Janine Vos (Rabobank): 'Psychological Safety Will Only Become More Important'

Janine Vos (Rabobank): 'Psychological Safety Will Only Become More Important'
It is good to strive for psychological safety, but a completely safe organization with 43,000 employees does not exist. A safer organization does, according to Janine Vos. Rabobank's CHRO talks about clear and people-oriented leadership and her own personal development: 'A good leader knows their own pitfalls and has the courage to share them with others.'

Janine Vos says she always wears a cheerful colour on Fridays, it helps her keep the energy flowing towards the end of the working week. It is no different on the day of this interview. And it works: an animated conversation immediately ensues between the chief human resources officer of Rabobank and Smaranda Boros, professor of Intercultural Management and Organizational Behaviour at Vlerick Business School. Sometimes they even laugh out loud. But there are also moments of silence, when Vos thinks, almost audibly, before answering a difficult or personal question.
She has been a member of the group management and CHRO of Rabobank for five years now. Five turbulent years for the bank, with far-reaching reorganization, measures put in place to eliminate backlogs in the Anti-Money Laundering file and now the nitrogen crisis which has a severe impact on the agricultural sector and as a result also the former agricultural credit bank. And then of course there was the corona crisis. Now, there is a war in Ukraine and the world has to deal with the energy crisis and rising inflation. The question is, how do you create a safe organization for 43,000 employees in the midst of all these developments?

We have been talking for years about an uncertain and rapidly changing world. Yet many people feel overwhelmed right now and they need something to hold on to.
‘Previously the momentous world problems were, to a large extent, experienced as remote by many people.  This has changed, peoples’ lives are impacted personally.  This has everything to do with the interconnectedness of the problems the world is grappling with: The nitrogen and CO2 reductions to combat climate change also affect the food chain; The war in Ukraine attendantly caused an energy crisis. This in turn leads to an increase in social inequality, as some people struggle to afford their grocery- and energy bills due to increased prices. People feel as though they were thrown back 100 years in time. Added to this are the other tensions in society: tensions that were  latently present, but have been magnified by the pandemic. Think of Black Lives Matter, the climate protests, the yellow vests and the ‘Zwarte Piet’ discussion. There is thus an impression of uncertainty on all levels and this can lead to people feeling emotionally overwhelmed.’

What effect does this have on people's mental wellbeing and how do you notice this in the organization?
‘Half of the absenteeism in our organization is now related to mental health. People lack guidance. They wonder who is going to solve all these problems. As a result of all the developments, they are also directly confronted with themselves: what higher goal am I pursuing, how responsible are the choices I make, is my work socially relevant? They experience a need for ownership: on a global level, in their business and on a personal level.
There is also a call for strong leadership. Donald Trump is definitely not a good leader in my estimation yet people voted for him against what seems rational. Why? Trump is very clear, both in message and language, a linguist explained to me. Trump says "we must", while Barack Obama said "we can". Apparently clear leadership appeals to people in uncertain times, fueled by underlying human emotions.’

People also need clear leadership in survival times, because it makes them feel safer, according to research. However, people can mistake clarity for certainty. The risk is then that those with binary, simple certainties get a following, while good leaders need to take a clear stance, but accept complexity and uncertainty as part of the equation.
‘I see that reflected in our organization: in our scans for psychological safety, but also in the emails we receive as directors. Our employees want us to speak out clearly on social issues. And not "on the one hand, on the other hand", no, they want you to take a stand and share your dilemmas. Wiebe (Draijer, CEO of Rabobank until 1 October, ed.) did that too, for example in the ‘Zwarte Piet’ discussion. He clearly stated that the traditional way of celebrating Sinterklaas no longer belonged in a modern world. This led to some internal resistance: a number of people questioned his involvement as CEO in a matter such as this and had the opinion that it was an innocent children’s festivity. But Wiebe was very clear in his message: it constitutes discrimination and as a bank we reject that. The co-operative structure of the bank embeds us firmly  in society: we have no shareholders, but we do have around two million members, to whom we, as group management, are accountable via the General Members' Council. These members, too, want us to provide clear answers to social questions.'

Rabobank is also approached by farmers about its role in the nitrogen crisis. How do you as directors deal with this internally?
‘The external debate about the nitrogen crisis is of course also internal. You cannot ignore the public debate: employees read the newspaper and have their own opinions. We are open about it internally: we outline the context to a newspaper headline, pay attention to it on our intranet and discuss it with the works council. We are also open about the dilemmas. In blogs and vlogs, Wiebe and I stated: we are a farmers' bank and we are proud of our farmers, but we also have to look to the future and we do have a nitrogen problem in the Netherlands. We speak out, but are willing to share the views and emotions of other stakeholders: our own views, the views of the farmers, the government, society, the local banks… I give my opinion, but also create space for other opinions: "I'm okay, you're okay, let's do this together." Everyone wants a future with sustainable agriculture. The differences arise in how we plan to achieve it: how fast and how far should we go? I do believe that the solutions will emerge from both these internal and external debates.'

Employees will only dare to express their own opinion if the leaders of the organization create a safe environment for it. What does that require from contemporary leadership?
‘We demand so much from our leaders these days! They must meet KPI’s, be good storytellers, take good care of their people, form diverse and inclusive teams and connect five generations in the workplace, each with their own values ​​and needs. Modern professional leadership requires new skills: listening, asking questions, noticing the person behind the employee, discussing feelings and daring to share them yourself. Many leaders have never learned that. Traditionally, the essence of leadership was perceived as formulating a vision, giving direction and being clear. That is still important, but today's leader must also have the ability to connect with people on a personal level while also connecting them with each other.’

To touch people, leaders must dare to be vulnerable and be authentic: people must feel that they really are interested in them and that they stand for something.
‘Yes, people need to feel that you care about them. It helps to make accepting difficult decisions easier, because people know that you act from a caring perspective. The human connection is therefore essential. We now start every conversation in the team with: “How are you?”. And we don’t want the answer to be just: “Good, and you?”, and then carry on with the meeting. We would like to know what is happening in your personal life and in your work, how you feel about it, how you feel in the team. We recently had a team meeting with only one agenda item: the dynamics in the team itself, does everyone feel safe? People wondered if this was something to spend a morning on while they had many other things which needed to be done. But talking about how you function as a team is also an important part of your job.
As a leader, you should be willing to probe, with questions such as: Does everyone get the same amount of time in meetings? Who do you spend most time with offline? Who in our team is the one with the most authority? I noticed an interesting discussion develop. For example, someone said, “I always look at the same two colleagues on the team when I'm talking. If they nod in agreement, I continue talking, if I don't see them nodding, I stop". Then someone else said: "I always call a specific colleague before I go into a meeting, because then I know whether he will vote for a decision". People felt safe enough to share their experiences and that filled me with pride. It is precisely because they share personal things like these that they are willing to fight for their team.’

What emotional toll does that take on you as a leader? Are you also making yourself vulnerable?
‘In a safe environment, people also share things that are not going well and  that can be difficult as I want everyone to be happy and I want to take immediate action to solve everything. But as a leader you also have to be able to think: it's okay that not everything is okay. Emotions are allowed, they strengthen the team. At the beginning of my career I thought building a successful team was about bringing together the best players. Now I see that teams function best when people feel safe enough to admit they've made a mistake or are unsure of what to do, when you can cry and ask each other for help. Not only is it correct from a moral and human perspective, it also produces better results for the organization.
When I started at Rabobank, I introduced ‘I messed up’ sessions, in which people could tell honestly if they messed up something. Me too, yes. I still find it difficult to admit a mistake, but leadership also requires self-knowledge: knowing your pitfalls and the courage to share them with others.’

How do you, as CHRO, get everyone in the organization on board in the pursuit of psychological safety?
‘I am not blind: an organization will never be a completely safe place for everyone. We have 43,000 employees, things go wrong unintentionally. I regularly receive e-mails from people who do not feel safe, for example because of a reorganization, their manager or because they feel discriminated against. But we can make it a safer place by being open about it and raising awareness. For example, since the corona crisis, we asked 100 employees to enter the organization and as an inclusion agent share their personal stories: why they did not always feel safe. That is much more effective than if I say something about it as CHRO.
I did also learn that some 25 percent of your people will not hear your message. They might find the attention for psychological safety to be a female discussion. But you will reach the other 75 percent! Also important is: walk the talk, do what you say. In our scans, 86 percent of our people indicate that they feel they can be themselves, it means 14 percent of our people feel they cannot be themselves at work. It turns out that 5 percent of these are from the same teams. It is a strong indication that the fault lies with the management of those teams and you have to rectify it. Because people look to whether you attach consequences to an unsafe environment, or if you simply leave such managers in position or even promote them. Those are difficult decisions, especially if such a manager is valuable to the business, but it has to be addressed, otherwise you will lose credibility.’

How important is a safer environment for diversity and inclusion (D&I) and the war for talent in a tight labor market?
‘Essential, because you want to attract more people from different backgrounds and they have to feel heard and safe. D&I is therefore in our transition top 3, next to food and energy. We have come a long way with gender diversity: seven years ago we had seven percent women at the top, now it is 40 percent. However, some people in the organization will only pay lip service to the importance of D&I as they want to grow their influence. They echo the leader, because Wiebe and we as group management have always championed diversity.
I also get reactions to my vlogs about diversity and inclusion, especially from men who feel excluded and alienated: as though they are no longer seen. And now that we are also focusing on multicultural diversity in addition to gender diversity, we apparently touch another cord and some people say: now you're going too far. On the other hand there are managers who initially were not so positive about diversity, but have now experienced its added value in their team and have started to believe in it sincerely.’

Wiebe Draijer stepped down as CEO of Rabobank on 1 October. He will be succeeded this autumn by the Belgian Stefaan Decraene, from BNP Paribas. Does a new CEO from outside create momentum for new leadership and therefore also for a safe and inclusive organization?
‘A new CEO is always an intervention in the field of culture change. More than 2,000 years ago, the Chinese philosopher Lao Tse wrote in his work Tao Te Ching that true leaders can make people feel that they themselves have done something well. Ego does not get in the way of true leaders. This is important in creating a safe and inclusive organization, because it is not about top-down or bottom-up: we have to build the culture together.
In its search for a new CEO, the Supervisory Board therefore specifically looked for someone with the right balance: not only result-oriented, but also people-oriented. A new era will begin with the new CEO, but at the same time it will build on the culture on which we have all worked so hard . Psychological safety, diversity & inclusion and the transparency surrounding it will not go away, it will only grow in importance in the coming years.’

This article was last changed on 26-10-2022