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3 Things Leaders Can Do to Create a More Positive Work Environment

by John Austin in Behavior change, Leadership
Creating a positive environment is vital to safety excellence. However, it’s not restricted to safety, it is relevant to all leaders, organizations, and industries.

Why should we care about work environments?

  • Organizations with very high demands have 50% high healthcare costs.
  • It is estimated that 60-80% of workplace injuries are related to worker stress.
  • There is a link between leader behavior and employee heart disease.
  • Engagement is often driven by what leaders say and do. Disengaged employees have higher absenteeism, high injuries and much lower quality and productivity.
  • Retention and turnover. Workplace stress increases turnover by nearly 50%.

People sometimes go off the deep end on this positive environment stuff – one leader asked me if putting in ping pong tables, a basketball hoop, and a cotton candy machine would increase engagement. It probably would increase engagement in playing games, but the impact on getting work done might be less than he hoped for.

There are countless articles giving tips to leaders on creating a positive environment, and most of them are not science-based. I have listed some ideas below based on findings from behavioral science, but note that how these are delivered matter as much as what they are.

Here are a few science-based things to consider when trying to create a positive environment at work:

Strike a balance between demands and empathy.  In a survey of Gen X workers, they reported that being challenged by their job was highly motivating. I think many people feel that way, not just one generation.  Like most things, perhaps a common sense approach is best where we try to strike a balance between being demanding and asking people to do challenging things but also see things from their perspective.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve been through some challenging periods that I might not choose to do, but they were very good for me to experience and I produced things for my organization that I would not have been able to otherwise do without some pressure.  Feeling like I was part of something important, on a team of people I respect, and having some fun while working made a big difference to me during those times.

Give control where possible.  Having a very demanding job while also having low control over your job has been shown to increase risk of heart attack and cardiovascular disease, as well as reducing healthy behaviors (diet, exercise, etc.).  Recently, studies link high stress jobs to on the job injury and unsafe behavior at work.

  • One way leaders can give more control is to ask for input on how particular results can be achieved. In some situations, this has the added benefit of giving you more effective solutions, and solutions that are more likely to be accepted by the workforce.
  • Another way leaders can give control is to regularly ask people what frustrates them about their work, write it down, and try to help fix or remove the frustrations.

Make it psychologically safe.  A psychologically safe environment is one where you feel that you can say things without fear of retribution from coworkers or leaders. Some leaders are very protective of people who speak their mind, whereas others don’t seem to pay any attention to it at all. 

A study of over 20,000 workers in a range of industries found a relationship between how the worker rated their manager and the short term and long term health of the worker.  Some factors that were studied included whether managers were inspirational, supportive, a delegator or authoritarian, honest, and approachable or distant.

At Harvard, Amy Edmonson has repeatedly shown that leaders who create a psychologically safe environment have more productive, innovative, and safer teams. Researchers have found that inconsistent managers and those whose teams report low psychological safety are more likely to under-report or hide injuries.

Summary.  There are many possibilities.  What do you think I’ve left out?  Reply in the comments or send me a note at with your thoughts and ideas.

*This originally appeared on LinkedIn. If you’d like to join the conversation, click here.

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