John Edwards – Psychological Safety and Survival Syndrome in Workplace

Michael Akbar:

Welcome to another one in our series of conversations with CEOs, HR executives, and career development experts. I am excited to have Mr. John Edwards with us today. And most people are struggling because of the roadblocks in their journey. John helps people to get rapid results by accelerating their success. He's an award-winning motivational speaker and a master trainer who has been in demand, speaking to 40–50 audiences per year around the world. Earlier this year, he completed another “train the trainer” and presentation tour that afforded him stops in England, Poland, and Germany. John has been awarded a CSP designation by National Speakers Association, a designation given only to the top 18% of professional speakers worldwide. John is considered a subject matter expert and a thought leader in the neuroscience of talent development, presentation skills, and a changed leadership. With that, John, if you don't mind, tell us more about yourself and your interest and focus in some of the topics that we'll be covering today.

John Edwards:

Well, thank you so much, Michael. It's a privilege and a pleasure to be able to spend some time with you today. Hey, I appreciate the honor of sharing any information we can with your audience to help them to accelerate their success. That is my passion. I'm passionate about people, about helping people. To do that, I usually work within the context of organizations, large and small, mostly large, to help them with organizational development efforts, organizational psychology efforts—anything that helps them to accelerate the success of their human capital. And so I just look forward to our conversation today.

Michael Akbar:

That's wonderful. Thank you so much. With that, if you don't mind, can you define for us: What is psychological safety at work?

John Edwards:

Oh, sure. This concept of psychological safety has had a resurgence in contemporary organizations today. It was around for a while, and now it's back in again, because we're really realizing now, especially with the rapid changes in the external environment, as well as rapid changes within our own internal environment. And what I mean by that, Michael, is that organizations are experiencing dynamic changes in the demographics of their audience. And so they’re having to pay attention to more things than they would had to pay attention to, Oh, just a few decades ago, the rapid growth of millennials in the workplace, the rapid growth of retirees in the workplace. If you've got a large enough organization, you're experiencing that right now. And so how we lead today has to be different than how we were leaders yesterday, especially in this war for talent and the fight to retain individuals and to get the best productivity and focus out of our folks as is possible.

So psychological safety has really become a topic of conversation for consultants like myself and leaders, as we think about what's really required to create an environment where people can be their best. When you're in an environment where things are changing rapidly, you need the most innovative thinkers in your organization as is possible. In fact, some folks will tell you: you want to disrupt your own organization before an external competitor disrupts it, and in order to do that, you've got to create an environment where your folks are thinking about the next best thing for you, your organization, and your success. They won't do that if they don't have a sense of psychological safety.

Michael Akbar:

Exactly. Why is it important to employees as well as employers?

John Edwards:

Well—and I love that question—the reason why it's important to both the employee set and the employers set: we just spoke a little bit about the importance to the employer set, but it's important to employees, because as an employee, I want to feel like I can do my best work. And in fact, the data is very clear that as we look at the younger demographics in the workplace, they are more and more concerned about, Am I adding value? Am I doing something of value? Am I working for a mission?

I think about my parents, and I think about my in-laws, who are part of what we refer to as the traditional generation—and they're very, very loyal. In fact, that's the name often referred to their generation as well: loyal generation—very loyal. My father-in-law really—after he got out of the military—only worked for one company his entire career. His wife? Same story. Many of you are familiar with what I'm talking about, because you can think about members of your family that have had that kind of career trajectory, very loyal to the organization.

But today's workforce is way more dynamic. People move more rapidly. Jobs are changed out every three to four years, if not even more frequently. And so there's a greater acceleration of rotation, if you will, among professionals. And so, as we move from job to job, we want to feel as if we're a value, that we're bringing something to the table, that we're able to contribute. Not only that—we want to feel cognitively challenged. We want to feel as if we're growing day after day—maybe not literally day after day, but we have to have that sense of moving forward in cognitive growth. And so this concept of growth mindset is also a part of a conversation that often occurs with leaders. How do we create an environment where people feel like they're not just producing, but evolving, growing, and learning along the journey? And that of course only happens with psychological safety. But that's why it's important for employees to think about that as well. Am I in an environment where I'm comfortable really bringing my best mind to work?

Michael Akbar:

That's wonderful. I appreciate that. That kind of leads me to my next question. As an employee, how can we gauge the level of psychological safety in our environment? How would we go about getting a feel for that?

John Edwards:

Yeah. Terrific question. I often tell my teams that I manage, lead, or consults with that you'll know that I feel like I've created a successful environment of psychological safety when you feel comfortable just asking any question. I'll know with the leaders that I work with that I've got psychological safety when I can come up with a really silly idea and not feel bad about it—and quite often that is what I do. My thinking occurs on the outside of my brain. I happen to be one of those who thinks orally; I think out loud. And so it's entirely probable that over the course of time, you'll hear me say something that even I don't think is a good idea. But that's what exploring options and opportunities are all about. But if you're in the room, and you hear me say something silly as I'm brainstorming, you'll know that I'm feeling psychological safety. It has now become safe for me to be able to contribute even off the tip of my tongue with any ideas that I might have.

Michael Akbar:

That's wonderful. Thank you. And I think you partially have answered my next question, but as an employer, what are the measures we can take to kind of strengthen that sense of psychological safety at workplace?

John Edwards:

Yeah. Well, as an employer, there's a couple of things that are very important. Let's break this down into two categories. One is your leading indicators, as Covey refers to, and the other would be your lagging indicators. Your lagging indicators would be, for example, retention. Are you seeing a lot of your one- through five-year tenured employees going out the door? Is that a rotating door, like the entrance to the department store? If it is, there are a number of issues here. And if you're not already measuring why that's happening, you desperately need to do that. You may find out that they are not feeling a sense of psychological safety, but we really don't want you to get to that point. We want you to know that while it's happening, before they get to the revolving door, and so that would be your leading indicator.

So a lot of companies will do surveys. They'll do engagement surveys: how engaged is my employee workforce? They'll also do what we call “stay conversations,” which is to have a conversation with someone before you have to have a conversation with someone. Let me tell you what I mean by that: You don't want to be talking to Michael about why he's unhappy and about to leave the organization when he's unhappy and about to leave. He's already crossed that path, and he's looking for a new job or has accepted a new job. That's a conversation I want to have with Michael beforehand, especially if Michael is one of my treasured critical skills employees. I want to be talking to Michael about his level of engagement and how comfortable he is participating and contributing to the success of the organization. That'll give me an early indicator whether we're creating the right atmosphere for folks like Michael.

And then something that I think is really obvious is how comfortable people are speaking up in group meetings. How comfortable … Are your leaders creating an environment where their employees can say, "Boss, I think that's a good idea, but I was thinking about something else." Now, when you can hear, observe, experience that kind of dialogue occurring, oh, you'll know you've created a place that's psychologically safe for folks to challenge the standard operating status, to be able to bring new ideas and techniques to the table, where leaders have created a safe environment.

In the military, they have a number of different names for it. One of it, it's called a “hot wash.” You come back from flying a mission. Everybody leaves their rank outside, and we're going to sit down and talk about how we could have done this better. That's a psychologically safe environment. That's how employees and employers can tell if they've got that in place. These are conversations that regularly occur in our environment, and … Are we talking to folks? Are leaders talking to the members of their team, or the folks who report to leaders who report to them? Are those conversations happening on a regular basis for us to keep our pulse on how folks feel in our organization?

Michael Akbar:

What an amazing organization that would be to work for! That's phenomenal. Thank you. When an organization is not quite where you described it, and the employees have a sense that it's not quite what it could be, are there individual measures that one can take to kind of, for lack of a better term, shield themselves from that lack of organizational safety, or what should they be doing?

John Edwards:

Let me just make sure I understand it. Are there steps that they can take—did you say—to free themselves from it?

Michael Akbar:

To shield themselves, or to keep up the space to. What are their options? What would be some of the better things to do to be satisfied?

John Edwards:

Right. I see. I think if I'm in an organization where psychological safety is not an inherent part of the culture or part of my current leaders’ culture, I do want to think about how I can create that myself. And one of the ways that I can do that is, assuming that I've got the ability to do this and able to do this, would be to gather some folks around me who can participate in brainstorming and throwing ideas around and allowing us to be creative. And so we actually don't need necessarily our leaders’ permission to do this, unless we're violating some sort of rule that the organization has, but I can always get a few people up, and I can say, "Hey Katherine, Hey Mike—let's have lunch together. I'm seeing something in the organization I think we can improve, rebuild, or just absolutely build a new version of. I want to talk to you about it.” And we can brainstorm those particular ideas, and so there's an informal way that we can create an environment.

I saw a research study some time ago that said, "When you and I feel like we have a really good friend or even a best friend in the workplace, it's psychologically equivalent to a $50,000 a year raise in terms of what it does for us. So let's go ahead and pretend we've had that $50,000 a year raise, because I know you and I would both rather have the cash. Until then, let's go ahead and act as if that's the case and look to develop and nurture relationships in the workplace where we can be free to brainstorm and think and innovate, et cetera.

Some companies allow their employees to—carte blanche—just go ahead and do that. I'm thinking of a few major organizations, both here in the U.S., and in Australia, where I've done some work, and they just simply allow their employees an amount of time per week to go off and problem solve or whatever they want to—work on whatever you want to. Now, that is just incredible, but it's also driven remarkable innovative processes and products for those companies—I mean the kinds of products that have affected their bottom lines in a positive way.

Michael Akbar:

That's wonderful. That's wonderful. Yeah. Again, I wish we had all our organizations to be like that. What a wonderful place that will be to work that's...

John Edwards:

Yes, Sir.

Michael Akbar:

John, if you don't mind, I'm going to make somewhat … a little switch in the area that we're covering and touch on the topic of survival syndrome, especially in the context of layoffs or what is survivor syndrome? What are we talking about there?

John Edwards:

Yeah. Well, survivor syndrome is a sort of an umbrella conversation that encompasses a number of things. It basically encompasses some of the psychological effects that people might have or experience after going through something traumatic. For example, I sense from the way you've asked the question, we're really talking about sort of a layoff survivor syndrome. And in that particular case, we're talking about the impact that you and I might feel having watched some of our colleagues and friends be subject to a layoff. And so it's really the impact on those who remain and what kind of an impact is that having on them and their ability—their what we call psychological contract with their organization to move forward. It's a very important thing for employers to pay attention to.

Michael Akbar:

Great. What kind of emotions would a survivor, those who remain behind, what are typically the kinds of emotions they would experience as they observe maybe the layoff of their colleagues and all that? What goes on in their mind and their heart?

John Edwards:

Yeah. Well, there's a number of things that'll happen. There certainly are various stages of grief. If you and I are good friends in the workplace, and you see me get laid off, it's going to have a negative emotional impact on you. Because the empathy that we have for each other is just naturally going to allow us to feel sad for the other individual and what they're going through. More importantly, though, I mentioned this concept of a psychological contract. A psychological contract is the unwritten contract that you and I have with our employer, and it basically says, "I will give you this; you will give me that." And so, part of that unwritten psychological contract is, again, a sense of safety, moved away from psychological safety. We're now talking about a different kind of safety, like job safety and reliability.

The human brain does not like ambiguity and unpredictability. The brain is hardwired to embrace predictability, and when we go through something like a workforce reduction, that brings a lot of ambiguity into the workplace and into the brain. And so now my brain is triggered and hypersensitive, and as I watch what people who are being laid off are going through, I'm going to internalize a lot of that—more so than I might normally. And it can have an impact on my loyalty to the organization. It can have an impact on my loyalty to my immediate leader, my leadership chain. It can definitely have an impact on my productivity, because I'm going to be distracted—disheartened, maybe. So there's a lot of negative things that can happen there that an employer should be keenly concerned about. Yet there are some positive things that occur if an employer is really strategic in how they go about this.

Michael Akbar:

Right. Great. I think to some degree you answered two of my next questions. One was, what kind of impact that survivor syndrome has on the employer, and I think you touched on that. And if I'm an employer, and I know that, as a consequence of layoffs, there will be the survivor syndrome, and it does have an impact on the business, what are some of the smart measures I can take to mitigate that to the degree that it can be mitigated?

John Edwards:

Yeah. Well, I think a lot of it has to do with the culture you already have. If you have a culture of high trust and a culture of psychological safety, you've now made it a lot easier for yourself to navigate these challenging and difficult times. If you do have that kind of culture, you would have already have come forward and shared a lot of information with your team around what's going on in the business, the decisions that have to be made and why they have to be made, so that folks are … the narrative that we all have in our head, and we all will have a narrative, can be more accurate. But there will not be an absence of a narrative. What I mean by that is if you don't tell me this information, I will make it up in the narrative in my head.

So there will be a narrative one way or the other, and so employers who have high trust create the truth in the narrative by sharing the truth of what's going on. So that's one thing that you can do. I remember working with a couple of employers who had to go through these unfortunate situations. They just simply said the truth. We've literally lost this opportunity, we've lost this client, and therefore we've lost this large amount of business. We don't anticipate getting it back, and so we're going to have to go through this activity. Here's how we plan to do it. And they basically really laid out as much as they could that was legitimate enough for the audience, their employees, to understand we're about to go through some challenging and difficult times, and it's going to last for a few months.

And so that's one way to go about it. That sense of honesty and being upfront with folks to the extent that you can, to let them know what's going on. And then to take it to the next level: how you choose to treat the folks who eventually get chosen for a reduction now becomes the golden key. Everyone is going to be watching. How are you treating John and Sue and Jane, whose names ended up on that unfortunate list for workforce reduction? And what I mean by that is, are you supporting them in any way? Are you providing any kind of supportive services? Or did you tell them at 9:00, and Security showed up at 9:15 to walk them out the door? How are we treating those particular kinds of individuals?

I'll just share this with you. I have watched remarkable HR leaders do a great job with this, and one particular case, I'm thinking of one HR leader who was an executive who had to go through this unfortunate circumstance. He and his team did it so well that people who were being laid off actually thanked him for how he handled it. So imagine that. You've got employees, boxes packed, they're walking out of the door, and what they're going to say to you is, "Thank you for the way you've handled it. I understand what had to happen; it's unfortunate I'm caught up in this, but thank you." They clearly understood that that leadership team cared about them and that there was certainly no joy or enjoyment in it for leadership team, but that they cared about them. And that sense of being cared for was so powerful that even those who were suffering the consequences of what was going on in that business were still able to turn around and say, "Thank you" on their way out the door. And that to me was probably the most powerful way I've ever seen it handled.

Michael Akbar:

That's incredible. What a story. I personally, back in the Eighties … I was working for a major corporation that, as you were saying, they were very honest about sharing with the employees what was about to happen, advanced warning. And it really helped because, for myself I was able to kind of plan, be prepared to … What are my options if I am laid off? And at the same time, at any point in time, my employers who are going to lay me off, at some point, we were on the same side. I knew that they cared, that they were doing everything they can. So I tell this story that after it was all done, and I had to leave the company, for years, I was so loyal to that company that I only bought their products. I only buy that refrigerator. I only buy that TV, because I really felt that this is a company that did everything they could to help me out. Along those lines, what is your experience with the value of outplacement? How can outplacement help with kind of supporting the employees, and its potential value to the employer?

John Edwards:

Well, it is one of those services that an employer can provide that reduces the negative impact of layoff survivor syndrome. As Bob, Sue, and Jane are watching this employer pay for and focus on the next step for those who unfortunately need to leave, that's a key sign of care. You're willing to pour into those individuals. It's not just about letting them go, but they're still family, and so you're still taking care of them before they go. And so we found that—that's been a really powerful indicator to reduce the negative impact of going through a workforce reduction.

Now, if you think about the demographics of your group, if you've got folks who've been there for a longer time—for example, you've got employees that have been there 10, 15, 20, 25 years—you got to think that this layoff survivor syndrome now has a significant, larger impact on those people who're left behind. Because basically the narrative in their mind is, Longevity doesn't protect your job in these situations. And so I think about myself, And I've only been with the company for 10 years, or I think about the person in the cubicle or office next to me who's also been with the company for 30 years. We're all feeling incredibly vulnerable during those particular times.

So providing outplacement services and resume services for folks who've been in the company for a long time is really significant, because they've been out of practice. They've been loyal to you. They've been with you for 10 years or 15 years or whatever the timeframe has been, and so, who knows when the last time they updated their resume or practiced interviewing skills or whatever the case may be. And so these services can now become incredibly important to help them to land on their feet.

Michael Akbar:

Yeah, that's great. I appreciate your sharing that. One of the things that I've observed is that when a company is considering reduction in force, or they are about to go through that process, one of the first groups of people who will start thinking about potentially leaving the company are the ones who are most marketable. So that's another negative hit on the company that they have to go through this process. They're losing their best people sometimes, and that has also an impact on their productivity. So it's a tough situation to be in on all fronts. For those companies who cannot afford, let's say, outplacement or what can an employee do for themselves, both psychologically and from a planning perspective? How can they strengthen their heart and soul and their actions so that they can really protect themselves as best as they can?

John Edwards:

Yeah. Well, that's a question that has multiple layers. Let me try to slice into a few of those. I would say, if you happen to be watching this, and you are not in that position, awesome. I would prepare; I would already be preparing. And most financial counselors recommend that you have three to six months’ worth of salary set aside for unfortunate situations like this. In a dynamic, ever-changing, fluctuating environment, it's really prudent for us to anticipate that this could happen to any one of us at any given time. And so even now, during the good times, when we're—may not be going through that, now's the time to prepare for, should that happen, and set aside at least three months of your salary in a separate account somewhere where you can forget about it until it's needed and hope that it's never needed. And let it be a surprise when you retire that you forgot all about it.

So that would be the first thing, would be prepare for that kind of an environment. For folks who do find themselves in that environment or subject to potentially being in that environment, there's a number of things to do. First, you need a self-care plan. How are you going to take care of you, your emotional/psychological health? Now, I know a lot of times companies will offer counseling, for example. Legal, financial, and psychological counseling for folks going through these situations. I would encourage you to recognize that that can be really, really helpful, especially if you've never taken advantage of any of those kinds of services before.

So be available to the resources that are there to help you with your own self-care. And as soon as it's feasible, you're going to go through some stages, if you happen to be one of those that's been notified of a reduction. And you're going to go through some stages. You're going to go through a shock stage: Why me? Maybe there's that anger embedded in that particular stage. We hope you won't stay there for very long and that you will eventually transition to a forward-looking stage of, okay, I'm going to have to deal with this. And then the forward-looking stage is, All right, what might be the next step in my future? This could actually be good.

I know in my case … you mentioned you have had an experience, and I've had more than one in my professional experience as well. So I have the privilege of looking back on one or two of those reduction in workforces, where I've been subject to being one of the individuals who was negatively affected by that. And recognizing that in each of those occasions, in my personal story, I've landed in a place that was pretty good—in fact, I would arguably say better than where I was before. And so that's a looking ahead stage for me. When I get to that place where I'm thinking, The last couple of times this happened to me, I ended up in a different organization, a better opportunity, et cetera. So this could mean something really positive. And you start looking forward.

So the planning piece of it is really, really important, but first, make sure we're taking care of ourselves. Try to shorten the amount of time, as best as you can, that you're in that grieving/anger/shock stage. So, that's not the time to take action. That's not the time to do a lot of things other than self-care. And then from there you're going to emerge, and … All right, now we've got to deal with this. Now we're in that realistic stage. Then you sort of start planning things out. You start looking to see what that employer will do to support you, taking advantage of those kinds of things. And if the—you need something fair. That's usually the stage where you're beginning to figure out, All right, I've got to redo my resume. I've got to start applying for jobs. What's the best way to do those things? And I've got to start notifying my network, if you will. And so whether it's through LinkedIn or Facebook or whatever you're comfortable using, sort of reaching out to folks and sharing, “This is a situation I'm in.” You'll be amazed how many folks out there want to help you, and so letting them know that you're in a position to transition can be helpful.

And then the forward-looking phase is when you start thinking through and looking forward to what's next. You start anticipating in a positive way what's next. So just know that you're going to go through those phases, and while you're in that grief/anger phase, if it's an anger phase for you, just recognize it, that it is a temporary time. I just need to manage it. The mantra I usually say to myself is I don't want to make it any worse. That's the mantra I say to myself. I'm not going to do anything, say anything to make it any worse. I just need to manage it, because I know time will transition me out of this phase to a more productive, healthier phase. So, that would be some of the advice we would give.

Michael Akbar:

That's wonderful. John, I feel so much smarter after this conversation. I'm really glad that we are coming to a conclusion on a very positive note with some really great advice for both individuals, as you say, who might be in a situation, who might be suspecting that they may come to that situation, as well as some great ideas, and really, leadership recommendations that you shared about the companies, and how they can go back really taking care of themselves by taking care of their employees and all of that. So I really appreciate your time and your wisdom sharing that with us today. And I would like to end by asking for those who would be interested, both individuals or companies who might be interested to reach out to you and explore potential collaboration or your services. What's the best way to reach out to you?

John Edwards:

Oh, sure. I appreciate that. So we do have a couple of websites that are out there: one that provides resources for folks who want to accelerate their success, and that is EddySpeaks.com, and then our consultative and speaker site is EdwardsGroup.org. And that would be where you could go to find out more about the services we provide for leaders and organizations.

Michael Akbar:

Perfect. Thank you so much, John—again, very much appreciate your contribution to this series. I've had conversation with your clients, and I wish you the best as well. Have a wonderful evening.

John Edwards:

My pleasure. Thank you. Take care.

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