A Practical Focus On Leaders, The Organisation, Psychological Safety and Performance

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The Make A Difference live roundtable webinar together with AXA Health at the end of January 2022 was an opportunity for a rich, honest and challenging discussion with some of the UK’s leading voices on the topic of workplace mental health and wellbeing.

With the enticing title: “The recipe for employee mental resilience – is your workforce set to thrive in 2022 and beyond?”, it’s not surprising that nearly 700 people registered to join the webinar.

Whilst recognising that culture is the bedrock of an organisation’s approach, the session explored the matrix of personal skills, behaviours and coping skills that support individuals to flourish – highlighting key insights from AXA’s 2022 Mind Health and Wellbeing study.

Dr Derek Mowbray – one of the founding Father’s of workplace wellbeing – attended the webinar. He agreed with panel member Dame Carol Black’s assertion that the most significant step needed to make a big difference to workplace mental health and wellbeing is a focus on leaders.

Yet,  he also noted from the attendees’ chat and questions, the continuing uncertainty about what role and support are needed for line managers.

In this article, Dr Mowbray shares practical tips from his guide “Taking a Lead”* on how leaders can develop the behaviours and skills to create ‘fabulous places to work’. Where people get out of bed and ‘run to work’ because the workplace and work trigger the essentials of psychological wellbeing – self-esteem, self- efficacy, motivation and mental control.

Mowbray believes that the ability to concentrate is central to psychological wellbeing, resilience and performance. Leaders need to create the working environment that triggers concentration in individuals. Dealing with physical interference is simple enough; dealing with psychological interference is a different ballgame.

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A systemic approach to prevention of mental ill health

There is a need to draw the distinction between managers and leaders. Processes and procedures need managers; people need leaders. Managers deal with certainty; leaders deal with uncertainty.

The job of leaders

It is the job of leaders to ensure the workforce is in perfect working order, knows where it’s going and knows how to get there.

In ‘the perfect working order’, the preferred application of power is based on the attitude that everyone in the workforce is of each value to each other in the success of the team or organisation. Leaders should, therefore, be using status power, based on reciprocity and mutual respect.

The main skill of leaders is conversation. They should be spending the bulk of their time interacting with team members and others to persuade and ensure everyone feels well, knows where they’re going and knows how to get there.

Key principles

The first key principle involved in creating a positive working environment is recognition that the combined intelligence of the workforce is greater than that of its leaders. Therefore, it is in the interests of leaders to capture that intelligence to bring ideas, critiques, observation and assistance to enable the team or organisation to be more successful.

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The second is that the team or organisation has to be a psychologically safe place to work. This enables people to contribute without an attack on their self-esteem.

The third is that individuals have an obligation to look after their own psychological wellbeing as well as others. This has a profound influence on behaviour, but can only work if the environment is psychologically safe.

The framework that I have adopted in the WellBeing, Resilience and Performance Agenda.

Outline of The WellBeing and Performance Agenda

Leaders and leadership are key and at the centre of this framework. The cultural influences are ‘sharing responsibility for the future success of the organisation amongst the entire workforce’. This creates a psychologically safe working environment, enhances engagement by the workforce and aids self-regulation of behaviour.

It, also, captures the combined intelligence of the workforce and channels it to improve the success of the
team or organisation.

It is an obligation for each person to look after their own psychological wellbeing as well as others. This provokes everyone to think of their behaviour in relation to others, as well as reducing the risks of negative stress.

Furthermore, with the framework, stigma is largely eliminated.

The positive working culture is outcomes led and values driven. As values are drivers it’s vitally important for the values of the workforce to be reflected in the values of the team, for team members to be driven to make the team or organisation a success.

The adaptive working environment is about the physical environment of the workplace.

Intelligent management is the application of the cultural environment in routine management activities, such as performance appraisal and meetings.

For people to be strongly resilient against adversity they need to translate a threat into a challenge. Challenges stimulate us.

The creation of a positive working environment is as much about creating the conditions where individuals want to keep the environment and improve it, as it is about improving performance by ensuring the workforce is in perfect condition. On top of this, leaders need to help strengthen the foundations of personal resilience by their behaviour and approaches to leadership. 

 *Taking a Lead by Derek Mowbray. Published by MAS Publishing 2021 ISBN 978-1-5272-8093-9

You can access the full recording of the roundtable webinar free here.

About the author

Derek Mowbray is a Chartered Psychologist and Chartered Scientist, with a doctorate in the psychology of leadership. He specialises in the primary prevention of psychological distress at work, with a focus on promoting wellbeing and performance.

Dr Mowbray adopts a systemic approach to prevention, building on the knowledge that culture and context have a direct impact on the behaviour of people. He, therefore, helps organisations establish a cultural environment that promotes wellbeing and performance by helping clients design their organisations in ways that result in commitment, trust and engagement between the managers and the workforce.

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