This week is National Work Life Week, which provides us with an opportunity as both employers and employees to focus on wellbeing at work and work-life balance.
Today, Dr Amina Aitsi-Selmi M.D. Ph.D., Founder and Managing Director of Next Generation Coaching & Consulting, looks at why people leave their jobs, and what factors they need to make them want to stay.
It’s hard to do good work in a team or organisation where trust doesn’t exist. On a very primal level, we need to know that the person in front of us is saying the truth (authenticity) and that they’ll do what they say they’re going to do (integrity). A lack of trust breeds survivalism including dysfunctional competition, backstabbing and power contests. People experience low job control, effort-reward imbalance and chronic anxiety – a sense of toxicity.
Having spent thousands of hours in transformational conversations with highly committed and competent professionals in a range of sectors (medicine, science, law, finance, energy), work culture appears to have a huge role in people’s career decisions. One of my current clients spent a good year weighing up the pros and cons of whether to leave her role and the security of paid employment before becoming an independent professional.
She had worked in some of the most pressured and prestigious organisations in the world including in war zones. She was so good at rebuilding health systems in challenging situations that she was awarded Queen’s Honours at a very young age. Yet the organisation she was working in couldn’t offer her something she really cared about: a sense of collaborativeness and belonging.
People don’t leave jobs, they leave work cultures
She was clear about her core values. This clarity played a key role in her decision to take a career leap and create something that works better for her. You might have come across the aphorism: People don’t leave jobs, they leave bosses. Based on what I’ve observed from hundreds of similar cases, I would rephrase this to: People don’t leave jobs, they leave work cultures.
Interestingly, research by Google and others called Project Aristotle has revealed thought provoking findings. The research examined over 180 teams at Google to try and understand what distinguished the high performing ones. They found that the best performing teams didn’t deliver because of talent, resources or money. Out of 250 factors they examined, the common denominator for outstanding teams was this: psychological safety. Those that lacked it, didn’t do so well…
The opposite of toxicity: Psychological Safety?
According to Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson, who coined the term psychological safety is ‘a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes.’
You’ve probably come across an environment with a lack of psychological safety. It’s an environment where competitiveness dominates (people play a zero-sum game, hog credit, talk over one another, devalue each other to improve their own standing, claim superior knowledge through snide criticism, etc. – there’s a constant sense of threat and manipulative politicking). Imposter Syndrome thrives here by the way because you can never be good enough!
If you’re fortunate, you may have experienced the opposite – an environment built on psychological safety. It’s one where individuals can take risks and be vulnerable in front of each other. In fact, the Project Aristotle research identified five top factors for outstanding teams. Here they are in order of importance:
- Psychological safety: Can we take risks in this team without feeling insecure or embarrassed?
- Dependability: Can we count on each other to do high quality work on time?
- Structure & clarity: Are goals, roles, and execution plans on our team clear?
- Meaning of work: Are we working on something that is personally important for each of us?
- Impact of work: Do we fundamentally believe that the work we’re doing matters?
We spend so much time focusing on ensuring that we’re up to the job and have the right technical skills and specialist knowledge for solving problems. But we live in a VUCA world: it’s Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous. So what teams and individuals need to thrive in the 21st century complexity might be completely different to traditional technical skills and a positive attitude.
What we might really need is to nurture work cultures that create a safe and supportive space. That way, our brain’s survival mechanism can be switched off and more of our higher cognitive capacities – like creativity, empathy and insight – can come online. With greater psychological safety, more of our attention can be devoted to innovation and clarity rather than survival. This gives organisations a far better chance of solving complex problems like climate change, inequality or the integrity of global supply chains.
The evidence certainly suggests that it’s time to outgrow command-and-control industrial work cultures built on constraining the human spirit and embracing more humane principles of work that release the human spirit and therefore optimise human talent – a radical but promising transformation of the fabric of our work culture.
Dr. Amina Aitsi-Selmi M.D. PhD is an independent Executive Coach and Career Advisor. She works with senior doctors and directors in large organisations on five continents to help them uplevel their success.
Her book ‘The Success Trap: Why Good People Stay in Jobs They Don’t Like and How to Break Free’ won a national Business Book Award. Dr Amina was also a Leaders in WellBeing Summit keynote speaker, Leaders in WellBeing Awards Judge, and regular WellBeing World magazine contributor.