taking responsibility for their contribution to the overall culture. By coaching our early career leaders in the workforce on the skills they need to create the psychologically safe environments they demand and sustain them for the long-term, we can avoid repeating the past mistakes of unhealthy cultures. And wouldn't it be a great story for the history books that healthier, thriving places for humans to work was a positive outcome from a terrible pandemic? It's a worthy goal and we are working to ensure our coaching services for emerging leader at The Bailey Group play a part in that story.

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