Workers need psychological safety at work to perform at their best and bosses need to counter the stress and anxiety of lockdown © FT montage; Dreamstime

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The author is corporate philosopher in residence at City’s Business School, City University and a leadership, culture and ethics adviser

When your boss, on the morning video call, asks you how you are doing, you will almost certainly automatically reply: “I’m good thanks.” But that’s probably not how you feel. You are tired and you are really stressed about not meeting your sales, production or profit targets. You may even be afraid of losing your job.

For many workers, these psychological fears have increased as a result of the pandemic, while the threat of infection or even death has increased our fears for our physical safety. If you are able to work from home, and see colleagues over Zoom, this can lead to a heightened sense of our mutual health and wellbeing. But if you are a health or care home worker with inadequate personal protective equipment, or working in a warehouse with no social distancing, then the psychological fear of unemployment can overwhelm your fear of catching a fatal infection.

If you are a health worker with inadequate personal protective equipment then the psychological fear of unemployment can overwhelm your fear of catching a fatal infection
If you are a health worker with inadequate personal protective equipment then the psychological fear of unemployment can overwhelm your fear of catching a fatal infection © Neil Hall//AFP/Getty

Research at Cardiff University has found that 31 per cent of employees were anxious about “unfair treatment at work”, and 52 per cent “reported anxiety about loss of job status”.

I work as a leadership, culture and ethics adviser to a number of global companies and in our own research published by the Financial Conduct Authority in 2018, we found that in a sample of more than 26,000 financial services executives around the world, fear was the dominant emotion driving their decisions. While fear helps us to survive immediate threats, if it becomes a dominating state of mind it impairs our cognitive abilities and can lead to long-term health issues, such as a weakened immune system. If our flight, fight or freeze responses are constantly being triggered, we are more likely to make poor decisions, do the wrong thing and, perversely, not achieve the targets that were stressing us out in the first place.

When we feel psychologically safe, we are able to make good decisions based on three balanced moral philosophies which are useful to call “People, Values and Rules”. Being a good person and doing the right thing is first, and most fundamental — this is about caring for other people. “Values” reflects our ability to make complex decisions using moral values such as fairness and courage. Third, the “rules” remind us not to hurt others or take their possessions. 

At work, this healthy thinking can become distorted. Compliance, or fear of breaking rules, becomes dominant at the expense of good outcomes for other people, including colleagues, customers, clients, communities and, yes, investors. This phenomenon is not only found in regulated professions and industries, it happens everywhere because the most important rule in many organisations is “You will make the numbers, or else.” 

Employees relax at a Toyota research facility in Tokyo. The company performed five times better than the S&P 500 over a 15-year period
Employees relax at a Toyota research facility in Tokyo. The company performed five times better than the S&P 500 over a 15-year period © Kiyoshi Ota/Bloomberg

Happily, there are leaders, teams and organisations that can demonstrate how exceptional performance is strongly correlated with a culture of psychological safety. In a workplace setting, that means organisations where people, and the moral values we associate with psychological safety, come ahead of purely commercial objectives.

In 2016, Google published the results of the company’s own Project Aristotle research into teams, in order to work out why some teams succeed and others fail. The work identified psychological safety as the most important factor in the DNA of its most successful teams, citing the work of Harvard Business School’s Amy Edmondson, who coined the term, and her book about psychological safety at work, The Fearless Organization.

In their book Firms of Endearment: How World Class Companies Profit from Passion and Purpose, first published in 2003, Raj Sisodia, Jag Sheth and David Wolfe describe a group of 72 listed and private companies around the world which performed five times better than the S&P 500 over a 15-year period because they put the moral value of love and the psychological safety of their employees that love creates at the heart of their business. This group included Costco, Southwest Airlines and Timberland in the US; Ikea and Unilever in Europe; and Tata and Toyota in Asia.

The once high-flying Southwest Airlines made a net loss of $915m in the second quarter of this year, during the coronavirus pandemic
The once high-flying Southwest Airlines made a net loss of $915m in the second quarter of this year, during the coronavirus pandemic © Robert Alexander/Getty

The pandemic has turned economies and businesses upside down — Southwest Airlines, for example, made a net loss of $915m in the second quarter of this year. How they will fare over the longer term is unclear, although it is certain that millions of jobs will be lost worldwide and many companies will fail. Some employers will be tempted to focus less on staff wellbeing — that’s a mistake. Our need and desire for psychological safety begins as newborn babies — and it never goes away, or lessens.

While we are clearly dependent on family and friends throughout childhood, it is less obvious to many adults that we remain interdependent with others throughout our lives. This dependency is partly physical. Human babies need to be nourished, cleaned and kept warm. But the dependency is mostly psychological. Like all higher order mammals, we need to feel safe in our mother’s arms. The psychologist Harry Harlow conducted extensive laboratory experiments with infant monkeys. When offered the choice, they chose to spend 23 hours a day hugging a sheepskin covered dummy, but just one hour a day feeding from a bottle held in a cold wire cage.

Our homes and then our nurseries and schools are physically and psychologically safe — at least for most of us. At work, physical health and safety regulations are common across the developed world, as are legal protections from sexual harassment. But bullying and coercive control remain common behaviours of bad bosses and fear-driven workplace cultures. 

Whilst most countries have embraced democracy, the corporation remains a feudal hierarchy. Power comes from the top. The chief executive is king (or queen) and senior executives rule over “fiefdoms”. The language of violence and war dominates such cultures, where “strategies” are “executed”. Tribal fanaticism distorts cultures into cults, where the values you must believe in are dictated by the ruling elite. Freedom of expression and the speaking of truth to power are suppressed. And while this leads to increasing rewards for the corporate aristocracy — employees, customers and stockholders invariably suffer. 

So what can we do? If you’re a leader, you might want to define a purpose higher than the maximisation of short-term financial results and your own executive rewards. Given the existential threats we face now, this purpose might be to contribute to a more sustainable environment and a fairer society.

You might also reflect on how you create psychological fear or safety in your team. Think about the way you run meetings or video calls. Are you aware of how everyone is feeling? Do you listen to every voice in the room? Do you seek constructive dissent to stress test any decision? Do you encourage constant, constructive feedback to improve everything everyone does, including you? 

If you’re working as a team member, are you lucky enough to have a caring and inspiring manager? If you’re lucky and you do work for a leader who cares deeply, how can you help them to maintain a safer culture? Do you have the courage to speak up when you want to share an idea or question whether something is right? Do you know how to do this safely by asking questions like: “If I was a customer, what would I think about the decision we’re making?” 

For those who are unlucky enough to work for a “jerk” — a boss with narcissistic personality disorder — there may be no easy solution. If you can, you will probably need to get another job to find psychological safety, to love your work and to feel safe. There is, sadly, still no way around a truly bad boss — however long you can stay working from home to avoid them.


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