Younger generations want validation that what they're doing matters: Chester Elton

Younger generations want validation that what they're doing matters: Chester Elton

In an exclusive interaction with Human Capital, Chester Elton, world-renowned culture and leadership guru famously called “The Apostle of Appreciation”, talks about why leaders must foster an emotionally safe work environment and how to lead in the era of the ‘Great Resignation’. Chester also shares actionable strategies for reducing anxiety at work and how leaders can practice gratitude and build daily rituals to replenish their energy levels.

You often talk about fostering emotional safety at work. How similar or different is psychological safety from emotional safety, and what are some ways to make organisations emotionally safe?


To me, psychological safety in the workplace is about doing great work. It’s about the project, how we ideate together, and how we challenge each other without fear of being considered a naysayer or fly in the ointment.


The emotional safety piece goes over and above the work. Adrian Gostick (my co-author) and I have conducted research on anxiety in the workplace that shows that 90% of employees don’t feel safe talking about mental health or anxiety. Well, these are much more emotionally charged issues than “Are my opinions on the project being heard?”


If I’ve got a personal issue, if I’m feeling unsettled, if I’m worried about the Delta variant, if I’m concerned about my kids going back to school, my having to return to the workplace, or my position on the team, do I feel emotionally safe enough to talk about the issue with my manager? If not, this lack of emotional safety is a workplace dynamic that you need to change.


Psychological safety is a precursor to creating an emotionally safe workplace.


While many aspects of leadership are timeless, what new skills and mindsets will be needed to lead effectively into the future when “knowing all the answers” is no longer something we can expect of (or require of) modern leaders?


If we were to talk about this in the pre-COVID times, we might have said a visionary, a great communicator, and inspiration are the characteristics of great leaders. Now, I believe one leadership attribute matters most – empathy.


You have got to have empathetic leaders in the workplace for all the things we just talked about emotional safety. In many parts of the world, there’s a movement that’s called The Great Resignation. People want to have a life; they want to have interesting, engaging, and fulfilling work. They want to have time to do things that they are passionate about over and above work. The only way you will attract that kind of great talent is by being empathetic to their whole life.


People might think, “We are getting so soft. Everybody’s feelings have to matter. When does the work get done?” My answer to that is, “You’ve got to invest a little more time into your people and get to know them a little better. Once you’ve established that trust, once they know that you care about them, not just as an employee but as a person, you’ll get a ton of work done.”


Your recent book, Anxiety at Work, comes out of extensive research. You’ve interviewed some of the world’s top mental health experts as well as numerous people who suffer from anxiety disorders at work. What does your research reveal about anxiety at work that might surprise us?


It might surprise people how pervasive anxiety is. We all suffer from a little bit of anxiety. Anxiety disorders are to the point where they’re affecting your work—it’s hard for you to show up and get work done.


In our research pre-COVID-19 in 2018, about 18% of employees said they suffered from some kind of anxiety disorder. In mid-2020, right in the middle of the pandemic, that number jumped up to 32%. What was also fascinating is that when we looked at newer employees in their early 20s and early 30s that comprise almost half of the workforce, the percentage jumped to 42.


Another thing we discovered is that the people who are suffering from anxiety are excellent at hiding it. They’re good at putting on a happy face. It got a lot easier during COVID-19 because you only had to psych yourself up for that 30-minute Zoom call, and then you could shut down the camera and go into a dark room and cry. I’m exaggerating, I hope. So it becomes crucial for your coworkers and your immediate supervisors to get better at looking for the clues.


 What are some strategies leaders could use to help employees deal with anxiety at work?


We’ve talked to many leaders about normalising the conversation around mental health, specifically anxiety. When we say, “I was out jogging, stepped off the curb, broke my ankle, and need time off,” nobody says anything. But when we say, “Hey boss, I’m overwhelmed. I need  a mental health day,” the reaction is often, “Suck it up, buttercup. Tough it out.”


One of the things we tell leaders and coworkers is to look for the signs. People are extremely good at hiding anxiety. Look for subtle changes in behaviour, such as if someone who’s never late starts showing up late, somebody who always participates pulls back, or somebody who never participates is now dominating the conversation.


Let me tell you a story about Chris Rainey, a good friend of mine. He’s got an incredible podcast show. If you were ever to meet Chris, you would never think for a second that this is a guy who’s had an anxious moment in his life: he’s happy, engaging, funny, competent, smart, and has a great little family. You’d think, “Boy, if there’s a guy that’s just got it going on, it’s Chris Rainey.” But then, you find out that he suffered from anxiety his whole life, and no one knew. His wife didn’t know. His family didn’t know. His best friends didn’t know. In doing his podcast, he talked to a CHRO about anxiety in their organisation and admitted it on air that he suffered from anxiety his whole life.


He was surrounded by his team as this was pre-COVID. When he closed up the podcast, he looked around and saw that everyone’s eyes were big and their mouths were open. But here’s what was wonderful – almost everyone came up to Chris and thanked him for being vulnerable and admitted that they had some kind of anxiety disorder at some point but were afraid to talk about it. By sharing his story, he gave others permission to talk about their story.


Since that moment, Chris has not had another anxious episode. “I’ve come close,” he says. The difference now is that he’s got people he can call.


If you’re suffering from an anxiety disorder, you are not alone. There are people you can talk to. When you think you are all alone, it prolongs the episodes. It makes you feel even worse about yourself. That’s self-degradation. We all know we’re harder on ourselves than anyone else could possibly be. That sense of “I’m being alone. I’ve got to hide it. I can’t talk about it” is where it gets dangerous. Tell your story, and make it safe. Understand that there are people that you can call, and you are absolutely not alone.


Moreover, overload is one of the eight strategies discussed in the book that we need to look out for. It is a real problem with high achievers. We’ve got to be careful with our expectations about people.


You’ve been dubbed the “Apostle of Appreciation,” so there’s no one better that I can think of to answer this question. Do you believe millennials and Gen-Z employees crave way too much recognition and praise at work? What advice do you have for leaders looking to engage younger generations through recognition?


Millennials and Gen-Z don’t expect confetti and a red carpet when they show up to work. I believe we’ve misinterpreted recognition with good feedback. Younger generations want validation that what they’re doing matters, their voices are heard, and they’re on the right track. Yes, they want more feedback than previous generations. The reason being is it’s a digital generation. They’re getting 100 to 200 positive reinforcements a minute playing video games. Now, in the workplace, if you say, “Hey, after five years, we’ll give you a pin with a number five on it”, it doesn’t compute.


It’s also good management practice to have a constant communication and feedback loop – whether it’s on the Slack channel, a Zoom meeting, text message, newsletter, or team gathering.


Moreover, specificity in feedback is king. General praise like “great job”, “way to go”, “you’re the best”, or “you are number one” has zero impact. Tell them why they did a great job so they can replicate that behaviour. Give them the roadmap to why what they did was a great customer engagement or why that was a great report. They will then feed on that and feel energised to do an even better job next time.


Leaders usually have hectic schedules, and self-care often falls by the wayside during the daily grind. What simple self-care practices can leaders use even on their busiest days to restore depleted energy levels?


There are some simple rituals that leaders can build in so that there is time to refresh even on the most hectic day. A great tip that I got from a friend of mine, Scott O’Neill, was don’t ever schedule a 30-minute or a 60-minute meeting. Instead, keep 20-minute or 50-minute meetings.


You want that 10-minute buffer between meetings just so that you can get up and stretch, go for a quick walk, get a healthy snack, go to the bathroom—simple things. Often, we book our Zoom meetings back-to back, and that’s unhealthy.


Another ritual comes from a wonderful leader named Mercy Niwe down at the World Bank in Washington, DC. They have a rule on their team: no meetings on Friday. They work as hard as they can Monday through Thursday. On Friday, it’s catch-up day. Now it works for her team; I’m not saying this is universal. These are some of their rituals. On catch-up day, they do stuff that they couldn’t get to Monday through Thursday. Of course, she has to lead the way.


What a lot of leaders have also done, and what I believe is a great practice, is no emails on the weekend. Some leaders send out emails on the weekend saying, “Don’t respond until Monday.” You know what? That doesn’t matter. You’ve already stolen their day because all they’ll be thinking about on Sunday is how they will respond to that email first thing Monday morning.


As a leader, figure out your rituals. My ritual since the pandemic is that I get out of bed and go for a walk. I make time to meditate every day and write in my gratitude journal. By the way, I don’t always get it done, and that’s okay too. As leaders, we’ve got to give ourselves some grace. Be forgiving; hit it next time.


Create rituals that allow you to refresh and replenish during the day, not just during the weekends. Then on the weekends, give yourself time to just be with your family, and do the things you love outside of work and refresh.


Ankita Sharma is working as Senior Editor with Human Capital. With 6+ years of experience, she has performed diverse roles across the entire spectrum of corporate HR — from hire to retire.


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