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One particular week of work was one of the most eye-opening times of my life. While it was difficult and painful, it taught me several invaluable lessons which have helped me be a better person and to be better at my job. What were those takeaways?
No matter how much of an "expert" I am, I don't have all the answers. If I am doing something for people, I need to talk to those people to make sure I'm doing what they actually need me to do.
You never know what someone is going through. Have patience and empathy. Be willing to be vulnerable with others and give them a safe space to be vulnerable with you.
It takes infinitely less time and energy to proactively make people feel safe and cared for than it does to try to do so after you've already showed that you don't care about their safety.
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That Fateful Day
At a large organization I once worked at, they did a company-wide internal survey. That data revealed that over half of the employees were afraid they could lose their jobs at any moment through no fault of their own. Layoffs, unjustified terminations, favoritism, budget cuts for shareholder profit, and constantly changing priorities were just a few of the many reasons so many people felt like they had zero job security, regardless of how good of a worker they were.
Worst of all, this was long before a global pandemic or economic crisis.
In my mind, the solution was clear. I thought I could solve these issues and remove the fear by creating stricter, fairer, simpler disciplinary and conflict resolution processes. I had no power to change those things, but I was eager to fight the good fight and try to make it happen.
Alas, I knew leadership didn't care about any statistic they could justify or explain away as anything else. While 50% of a workforce living in terror was inhumane and unacceptable to me, I knew that the key decision-makers would use the broadness of the statement to shed themselves of any personal responsibility. So, I committed to finding out exactly why people were afraid and how it could be fixed. I was sure the results would show that explicit, fair processes were the answer, but I wanted to make sure I was fixing the actual problem and not just what I thought the problem was.
Thus, I set up numerous focus groups with people from every department across the organization, many of which I had never met or spoken with prior. Trouble was, I had never done a focus group before. So, I went to the experts within the company who could teach me to do it right.
First was an organizational psychologist and people data analyst. He taught me the in's and out's of how to run a focus group, such as the importance of asking questions that weren't leading, and what to do with the data to get accurate, unbiased results. Next was an expert on all things vulnerability, courage, safety, etc. We worked on a game plan for what I could do to create a safe space. I knew I was going into a situation to ask strangers to tell me why they are scared. I would have to diffuse tensions before they arose and proactively address any potential concerns.
After a week of planning and practicing with trusted colleagues, I began the focus groups.
Creating A Safe Space
Every group started out the same way: uncertain, apprehensive, and on edge. Despite having only an hour, I spent the first ten minutes laying everything out on the table.
"Here's why I am doing this. These are my intentions. This is my goal."
"I'll do everything in my power to use what you tell me to make real, worthwhile changes. I have no authority, but I will fight for you, and I will keep you updated on my progress."
"With your permission, I will record what we say. I am going to transcribe the relevant takeaways - removing all personal examples and identifiers - and will then delete the recording. Nobody aside from the people in this room will know who I met with or what was said."
"Any questions or concerns?"
I only proceeded after everyone felt safe and certain that I nothing said would leave that room. After all, they were all scared that they would be fired if anyone found out they spoke ill of the company.
This was the first thing that stood out to me as something being so much more wrong than I ever thought it could be. I had to invest considerable time and energy just convincing people that they were safe to answer some questions. That proved to me that the company had failed them. It had created an environment where fear and mistrust were the first and foremost thoughts on the minds of its employees.
Still, I proceeded with the rest of the focus group session. From the moment I started asking my carefully constructed questions, I discovered that I had created something these people hadn't known before: a safe space. And that led to moments that will stick with me forever.
Complete strangers opened up to me in ways I never imagined. They told me things they literally hadn't told anyone else - not their coworkers, not their friends, not their families. Still to this day, I cry when I think about the things they confessed to me, because after twenty minutes together, they trusted me more than they trusted the "leaders" they had worked under for years.
Some of what was admitted I am not willing to even hint at, but a few of the less tragic standouts included:
"We have great medical insurance and me/my spouse/my children are chronically ill and can't afford to have any lesser insurance. If I lose this job, I/they will literally die. So, no matter how this company treats me, I am going to stay quiet and take it."
"They have been constantly doing layoffs for years, but they know that actually doing 'layoffs' is expensive and bad PR. So they stagger how many people are let go every few months and give different excuses so that they can legally avoid calling it layoffs and the press won't hear about it."
"Every month there is a new company initiative that changes everything, it all goes to shit, then it changes back and we do it all over again. I've learned to ignore everything leadership says because I know they won't follow through and ultimately nothing will change."
Sadly, these weren't one-offs. I heard multiple versions of each of those statements and so much more. Externally, everyone thought they worked in paradise because what was allowed to be shared with the world was tightly controlled. Internally, many of them kept their woes to themselves because they knew there were harsh punishments for speaking out. Thus, it left them feeling alone in their shared traumas because they didn't have the safety to share openly among their peers without consequence.
I was heartbroken and angry. I wanted to fix everything. I knew how. I knew the rules, I knew the system, I knew what verbiage to put in which policies to create a safe workplace. But these focus groups were about learning what my peers needed to feel safe in their jobs. So, I asked them.
I had multiple groups of people. All diversities. All backgrounds. All tenures. Nearly every department. Needless to say I was baffled when every group gave me the exact same answer for what they felt would solve everything:
It wasn't HR policy changes they wanted. It wasn't a revamped disciplinary process with multiple steps to ensure due diligence. They just wanted leadership to communicate. The specifics of that included:
"We should know why decisions are being made. We never know what the point of a change is. It just changes for the sake of change. I would even be fine with terrible news if I at least understood why it had to be that way and it made sense."
"I want feedback. Am I doing great or do they want to fire me? If I at least knew where I stood, I wouldn't be anxious and uncertain and I would know what to work on to keep my job."
"They should tell us about problems as soon as they know about them. They keep doing spontaneous layoffs to try to solve issues we could have fixed months ago if anyone told us."
I scheduled a meeting with the CEO, the CHRO, and the person responsible for all things company culture. These were the most important, powerful, influential people in the entire company who were the ultimate decision-makers for literally everything. I turned what I had gathered into pure data straight from the source. I had the exact solution requests of the frontline workers, some non-identifying quotes to emphasize the impact the company was having on people, and laid out my willingness, capability, and desire to fix it. I was sure the data I presented would finally be the push needed to force them into action, or at least a willingness to let me do all the work for them. Instead, I was met with this:
"I don't believe any of this. Nobody has ever said any of this to me. Why would anyone feel comfortable saying something to you but not me?"
"The company survey that said half the company is scared of losing their jobs was misleading/unreliable/inaccurate."
"How important is it that people have job security? It's more important than chocolate."
Years later, I still can't fully express how utterly hopeless I felt when I learned that those who decided the fate of the organization and everyone in it were the most out of touch, condescending, inhumane people I'd ever met.
This is normally where the conclusion would be.
Replacing tradition with efficiency is kind of our thing.