Your Silence is Speaking Volumes to Employees

Picture of Richard Smith
Richard Smith

No matter when you read this, something going on in the country or the world today is having a negative impact on your employees. From mass shootings to economic instability to the fear of losing rights once thought permanent… this is a turbulent time that members of your teams will experience and internalize in different ways.

Some of your colleagues may be fearful of shopping in a grocery store. Some of your direct reports are distraught about the Supreme Court Decision regarding Roe v. Wade. Some of your fellow employees are devastated by the plight of family members in war-torn areas.

But you won’t know if you don’t ask.

While many organizations focus on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) efforts, and others ramp up their Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) policies, leaders need to also be aware that psychological safety is an essential foundation for all commitments a company makes to its employees.

Now, psychological safety in the workplace is more important than ever, whether your colleagues are in person, remote or hybrid. We, as people managers, acknowledge that we can’t control what’s happening in the world. But we can control the environment and culture of the organizations we lead.

I’ve written previously about the importance of trust, candor, humility, and grace in culture and communications with employees to help them feel connected, supported, and safe within their teams. A recent study conducted by Accenture about connectedness in organizational culture also proves the value of leaders exhibiting these traits.

We can acknowledge that this is a difficult time, without delving into political stances or opinions… we can be empathetic to one another because we are all human.

Ideally, we demonstrate that the elements of trust, candor, humility, and grace are available and expected in all environments and all interactions with our employees. That includes the weekly team meetings and the leader one-on-ones (critically needed, especially in the era of hybrid formats where casual drop-bys can no longer be expected.) And that includes opening the door to conversations that can be challenging and emotional, about what is happening in our lives, in our communities, and in society as a whole.

We can acknowledge that this is a difficult time, without delving into political stances or opinions. It is possible to ask, “How are you doing after yesterday’s events?” or to recognize that we are all seeing some pretty terrible things that might affect some of us differently. Give space for discussion without feeling the need to provide counterpoints or solve problems. Sometimes, it’s most important for someone to just feel heard. The act of listening is far more powerful than you may imagine. 

I’ve heard from some organizational leaders that they are concerned about asking employees how they are doing in the specific context of some current events because they are so volatile, and they risk being drawn into debates that may cause more division or being labeled as racist, sexist, xenophobic or some other -ism. But we can be empathetic to one another because we are all human. Having empathy or the ability to understand and share the feelings of another allows us to build a bridge to trust and psychological safety.  Empathy allows us to fully recognize each other’s personhood and humanity.

One word of caution here: Avoid the “agree to disagree” trap on matters of critical importance to individuals’ belonging and safety. You may believe that pepperoni pizza is better than plain cheese, and I may have a different preference. We can agree to disagree about which pizza reigns supreme. But there is no “agree to disagree” if one person believes another shouldn’t have the same rights and privileges available to them. We can’t tolerate disagreement in our workplaces about threats to the rights or the existence of underrepresented groups. We can’t allow misinformation that creates harmful bias. Remember, we must recognize each other’s humanity.

The path toward leading with trust, candor, humility, and grace is not an easy one. As leaders who represent all of our employees, we should be prepared to feel discomfort in the face of others’ anguish and anger. We need to be aware of perspectives and experiences beyond our own. And we can make our workplaces environments where psychological safety is part of our culture. Each employee should feel connected, cared for, and valued for bringing their authentic selves to their roles.

Too often leaders may feel the need to problem-solve, and by doing so without the consent of the people affected, they may exacerbate a problem.

How do you open up a dialogue with employees in challenging times? These are some guidelines I’ve shared with executives I coach:

  • Invite conversation with a wide-open question, like “How are you doing this week after (insert traumatic event)?” Depending on what is happening in their lives or in the world, responses will vary widely.
  • If a colleague expresses that they are struggling with what has happened, either because they are part of a targeted group or they feel scared about how they may be affected by current events, acknowledge it. Acknowledge that this has happened, and if they want to talk about it, share that you are interested in listening and learning from them.
  • Once the person has decided to speak about it, listen carefully. Reflect their sentiments back to them. If you are unfamiliar with their experience, you can say something like “I’m not able to fully identify with this because I don’t have a similar experience. But I respect and believe your lived experience.”
  • Then define how you can move forward. You might consider saying, “Now that we’ve had that conversation, how do you want me to support you?” Giving the person the power to decide how to proceed gives them agency and shows that you are there in a supporting role. Too often leaders may feel the need to problem-solve, and by doing so without the consent of the people affected, they may exacerbate a problem. If the person wants no further action, respect their decision. That builds trust and ensures they will come to you if you can solve a problem in the future.

There are some exceptions to this scenario, like taking a stand for the organization regarding an issue like racism, misogyny, or xenophobia. Your employees of underrepresented groups want it to be called out, actively fought against, and expelled from the organization. Remember, there is no “agree to disagree” in a situation where employees’ safety is threatened.

Recently, I was consulting for an organization. A member of the company made a racist comment in front of other employees. In recalling the event the leader said, “This is just an ignorant and stupid person.” I asked the leader why they thought this company member is an “ignorant and stupid person,” rather than a racist. The leader indicated that his comment was because of his lack of awareness and knowledge. But the comment was also racist, and the leader failed to call it out. If there are racist, misogynistic, or xenophobic actions and words being used within the company, leaders have to step into the discomfort of calling it what it is. Members from underrepresented groups need to see congruence between words and leadership behavior. In the absence of that, DEI efforts are aspirational, at best.

When a manager says, “My door is always open,” the employee bears the responsibility of seeking out the leader. Reject this passive policy.

Not all situations in which you’re called upon to ensure the psychological safety of your team members are related to events that affect many at once. Sometimes, it may be just one person’s situation that takes the forefront.

Here’s an example that stuck with me. Many years ago, my mother passed away. My supervisor at the time, someone I still count among my dear friends, came by my office when I returned to work. It was just days after the funeral and my emotions were raw. He was candid, saying “I still have both my parents, so I can’t really identify with how you must be feeling right now. But how would you like us to handle this situation in the office? We want to be there for you.” What a gift that was. I felt free to respond in the way that felt right to me, not to uphold some societal expectation that we can’t be human in the workplace and that I should mourn privately. I responded that I wanted people to talk with me about my loss; it would give me comfort to speak about my mother. Colleagues might have avoided the topic if he hadn’t opened the dialogue to find out what I wanted. 

Also, note that he came to me.

When a manager says, “My door is always open,” the employee bears the responsibility of seeking out the leader. Reject this passive policy. Start reaching out and take the temperature of the people around you. Some may find that daunting. But remember that trust is built over time. You can make deposits in people’s emotional bank accounts by being there regularly and authentically. Someday you will say the wrong thing. We all do. But you can ensure that your colleagues will offer grace if you’ve been open, aware, and available.

Leaders, it comes down to this: To ensure employees’ psychological safety, there will be times that you’ll be uncomfortable. Step into it with compassion and empathy, with your humanity, vulnerability, and courage. DEI requires it.

And if you call yourself a leader, it’s what leaders do.