Most of us find it challenging to do our best work when our work environment feels unstable. For example, if you find yourself in the midst of an organizational change, your psychological resources — such as resilience and optimism — may be stretched to the limit. If the way forward at work is particularly unclear, you’ll undoubtedly devote precious energy considering not only the future of the organization, but your personal future there as well. In that context, you might think twice about a risky stretch assignment, even if it could potentially benefit your career and the organization in the long-term. This is often the case if faith in the underlying organizational foundation is acutely in question.
Most organizations struggle to find the right balance between stability and change, which in turn affects individual contributors. But in the race for innovation and digital transformation, the idea of stability has been somewhat lost in the mix, and there are strong indications that we should revisit its merits. If you want to develop an environment where contributors thrive, your workforce must be able to count on some basic things — such as role clarity, timely feedback, adequate resource allocation, and attention to how our work is structured. For example, the retail industry is learning that erratic work schedules likely benefit no one. When employees have a more predictable schedule, productivity increases. Although this finding may seem obvious, things that might contribute to stability generally receive little attention as compared to other topics, such as productivity or agility. Interestingly, the presence of stability could serve as the foundation for those other things. Google’s Project Oxygen, which discovered that psychological safety was related to team effectiveness, was likely only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to rethinking how to bring our best selves to work.
Both personal and organizational stability have always mattered — we’ve simply relegated them to a lower priority in many companies. But can we ever really become fully engaged with our work if a minimum level of stability is not present? Can an organization survive for 50 to 100 years or more if core stability isn’t acknowledged and carefully considered?
After spending years as an organizational development advisor, I’ve now adopted a “lens of stability” through which to view key elements of work and organizations. During discussions with leaders, managers, and individual contributors, it became apparent to me that work, and the ability to complete projects effectively, is often about seeking the sure footing that we need to move forward, which allows us to fully access energy and strength.
It’s time for organizations to circle back and invest considerable resources in enhancing stability. Organizational practices such as clearly communicating your mission and goals, along with strategies to accomplish them, can help. But in my experience, many sources of stability can be easily overlooked when leaders and managers are addressing other issues deemed to be more urgent. To counter this, we must make a more concerted effort to bring stability to the forefront of our minds — and apply this thinking to individuals’ needs. This includes the practice of being mindful of the role of stability and how it can positively affect our work every day. There are some key topics to consider and apply, including the following:
- Acknowledgement of the psychological contract. The psychological contract is an often unstated exchange agreement, or set of promises about what we bring to our work and what we expect to gain from our employers in return. Sadly, once stressed or broken, this contract is very difficult to repair. Reviewing the health of these contracts is a unique opportunity to increase stability, and in turn, to retain valuable employees, as psychological safety has been shown to correlate with outcomes such as job satisfaction, commitment, performance, and trust. Managers can address psychological contracts more openly by having regular discussions about what is being exchanged in the employee/employer relationship. This can help clarify goals, drive performance, encourage developmental conversations, and help employees begin to explore career planning. Also, as things inevitably shift within the organization, there should be ongoing discussions about how the changes might affect the work and the individual. During times of major change, psychological contracts should be revisited often. For example, goals and performance metrics should be recalibrated from time to time, and certainly, after any organizational changes take place.
Managers can use the following questions as a starting point to broadly explore the psychological contract:
Has the employer/employee exchange agreement been openly discussed with your team members?
Do contributors feel that what they receive from their work is equitable, considering what they might be investing?
Are perceived promises about work and career paths largely upheld?
- Psychological capital. Positive psychology also offers us opportunities to build workplace stability. Studies have established a clear positive relationship between psychological capital (PsyCap) and a number of desired workplace outcomes, including job satisfaction, organizational commitment, and psychological well-being. These “HERO” resources include:
Hope. A belief in the ability to persevere toward goals and find the methods or paths to reach them.
Efficacy. The confidence that one can put forth the effort to affect outcomes.
Resilience. The ability to bounce back in the face of adversity or failure.
Optimism. A generally positive view of work and the potential of success.
We can apply this construct in real-time by asking the following questions:
- Are the elements of psychological capital (HERO variables) present?
- Do team members believe that they can accomplish their goals successfully?
- Have you openly discussed with team members situations or past experiences that could weaken one of the HERO elements?
- Psychological safety. William Kahn, professor of Organizational Behavior at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business, defined psychological safety as “being able to show and employ one’s self without fear of negative consequences to self-image, status, or career.” While the concept has been studied for decades, we are only just now truly acknowledging the importance of its role in our work lives. Psychological safety allows both individuals and teams to face real-time challenges in a manner that is open and honest. When safety is present, developing issues may surface much earlier, allowing a more complete or effective response. However, if team members detect that the environment cannot tolerate or process such issues, they may back away and demur — even if they feel this would ultimately serve the best interests of the team and organization. To assess the level of psychological safety in your own organization, ask yourself these questions:
Do you feel that team members share both ideas and problems openly?
Have there been past events that have occurred organizationally or within the team that would affect openness?
Has trust been disrupted in some manner for a particular individual?
When we hope to retain a valued employee or help them excel, we often look to factors outside of our own organizations such as external training, salary benchmarks, perks, or titles. However, it might be wise to look inward and first consider the psychological constructs that contribute to stability within the work environment. Identifying the issues that are preventing an employee from feeling psychologically supported at work will go a long way toward helping your most valued employees to move forward confidently and do their best work yet.
By: Marla Gottschalk