Think mental health support should be a priority in your company?
Recently, it feels like you can't scan the news without seeing a story about a supposedly-progressive company being outed by ex-employees as toxic.
Perhaps the most prolific and recent example is BrewDog, where over 200 current and former staff signed an open letter to the founder about the "rotten culture" in which people were "treated like objects". In May 2021, a similar thing happened at the design firm IDEO, with 47 employees sharing stories of "gaslighting, micro-aggressions [and] bullying" in this post. Before that, there was a big exposé — complete with screenshots of aggressive Slack posts from managers — on the direct-to-consumer luggage brand Away.
An interesting commonality among these three companies is that they were all — previously, at least — touted as progressive places to work, where the internal culture forms a big part of the overall employer proposition. IDEO describes itself as a "human-centred organisation". Away's job descriptions say that the company "encourages you to take time to recharge outside of the office" and lets you "bring your dog to work". BrewDog even aspired to be the "best company to work for in the U.K.", although the page on its site where this was written is now suspiciously empty.
These are also all mission-driven companies, whether that's "making journeys more seamless", "creating change through design", or "redefining beer-drinking culture".
When employees join progressive and mission-driven companies like these, two risky forces are at play:
Essentially, the things that form a strong company culture — which can be so valuable to both employees and the organisation overall — also bring a higher risk of that culture turning sour.
These sentiments from an ex-employee of Away (speaking to The Verge) articulate this point well:
It’s a cult brand, and you get sucked into the cool factor. Because of that, they can manipulate you.
As do these few lines from the BrewDog open letter:
So many of us started our jobs there eagerly, already bought into the BrewDog ethos, only to very quickly discover that “fast-paced” meant “unmanageable”, and “challenging” meant “damaging”. Some people (no names, but as a group we know who they are) quickly discovered that this could be exploited, and allow them to treat other staff however they liked without repercussions – making them feel belittled and/or pressured into working beyond their capacity, and often eventually feeling forced out of the business – because that was perceived as the way the company operated, and if we didn’t like it, we should leave.
The Oxford English Dictionary's definition of the word 'cult' interestingly refers to these two attracting forces: "misplaced or excessive admiration" from members, and an organisation that "imposes excessive control" over them.
When excessive admiration (from employees) meets excessive control (from the company), the result is a cult-like environment in which people are afraid to speak up.
To quote from the BrewDog open letter again, "put bluntly, the single biggest shared experience of former staff is a residual feeling of fear. Fear to speak out about the atmosphere we were immersed in, and fear of repercussions even after we have left."
The blog post by a former IDEO employee sounds eerily similar: "I don’t doubt that there are many who wish they could speak out right now, but can’t. Only each individual can calculate their own true cost. Either from fear of further abuse, retribution, or getting fired, they have learned to stomach the silence."
Fear of speaking up doesn't just need to mean large-scale whistleblowing. It manifests in small, everyday ways too: essentially any time in which a valid point is left unvoiced. This is when office politics becomes more important than what's right. As defined in one of the Spill team's favourite ever books ('Five Dysfunctions of a Team'), "politics is when people choose their words and actions based on how they want others to react rather than based on what they really think and feel."
Here are some of the ways in which fear of speaking up might manifest on a day-to-day basis:
Not only does fear of speaking up create a toxic environment for employees, but it's also worse for the business. When problems aren't being flagged, alternatives aren't being suggested, and out-there ideas aren't being put forward, the business misses out — and sometimes in a big way. Would the game-changing ideas in tech folklore have happened in workplaces where employees felt too afraid to speak up? The 'Sent from my iPhone' addition to the bottom of all emails? The early Airbnb hack to professionally photograph everyone's apartment for them? It seems unlikely.
The term was coined in 1999 by Amy Edmondson, an organisational scientist from Harvard. She defines psychological safety as "a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking". In other words, the team environment feels safe enough to speak up in.
The only way to know if your employees are afraid of speaking up — in other words, how psychologically safe or unsafe they feel — is to ask them. Anonymously, of course.
At Spill, we're starting to think that this is the most important employee metric a company can track — especially a fast-growing company where the culture can change equally fast. We've just started anonymously surveying psychological safety and plan to do it every quarter from now on, to keep an eye on the health of our company culture.
We've added a couple of our own questions to, and slightly rephrased, Amy Edmondson's original questionnaire from her Harvard paper so that it's more relevant to startups and fast-growing companies like Spill.
The questionnaire asks to what extent employees agree or disagree with these nine statements:
Just as with racism, there's a difference between being non-toxic (talking about it and hoping for the best) versus being actively anti-toxic (doing tangible things to stamp it out).
Here, we outline three key areas in which companies can be actively anti-toxic, banishing fear in their employees and hardwiring in psychological safety as the norm.
Psychological safety starts with basic good practice when it comes to the structure of work. Clear expectations, reasonable demands, support: all the usual suspects.
The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) outlines six key areas of work that, if not properly addressed, make us feel psychologically unsafe, stressed out and anxious. They are:
HSE has a great workbook (PDF) that goes through each of these six areas in turn, with templates for employees and their managers to discuss, as well as a load of practical ideas on how to improve in each area.
Leaders and managers need to model safe interpersonal risk-taking in order for employees to feel like they can do it too.
Here are some examples of what safe interpersonal risk-taking looks like. Try setting leaders and managers a challenge to try out one of these new behaviours each week:
Interestingly, this is where some employees can feel most psychologically unsafe, as competitiveness, office politics, misunderstanding and passive-aggressiveness can easily crop up between peers who work together — especially in the new remote or hybrid world.
The key to psychological safety between employees is to foster as much honesty and understanding as possible. The more honest we are with each other, the more we understand each other as whole people. And the more we understand each other as whole people, the less likely we are to misinterpret actions, or feel resentful and competitive, or assume the worst.
The absolute bible when it comes to encouraging honesty and understanding in teams is a book we mentioned earlier on in this post, 'The Five Dysfunctions of a Team' by Patrick Lenconi. Although the title makes it sound like a slightly dry management textbook, it's written as a fable — the story of a fictional company and how its team members interact — so it's actually very readable. It has dramatically changed the way in which we interact with each other at Spill, and we now even give the book to new joiners as part of their onboarding pack.
Here are two exercises that the book suggests for building team trust and openness, and a third (taken from Stanford's D-School) that we've also found to be really effective at building interpersonal understanding:
One final thing that hugely helps boost interpersonal risk-taking is having a feeling of unconditional positive regard from fellow teammates. When we don't just feel accepted because of how we've performed recently, but because of how we are fundamentally as people, it's so much easier to go out on a limb and be honest, or start conflict, or invite criticism. We feel safe and held enough to take the risk. One way to build unconditional positive regard is with a steady stream of unconditional praise. That means the "you're a thoughtful and funny person" kind of praise, not the "you worked really hard last week to get that project over the line" kind of praise. We use one of our own Spill features, Wall of Praise, to remember to give someone unconditional praise each week over Slack.
A strong company culture is a double-edged sword: on one hand, if it's paired with an entrenched feeling of psychological safety, then it can be one of the organisation's most valuable assets. But left unchecked, it risks creating feelings of fear among employees and ultimately morphing into a toxic cult-like environment. By measuring psychological safety regularly, and by implementing active processes and habits to hardwire it into the machinery of the company, we can not only preserve our company culture, but more importantly, keep it healthy too.