Creating a work culture of psychological safety

The CEO’s effect on workers’ lives and health is profound

Study after study confirm the powerful effect of a manager’s management style and personal qualities on employees. A ‘healthy’ management style results in higher employee work satisfaction, lower absenteeism, and a reduced incidence of serious illness. Moreover, those C-level executives and managers who exhibit positive leadership qualities help improve the productivity and innovation of individual employees and work teams.

We’re social animals who thrive in positive environments. When stressed by a toxic work culture, especially one personified by ‘the boss,’ we often experience a chronic overload of adrenaline that in turn raises our toxic cortisol level. The result? Progressive physical and mental deterioration. All of this happens in a very direct, scientifically measurable way.

I first gained insight into this issue when I wrote my Ph.D. dissertation on work-related stress and mental health. In years before and after my research, studies have consistently confirmed the powerful effect of work-related stress and physical/emotional illness, even longevity.

A leader can never be perfect, but he/she needs to be self-aware

Regardless of a company’s previous or present work culture, a manager must serve as a convincing role model for positive behavior both towards peers and those of lower rank. Employees are highly attuned to everything a manager does, ranging from their explicit verbal feedback to subtle non-verbal behaviors.

‘Emotional contagion,’ a mirroring of emotions, from leader to employee transmits instantaneously often without conscious awareness. Naturally, the person with less power in the equation (the employee) must suppress any negative response, perhaps later venting their pent-up anger towards blameless family members.

We all have legitimate reason to get angry from time to time—including managers. When you have clear evidence that an employee has made a mindless mistake, rehearse what you’ll say to them. Always leave room for two-way communication. ‘Clean anger’ that is highly specific (never involving general condemnation) will help them understand how to redeem themselves.

The more quickly a manager models a company’s desired culture, the faster employees will adopt it. On the other hand, when a CEO’s behavior is inconsistent with, e.g., a reorganizational push to establish a more open, empowering work culture–the potential for positive change will be lost.

For example, a business owner set on establishing a team-based work environment needs to take a hands-on, one-on-one approach to employees within newly formed teams. He needs to work directly with the employee population with words of encouragement, sharing his conviction that this culture shift will provide greater opportunity for their involvement while enhancing ROI.

Establish likeability while being decisive

When delegating more authority for decision-making to teams, the CEO or C-level executive still needs to make higher-level final decisions. This is especially the case when an unexpected crisis requires immediate action with no opportunity for staff input.

Leadership qualities that establish likeability, trust, and respect among employees

  • Own up to your mistakes. This will encourage your employees to innovate and take calculated risks, both of which are necessary for company growth. When your employees see that you are resilient and hopeful in the face of setbacks, they’re a lot more likely to trust you. They’ll also be more motivated to support the company vision.
  • Encourage employees to approach you with their ideas as well as challenges that require your attention.
  • Work conscientiously to ensure fairness among employees, always being consistent with your company’s written ethical standards.
  • Empower your employees by encouraging onsite and tech school training/certification as well as formal education.
  • Mentor your new direct reports and encourage senior managers to do the same with their new employees.
  • When employees establish new work-related skills, expand their responsibilities.
  • Always recognize outstanding performers and celebrate team successes.