Four Best Practices for Safe Organizations

Four Best Practices for Safe Organizations
In the series De Raad (‘The Council’), top experts examine an ongoing boardroom theme. This time: creating a respectful and safe organization as a beacon in uncertain times and a turbulent world. Four best practices from culture and behavior specialist Smaranda Boros from Vlerick Business School and the CHROs from Fugro, KPN and Randstad Nederland. ‘We must address the pressure created by the current situation.’

These days, soil surveyor Fugro starts every meeting with a check-in, where they ask everyone in turn: how do you feel? The Board of Directors of employment agency group Randstad Nederland regularly appears on a podcast where they talk with employees about personal themes such as vulnerability, discovering one's identity and self-knowledge. And telecommunications provider KPN teaches the top-60 managers how to have open conversations about sensitive issues with their people.

Not so very long ago, listed companies were all about profit and loss figures and shareholder value. Talks between managers and employees were primarily about the budget and financial performance, not mental well-being and personal development. In the last few years, companies have already been cautiously changing direction towards sustainability and multiple value creation. And then we were confronted by a polycrisis: a pandemic, the war in Ukraine, increasing energy prices, inflation and a looming recession, with the effects of climate change becoming increasingly hard to ignore. This can lead to loneliness, loss, uncertainty, (financial) stress and anxiety. These feelings are also experienced by employees on the shop floor, says Smaranda Boros, professor of intercultural management and organizational behavior at Vlerick Business School.

The whole person
Companies have to make an effort to get employees to open up about these underlying emotions, consistent with their purpose and the S of ESG (environment, social and governance), also to avoid absenteeism, underperformance and productivity loss, and to be able to position themselves better in a tight labor market and the changing needs of young generations. From human resources to humans, from employees to people, from a focus on the professional persona to the ‘whole person’.

Safe haven
This has given leadership a new dimension: companies must be a place where people feel respected and safe, can be themselves and are not afraid to show their vulnerability. But how do you transform your company into such a safe haven whilst staying profitable at the same time? And are the current leaders equipped for this other role? ‘That is hard work,’ sighs Erwin Hoogeveen, CHRO at Fugro. This is immediately recognized by fellow CHROs Ansco Dokkum from Randstad Nederland and Hilde Garssen from KPN. Together with Boros they explore the topical and sometimes elusive theme. Their combined insights and experiences are summarized in four best practices.

1. Acknowledge anxiety and uncertainty and put (mental) well-being on the agenda 

Both companies and people are finding themselves in survival mode due to the corona crisis and the other developments in the world, suggests Boros. ‘We are exhausted from the last two years and extremely anxious about the future. But many companies are ignoring the psychological consequences of those social changes for their employees. They are still following the path of the last few decades, in which we were focused, through economic growth and prosperity, on the top of Maslow's pyramid: personal fulfilment, growing as leader or professional, working on innovative capacity, creativity and authenticity. We have now been tossed back to the base of the pyramid: insecurity about our livelihood. Companies must accept the truth of this.’

No longer being able to pay the bills
Boros's proposition can count on the agreement of the CHROs. Hilde Garssen: ‘Just developing talent is no longer enough. As an organization you also have to show that you recognize the concerns in these uncertain times, so that you are prepared for the future. Both the organization and people are under pressure due to the current situation, and you have to address those feelings. We see that the absenteeism figures are rising at KPN as well. This is not only because of Covid but also because of mental health issues, which is very concerning to us. It is one of our greatest challenges to recognize, understand and deal with these issues.’ Ansco Dokkum: At Randstad we are also aware that the social, mental and financial well-being of employees is becoming increasingly important. If employers do not recognize this and continue to talk about personal growth and leadership development only, people will stop listening to them. You have to constantly put well-being on the agenda.’

Double whammy
‘We are being confronted with a double whammy: first COVID, then rising energy prices and inflation’, says Erwin Hoogeveen. ‘Fugro operates worldwide in countries where inflation is now a serious problem. Stress about money issues contributes to uncertainty and vulnerability, and we are worried about what this does to the well-being of our employees. With 10,000 colleagues in almost 60 countries, a one size fits all approach is not possible. What's more, financial support alone is complicated and often not enough. You can support people in other ways as well, by creating a feeling of solidarity and paying attention to their well-being and mental health. Our challenge now is to continue investing in our people on many fronts. We are therefore continuing with our regular management programs. Who knows, perhaps the current employee’s market will come to an end and we will enter a recession. Our people have to be well prepared for this as well.’   

2. Be wary of hollow phrases: walk the talk

Boards these days must therefore place the well-being of their employees high on the agenda, coupled with concepts such as respect, safety, honesty, trust and a sense of belonging. But the danger of empty phrases and fad surfing is lurking, says Boros. With a healthy dose of skepticism she stresses the importance of translating these concepts into practice: ‘In the beginning everyone was talking about sustainability, then about diversity and inclusion, or D&I, then about equality and now belonging. Each day I see a new term appear on LinkedIn. Companies are being engulfed by a social wave. Some saw this wave coming and integrated it in their purpose, whilst others are overwhelmed by it and only use hollow phrases in order not to go under.’ Terms such as respect and safety are also often used too superficially, remarks Boros. ‘They are usually insufficiently defined or explained. As a result, everyone has their own interpretation, which can easily lead to frustration.’

Gulf between thinking and doing
‘Yes, we certainly have to be wary of hollow phrases,’ responds Dokkum. At Randstad we manage to successfully identify the right themes and set out the right direction, but now we also have to put this into action. Take inclusion for example: when we ask our employees what this means, everyone gives a different answer. So you first have to be clear about this.’ Garssen and Hoogeveen nod in agreement: their organizations also struggle with matters of definition, the common undertone of 'big words' and the gulf between thinking and doing. ‘We now provide comprehensive guidance in the area of D&I, but how do you create a sense of belonging?’ asks Garssen. ‘This is new for us, so we have not yet found the answer.’   

3. Actively engage people in discussions, listen carefully and show empathy

The third best practice then sounds very simple: talk, listen and empathize. This, after all, lies at the foundation of leadership, points out Hoogeveen. ‘Leaders with these competencies have always been the most successful.’ These are timeless management skills, agrees Boros. ‘The director used to walk around the factory each day and knew the names of each worker and their children. But with economic growth there came a new type: the performance manager without a long-term perspective, who tore through the company like a hungry shark, digging his teeth into the costs and increasing the productivity, and then on to the next company. Perhaps we should just revive the old leadership competencies: caring, talking with people and listening to them.’

Five generations
Garssen believes it is time for a new leadership paradigm. ‘At KPN we now have five generations in the organization. During the COVID crisis we asked all our people directly: what feels good, what works for you and what do you expect from us? We found out that the youngest generation has different needs and makes their own choices in their life and career.’ These needs relate to autonomy, working from home more often, broader ambitions and a different work-private life balance. ‘This requires leadership that is open to various perspectives so that they can learn to understand and support that younger generation.’
It is not easy to have a good conversation, explains Garssen: ‘The “hierarchical” relationship must not hinder the conversation, and people must feel free to share their mistakes, provide feedback and to do things differently than their manager, and to discuss this openly. The organization will be better for it!’

Do not disrespectfully look at your mobile phone during meetings 
Fugro also helps managers with conducting dialogues. Hoogeveen: ‘Showing your vulnerability never used to be a characteristic associated with leadership. Many managers are not used to talking openly about sensitive issues, so we help them to master these skills.’ He stresses that it is also important for the board of directors and senior management to give a good example. They can do this through things such as mentioning feelings during the previously-mentioned check-in (and check-out) at meetings and managers treating their colleagues with respect: arriving at meetings on time, not looking at your mobile phone during meetings, etc.

Your best self
At Randstad – as with the other two companies – the COVID crisis turned out to be a stimulus for change, says Dokkum. Central to the culture of the employment agency group is the idea of being ‘Your best self’, based on the book by the American management expert Daniel Cable: Alive at Work. Or: Being your best self. According to Cable, people are happiest at work, and therefore the most effective and productive, if there is no pressure to perform, but when there is space to develop their true potential and well-being. ‘The time has arrived to really start putting this into practice’, says Dokkum. ‘The key to this is to engage in dialogue internally and to listen, listen, listen.’ Randstad now has a toolset for stimulating dialogue in the organization, such as Innervoice, a panel of around 300 employees, that looks more closely at the points raised in the employee satisfaction survey and where people can express their feelings. Or the card game ‘Jezelf zijn werkt’ (It pays off to be yourself) available throughout the company, with personal questions that can help break the ice in talks between colleagues. ‘Simple, but very effective,’ explains Dokkum. And then there is the podcast. But ultimately it is not about those tools, but all about a change of behavior: a culture in which people feel they can talk with one another and express themselves.’

4. Create a broad register of leadership styles with diverse teams

Can you actually expect a manager to have the right mix of the traditional hard and modern 'soft' competencies? Boros plays devil's advocate here. ‘On the one hand, you have to ensure that your company survives these difficult times. On the other hand, you must make sure that you listen, are empathetic and allow yourself to be vulnerable. This is enough for any manager to start feeling completely overwhelmed!’ Garssen sees a solution to this dilemma: ‘It can be hard work for the current managers to make that transformation on their own. But there is an easier way: create diverse teams in which the group is more important than its individual members. Ensure there are different perspectives, leadership styles, ages and backgrounds.’ And give a good example as senior management, she stresses. ‘At KPN we have started creating more diverse top teams deeper in the organization. This means that we have to make some tough choices now and again. But this helps us to learn more quickly, come up with better solutions for our customers, become more flexible in the desired leadership and to be a better reflection of our employees and society.’

Crossroad becomes roundabout
The other two CHROs also believe in the power of diversity and inclusion. Randstad examined the characteristics of inclusive managers and came up with the following list: visibly concerned, modest, aware of bias, interested in others, culturally intelligent and effective in collaboration. The role of managers at Randstad has changed significantly since the COVID pandemic, says Dokkum. ‘The transformation of our organization can be compared to changing a crossroad with traffic lights to a roundabout: the traffic can now flow freely because you trust the driving behavior of others. That requires a different type of leadership.’ Fugro has taken some big steps forward when it comes to diversity, says Hoogeveen. ‘For a 60-year-old technical and male-dominated company, the idea of D&I was still new. But our company is culturally diverse, has a wide global outlook and is willing to change.’

White man as the enemy
Boros sees new momentum for expansion and a new undertone for the notion of diversity: ‘Now that we are all facing some difficult times, our collective suffering is creating an unprecedented opportunity to come closer together and to talk openly and honestly about our struggles. Not only women and minorities, but also the white man who has long been regarded as the villain. Men, for example, are still often the main breadwinner, so how do they experience that pressure?’
The most important conclusion from the CHRO meeting for Boros is that companies have to play a new role - they must facilitate internal dialogue and be caring employers. ‘People are not there for the company, the company has to be there for the people.’

This article was published in Management Scope 08 2022.

This article was last changed on 28-09-2022