Author: Theni Paramaguru

Cultivating psychological safety through storytelling

A psychologically safe work environment is one where individuals and teams feel able to speak up, challenge the status quo and take calculated risks. Amy Edmondson, the Harvard professor who coined the term, defines it as “a shared belief that an environment is safe for interpersonal risk.”

As Professor Edmondson also points out, this is not about making it a comfortable or easy working environment, it’s about creating a climate where colleagues feel able to critically question the ideas and actions of their peers and leaders – enabling diversity of thought and innovation.

How does psychological safety improve performance?

In a psychologically safe environment, colleagues have permission to take risks, the confidence to critically question, and the freedom to innovate without fear of failure. This encourages inspiration and action.

The case for diverse teams (in all its forms) has been proven time and again. Yet, to harness the diverse perspectives and strengths of a team, everyone must feel respected and empowered. There is no point in having a visibly or cognitively diverse team if the same voices are aired again and again when it comes to key decision making. To establish and reap the benefits of a truly inclusive and diverse team, psychologically safety is essential.

Why leaders should address this fast

While sceptics may interpret this school of thought as encouraging failure without accountability, Mathew Syed’s Black Box Thinking, released in 2015, reminds us that by allowing your teams to acknowledge mistakes and learn from them without judgment, everyone can benefit from those lessons learned and avoid repeating the same mistake.

Psychologically safe environments don’t actively seek failure – instead, they allow teams, organisations, and even entire industries to learn faster. Syed makes the comparison between blame culture in the NHS vs. the critical analysis of errors within the aviation industry. In aviation, there is a commitment to learning from mistakes that enables the industry to collectively take steps to improve its practice. However, the presence of a blame culture and lack of psychological safety within the UK healthcare sector, for example, means that mistakes can take longer to unearth and even longer to learn from – increasing the inevitability that these mistakes are repeated.

In a business world where change is continuous and pace is essential, leaders need to empower their teams to work more autonomously. This is not a ‘nice to have’. If teams don’t feel empowered to make decisions and learn from them quickly, organisations risk being left behind the competition, and potentially, their business becoming irrelevant.

How a storytelling culture creates psychologically safe environments:

Stories help us to make meaning of the world and people around us – it’s an instinctive and natural way to connect with other humans.

In hybrid and remote working environments, creating an innate sense of psychological safety is even harder to achieve as you can’t rely on ad-hoc water cooler moments to connect with colleagues. Developing a storytelling culture provides a solution to this by equipping leaders with a simple and effective way to develop emotional connections with their teams (even through a screen) which in turn cultivates a psychologically safe environment.

We work with clients to implement organisation-wide storytelling cultures to empower teams so that colleagues across the business are equipped with the means and fora to share stories during team calls, town halls, 1:1s, key events and online social work platforms. This commitment to being open and forthcoming with stories, in turn, reduces a climate of fear and fosters a sense of authenticity and innovation.

With one large organisation we recently supported, we helped their leadership team to challenge the dominant narrative that governed the relationship between managers and employees. This ‘background’ narrative had traditionally dictated the working environment where the manager provides instructions, and the employees’ role was simply to deliver as they were told. To overcome this, the new organisational story we created with them articulated both the company’s vision and the role they wanted employees to play in achieving it. We also put in place interventions and practices to embed a storytelling culture throughout the organisation. This shift in the culture of the company helped employees to feel more empowered to contribute and be active players in the organisation’s direction rather than passive participants. 

When team leaders — and others — practice genuine inquiry that draws out others’ ideas, listening thoughtfully to what they hear in response, psychological safety in the team grows. The need for inquiry is heightened in diverse teams because of the number and variety of perspectives represented.” Harvard Business Review 

By sharing stories of failure and success, leaders send out a strong message to their teams that value is placed on the willingness to act and drive teams forward over and above a pursuit of perfection or to maintain the status quo. At a deeper level, they place value on the need for new ideas and diverse perspectives – creating a truly inclusive environment that allows individuals to thrive and bring their unique solutions to the table without judgement.

Why empathetic leaders get results

Empathetic leadership has become crucial for businesses. Increased use of the term in management speak demonstrates a shift away from traditional management styles that have tended to be laser-focused on the organisation’s bottom-line with little recognition of the motivation and productivity of the individuals involved.

At its most basic level, empathetic leadership requires leaders to take time to understand the people they lead, and to make decisions informed by this understanding.

What changed?

The role of employers and leaders has evolved

Over the past decade, our personal and professional lives have become increasingly intertwined, a trend that has been catalysed by the pandemic.

“The office and home were once strictly separated by physical distance, but now – thanks to the internet and smartphones which mean you are always available, always on – the walls between work, home and our social identity have collapsed.”
Pandora Sykes, How do we know we’re doing it right?

Therefore, the remit of a leader is no longer limited to supporting individuals in their offices but also in their homes – which demands a greater level of empathy. 

Newer cohorts no longer respond to command-and-control leadership

One undeniable benefit of the digital age has been the ability of more people to share their personal experiences of success but more interestingly, of failure. Personal and professional stories of struggle or disappointment have dominated the world of celebrity culture in the recent past – an ‘air-brushed’ image of perfection doesn’t wash with younger generations. This has translated into the world of work too. On LinkedIn, for example, we see increasingly personal posts that highlight pertinent issues such as mental health or the struggles of parents balancing work and family life.

“Become a leader that practises vulnerability… Show that you don’t have all the answers but that you are committed to improving work culture for your employees.”
Abadesi Osunsade, The Financial Times

What’s become clear is that Millennials and Gen Z, who grew up in the age of social media and sharing, respond to a more intimate style of leadership that allows room for making mistakes and learning from them. An infallible, distant, all-knowing figure is just not what they’re used to or value in leadership.

How empathy benefits organisations

Retention of talent

In a competitive recruitment market – where traditional notions, of company loyalty are steadily on the decline (as proved by the Great Resignation last summer) leaders need to understand and respect the needs of individuals to avoid losing talent and to remain relevant as employers. For leaders to build strong teams around them, it is necessary that they put the mechanisms in place that values and prioritises getting to understand what employees want from their working lives and careers.

Unlocking new potential in your people

By taking the time to understand both the individual and collective stories of people within their teams, leaders become better positioned to understand where damaging narratives may be holding back colleagues, or even entire areas of the business. In his leadership of the England Football team, Gareth Southgate has previously talked about the importance of re-writing damaging narratives with the support of sports psychologists.

“We’ve spoken to the players about writing their own stories,” said Southgate after the team beat Colombia in an unprecedentedly victorious (for England) penalty shootout using Euro 2020. “Tonight they showed they don’t have to conform to what’s gone before. They have created their own history … We always have to believe in what is possible in life and not be hindered by history or expectations.”
Gareth Southgate, The Guardian

How you can lead with empathy

At The Storytellers, having supported a broad range of organisations and leadership teams in this area, we’ve observed a few impactful ways you can effectively demonstrate and practise empathy when communicating with teams and colleagues.

  • Empathetic leadership is not a one-way street: to understand the needs of team members, leaders must create a space that allows colleagues to be open without fear of negative consequences. Leading with empathy is not just about leaders demonstrating empathy for their team members, it’s also about allowing yourself to show vulnerability. This in turn leads to teams and individuals able to empathise with their leaders and with other colleagues.
  • Embedding a storytelling culture builds authenticity, mutual respect and trust between leaders and their teams: demonstrating empathy for your teams creates a sense of psychological safety and can remove any sense of fearing failure which can lead to inertia within teams – this something our clients are increasingly seeking guidance on. By sharing stories of success and failure, leaders can create more authentic dialogues with their teams and encourage a more dynamic atmosphere where new ideas can be brought to the table and are encouraged without judgment.
  • Empathising through data: whilst empathetic leadership is most commonly associated with soft-leadership skills, on the aggregate-level you can understand employees better through proactive and meaningful employee engagement monitoring that is informs future business strategy.

Theni recently took part in our webinar exploring how leaders can use storytelling to to build an empathetic connection with their employees. Enter your details to watch a recording of the session in full.

How storytelling can inspire your people to take initiative and ownership over their roles

The workforce challenge in 2022 is significant, organisations are dealing with the aftermath of ‘The Great Resignation’, sustained remote working, and a competitive recruitment market. Leaders need to provide meaningful autonomy to employees, whilst giving their teams a clear direction.

Moving leadership away from the parent-child dynamic

Prior to the pandemic, Gen Z had just entered the workforce. A key characteristic of this demographic has been the desire for increased autonomy at work – mirroring a trend set by their millennial predecessors. In 2019, with the rise of portfolio, skills-based careers, organisations began to reckon with this demand from younger generations that were disillusioned by jobs for life and traditional hierarchical structures. Incoming cohorts sought rewarding and fulfilling professional experiences that aligned with their personal values.

Key statistics:

  • According to a Gallup study on the American workforce, 42% of millennials would change to a job if they were able to work independently on a project of their choosing.
  • In 2021, over 40% of the global workforce were considering leaving their job.

Fast forward two years, and the pandemic has led many of us, regardless of age, to evaluate what work means and the purpose we derive from it – as demonstrated by ‘The Great Resignation’ last summer.

This increased desire for autonomy and purpose-driven work has extended across generations. As remote working becomes entrenched into the world of work, employees are demanding more than flexibility and office perks, they want autonomy3.

What this means for organisations

In a competitive recruitment market and a new world of remote-working –where hands-on micromanagement approaches are proving near impossible to sustain – leaders need to adapt at pace to provide autonomy.

Going beyond providing flexible working hours or locations, they must also ensure the culture within their organisation prioritises employee initiative. This means leading by example to remove over-bearing management and creating an environment that allows employees to take ownership over their roles and makes people feel trusted.

Among our clients, we have seen that some leaders are ready to meet this need and are keen to provide autonomy to their employees. They want to build confidence in their workforce to adopt a more agile mindset that encourages calculated risks so that employees can take ownership of their roles with more responsibility and initiative to fulfil their roles with independence.

The key challenge for leaders

The role of the leader is to provide colleagues with a clear sense of direction and purpose within the organisation without being too prescriptive around outputs and how they individually fulfil this purpose. So how do leaders provide the autonomy and ownership that employees desire, whilst ensuring that all colleagues are working towards a common purpose?

Leaders need to ensure employees understand the purpose, values and culture of the company, and be clear on what the vision of success looks like so that employees can take ownership of that vision within their individual roles. This is something that has been recognised by the World Economic Forum – it proposes that you cannot provide autonomy without a clear purpose: “While the new generations crave expanded notions of autonomy, organizations cannot simply extend it without a mechanism for alignment. By clearly articulating and embedding the organizational purpose and the principles that uphold it, employees will be empowered with guardrails to make decisions at any level.”

How leaders begin to address this challenge:

  • Define your overarching organisational narrative and ambition: are your teams clear and inspired by the journey the organisation is on?
  • Develop a clear story about what your company stands for and its purpose: do colleagues have an accessible values framework that is aligned to your narrative? 
  • Provide colleagues with the confidence to contribute to the narrative. Highlight that their ideas and passion will dictate if, how and when the organisation will reach its desired destination: how can you start to encourage colleagues to actively think about their role within this narrative?