Changing Workplace Culture with Human Leadership and Psychological Safety


  • Author Paul Hylenski
  • Published December 12, 2022
  • Word count 2,218

Culture is defined as the customs, arts, social institutions, and achievements of a particular nation, people, or other social group. At its definition it appears to be a positive word. So often in current American workplaces the “culture” is one that is toxic and damaging to the very people intertwined in it. Bob Chapman, CEO of Barry-Wehmiller, has stated many times that over 80% of American workers feel that they are not appreciated and not cared for by their own company.

Current American workplace culture is a result of years of flawed management practices. In the age of pensions and a limited number of job opportunities, false loyalty ran rampant. Companies perceived the low turnover rate for loyalty to the entity, when the real loyalty ran to the ever-precious pension. Employees would tolerate poor working conditions and poor management because they were smarter than their toxic leaders. They were taking the short-term pain for the long-term gain. One of the reasons the pension was set in place was it served as an incentive to stay with the company in hopes to drive loyalty to the company. Retirement was almost assured if you could just “grin and bear” the job and duties for a preset period. This was dangled as the proverbial carrot for these employees of the companies.

Through recent times the pensions have started to disappear as companies realized this was a flawed practice. As the workforce got older and started to cash in on the pensions this began to limit or and cause fluctuations in the profit margins. Business and HR leaders at every company started to develop strategies to reduce, freeze and eliminate the pension from the employee benefit system. This slow erosion started a downward spiral that would be later exacerbated by generational differences and by the changes the world had to face during the COVID-19 pandemic.

American manufacturing was one of the cornerstone sectors where these pensions were used to entice and retain employees in these companies. This false sense of loyalty and perceived cohesion contributed to the downfall of modern-day leadership and developed into poor management practices that would cause psychological and physical damage to the workers. Workers began having to be conditioned to work in high stress environments with no room for mistakes and no voice in the company or process. This resulted in environments with low psychological safety and high stress which translated for large amounts of cortisol being pumped into these employees. People in these types of environments were ruled by fear and would often be forced into unethical or other unacceptable behavior out of intimidation and fear for doing what was right. Mistakes and defects would occur at a larger frequency due to this and would sometimes have to be hidden or covered up out of fear for retribution from leaders.

This type of environment resulted in an unmotivated and apathetic workforce that retaliated with poor quality, and production efficiency. To control rising costs and quality expenditures the management put practices and behaviors in place that simulated prison environments. “How well employees are affiliated to an organization, affects how employees behave within an organization setting including: their motivation level, innovative behavior, absenteeism, interaction with other employees and job retention. Employee productivity is the most significant interest nowadays, and it is affected by the working environment in many ways” (Mwenda, McAuliffe, Uduma, Masanja, & Mollel, 2017)

This prison style of leadership showed marginal results and mediocre growth and companies were conditioned that this was the status quo. This was seen as the best that the environment could achieve. The issue was that the organizational environment was the problem. The flawed leadership style was permeating a poor environment. The equation B= f (P x E) was proposed by Kurt Lewin. This equation was first presented in Lewin's book, Principles of Topological Psychology, published in 1936. Kurt Lewin (9 September 1890 – 12 February 1947) was a German-American psychologist, known as one of the modern pioneers of social, organizational, and applied psychology in the United States. Lewin is often recognized as the "founder of social psychology" and was one of the first to study group dynamics and organizational development. A Review of General Psychology survey, published in 2002, ranked Lewin as the 18th-most cited psychologist of the 20th century.

A staggering fact is this research has been available since 1936. The equation is simple in terms of mathematics, yet we as leaders struggled throughout the last hundred years to harness its power. Modern leadership principles are showing a change in this. Companies are changing and Leaders are changing more and more as they see the benefits of harnessing this equation. Google is known as being a pioneer in this field. They pride themselves on employee empowerment, but they weren’t always this way. They had glaring inadequacies in hiring practices and there was a distinct inequality in their company when it came to the number of men versus women. They had choices during this tough time. They could hide and dismiss the claims, or they could start to change and rewrite their history. They did the latter. They changed and they improved. They changed the environment and the employee feelings and behavior started to change. It is the ownership of the leadership to be better and start this change. It reinforced Lewin’s equation. If you change the environment, then you can change the behavior. Google later when on to pioneer studies about psychological safety and they found that this was the number one indicator to how successful a team was. (1).

So how can companies change the environments that are damaged and filled with unengaged workers and poor practices. In short, it will be hard. As a leader attempting this, you will be met with resistance from every level of the organization. There will be failures, there will be constant setbacks. It is critical to follow path. A critical mindset to have is clearly articulated in the book “Atomic Habits”. It is critical to push each day for small incremental improvement, create a system rather than focusing on the goals, and create lasting positive habits that build a system that will last. (5).

Human capital is a company’s number one most valuable resource. The employees in the company make the company what it is, but the old way of thinking is that the company was the most valuable and the people were just a means to the end. This is flawed on multiple levels. Modern day research is showing that exponential growth can occur by focusing on human capital. By changing the company and its culture, the behavior of the employees changes without them even realizing. They become more engaged, conscientious, and efficient. This happens because they become invested in the company. This behavior is transposed into the products, processes, and customers of the companies, leading to outstanding growth, defect reduction and safer work environments.

At the very core of a true culture change is the driving of psychological safety within the organization. Psychological safety seems to be counterintuitive to a modern-day production environment but is critical in achieving new frontiers in American manufacturing. Allowing the teams to make mistakes and learn from them, focusing on empathy and caring giving them opportunities to ask for help and empowering the team to stop quality defects and safety incidents will reshape the culture of the organization and the behaviors within it.

Psychological safety has four levels. Inclusion, Learning, Contribution, and Challenge. These four levels are like a pyramid. It is important to build a strong foundation through habits, constant improvement, and responding to feedback.

Inclusion safety is at the base level and is the foundation of the other levels. If a person is made to feel a part of a larger team, they will feel included and empowered to make that team better. This is tapping into the psychological need to feel a part of a larger group. At this stage the leader should explain the “why” of the teams. A strong vision and purpose is needed hear. This will set a base for all of the micro-goals that are set thereafter. “Motivating employees for goal setting is another essential tool (Goerg, 2015). This form of employee motivation eventually improves their performance and enhances the productivity level of the organizations.” ( (n.d.))

Learning safety is the second level. It is important to utilize the inclusion safety of groups and teams to better tap into the learning safety. People across the organization will feel more comfortable learning and failing in a group setting where they feel supported by their team. This allows the learning cycle of watching and practicing, and then doing to fully mature. They allow themselves to learn from the others in the group. Group learning is critical at this step. One on One lessons should be reserved as the exception and not the norm. Team training will be imperative in setting the tone and consistently reinforcing this safety. Regularly scheduled training and investing in the team will make the team more efficient, more knowledgeable and build an improved learning experience into the culture.

Contributing Safety is at the third level. This is where the teams and members of the team feel comfortable voicing their ideas. They want to participate and provide feedback but sometimes the environments create a vacuum and they are intimidated for fear of rejection. It is critical to build systems of horizontal hierarchy at this level to cultivate a free environment to voice opinions and ideas to problems. Create groups dedicated to solving problems or large-scale issues in the organization. Leaders have to set the stage so that everyone feels comfortable voicing ideas and constantly solicit feedback from the teams. The leader needs to be the catalyst for the ideas but also be the quietest in the room. One of the best examples of this is Pixar. They created an environment where their leadership set the stage for free thinking and during discussions of new ideas, they have a completely horizontal hierarchy. This has changed the dynamic and brought forward better and better ideas.

The final level is the hardest to achieve. This is the challenge level. This is where people in the organization feel comfortable with challenging leadership. This is the hardest to achieve because it takes time, trust, empathy and a consistent pattern of asking for feedback. In working to reach this level it is imperative that leaders ask for feedback constantly. After getting any feedback it is important to share the items and any action plan to improve. By repeatedly doing this it reinforces that any challenge or negative feedback will be met with a proactive view and not a retaliatory view. Additionally, it is critical to stress the ability for the team to make mistakes. If the teams feel free to make mistakes they will learn from their own mistakes, but also be willing to provide feedback to their leaders for any mistakes they make. Environments like these breed open dialogue and better outcomes. Leaders are not infallible and are not perfect. It is critical for everyone in the organization to feel free to challenge ideas when they see something the leader may not. This binds the team and reinforces that the leader cares for them because they are a part of the team and open to criticism. As a leader it is important to respond to the feedback and challenges. Sometimes just explaining the decisions and the “Why” help the team to understand and quell any concerns. It is critical to always communicate in a positive and proactive fashion as this will continue to build the trust and incentivize further productive challenges.

As teams and organizations climb through these levels of safety the organization and environments will change. Metrics will start to improve, and morale will climb. All of this will be done, and the teams will become conditioned to the new environment at each stage of the climb. The organization will change slowly. More and more people will believe in the organization, vision and/or the leader. Consistency, Empathy, strong leadership, and even stronger communication is critical to keep the teams climbing through the psychological safety levels. The environment will change. The culture will change. Slowly….. Consistently…. There will be tough events, and there will be steps backwards. It is important to realize that you will be attempting to break bad habits that have been engrained into the very fabric of the organization. It is possible. Each day it is important to focus on small improvements. These small improvements will add up over time. They will compound as the organization keeps changing. They will lead to even bigger victories and improvements. As the organization continues to achieve greater psychological safety, the environment will start to change. This change in environment is the start of a complete shift in the culture and performance of the organization. Behavior = Person x Environment. Therefore the organization will start to improve and metrics will start to cascade into new ground. Treat the people of the company like they are the very organs of the company. They are not expendable. They are precious and their efforts are the very heartbeat of the company. Human leadership will build psychological safety. Psychological safety will change the environment. Change the Environment and Change the Culture. Change the Culture and Change Everything.

I am a operations leader at a large Aerospace Manufacturing company on the East Coast. Looking to redefine how aerospace manufacturing is done in the modern day through human leadership.


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