Trust takes time

How to spot if your employees don’t feel safe at work

Move past silence and try these words of affirmation to build trust with employees
How to spot if your employees don’t feel safe at work
Photo: Andrii Yalanskyi (Shutterstock)
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Psychological safety and feeling safe at work has received more attention post-pandemic. The social injustice that received a lot of attention in 2020 contributed. Yet, despite the listening tours and meditation apps, many employees still don’t feel safe at work. In an excerpt from her book Staff Matters: People-Focused Solutions for the Ultimate New Workplace, Bonnie Low-Kramen tells Quartz at Work why—and what to do about it.

“Is it safe?” Humans in our workplace seek the answer to this question at work just as much as they do in life. They want to feel safe and free to be who they are and say what is on their minds. Freedom to be who we are maybe our biggest and best gift.

However, many humans in our workplaces do not feel safe. Some feel they are in danger physically or psychologically. Their worry is real, preoccupying, and time-draining, and it can be physically debilitating. Unfortunately, psychological safety is too rare in the workplace, and that reality hurts us all.

Silence is not golden

Silence and fear in the workplace are hurting staff badly. They hurt individuals and a company’s bottom line. Fear is rampant in the global workplace and drives many of our decisions. Fear slows us down and stops us dead in our tracks. Fear can cause humans to shut down. Fear preoccupies and distracts us. Fear wastes valuable time. Some fears are irrational, but others are rooted in reality.

There are many ways fear manifests itself. One way is for staffers to rarely/never take a vacation or days off. The fear is that when they return, they will find they were not missed. Another example is the fear of falling out of favor with the leaders or even being fired after asking for a raise. It significantly affects physical health, mental health, and family/friend relationships.

Fear is taking up lots of real estate in the brains of our staff. We have a finite number of hours in our workday and a finite amount of energy to accomplish what needs to be done. If a staffer is preoccupied with fear, imagine all the work not being done. It is easy to see the damage this would cause to the bottom-line profits. I will never forget an executive saying, “Bonnie, if no one is complaining, I think there is no problem.”

Fear is quiet. Deadly quiet.

Managers are missing information

It is human nature to protect the person in charge from the truth. The staff are the eyes and ears of executives. They see and hear everything. Other staffers usually feel safer and more comfortable speaking to a fellow staffer rather than the person in charge. Unfortunately, in my experience, not all leaders know this.

When I survey assistants, they confirm they confirm that people say and reveal things to them that they would never say to their managers. This means assistants have information their leaders do not have, and that information makes them even more valuable and influential. The most competent leaders are the ones who know that people are talking to their staff and then use that knowledge by including assistants in meetings and making it known to the team that assistants are valued contributors. The smartest assistants are the ones who know when and how to share this information with their executives without naming names.

When the going gets tough, leverage affirmations

When leaders become aware that staffers are having a tough time, here are some things to say that make things better and safer. It is important to remember that sometimes the solution is for leaders to simply validate the legitimacy of the problem. Try these phrases to show support:

  • I’m so sorry this is happening.
  • How can I best support you through this?
  • Would XYZ be helpful, or would something else be better?
  • Thank you for sharing this with me. We will get through this together. Come to me anytime. I care.

Here are some of the most powerful words we can say to one another in the workplace and life. Most humans yearn to hear these words, and when we do, they build confidence, self-esteem, and self-respect, ideal qualities to have in a strong staff. Use the person’s first name—pronounced correctly—before the following sentences.

I believe in you.

I trust you completely.

I know you can do it.

You’re enough.

I’ve got your back.

I’m proud of you.

You’ve got this.

We depend on you.

I have no doubts about your abilities. I have complete confidence in you.

Safety = freedom

When staff feels safe, respected, and accepted, the sky is the limit for companies. Teams who feel genuinely supported are loyal and go above and beyond when no one is watching. I did.

To feel psychologically and physically safe at work means having the freedom to express who you are and what you think. It means being able to fully actualize your potential, your hopes and dreams for your career, your livelihood, and your very life—without fear of backlash. It means having a long, wide runway to express your subject matter expertise, which leads to limitless potential for companies and the people who populate them. Finally, it means getting closer to the ultimate new workplace. That’s worth shooting for, isn’t it?

Bonnie Low-Kramen strives to bring the voice of the staff to the forefront to create an ultimate new workplace. She is the founder and CEO of Ultimate Assistant Training & Consulting, a curated training solution for corporate leaders and assistants creating synchronous and thriving work environments. For 25 years, Bonnie worked as the personal assistant to Oscar-winner Olympia Dukakis and cofounded New York Celebrity Assistants (NYCA). A sought-after author and speaker on various workplace issues, Bonnie has served as a consultant on workplace bullying for the World Administrators Alliance and has worked in 13 countries. She is a TEDx speaker and the author of Staff Matters: People-Focused Solutions for the Ultimate New Workplace.