Do you ever feel like work is an environment ruled by fear, and you and your co-workers are walking on egg shells and constantly looking over your shoulders? Does this affect your work performance?

Leaders who truly value their employees understand that people are most productive and perform at their best when freedom, not fear, is central to how a team operates. 

Freedom is what leads to psychological safety -- the optimum condition for high performance. This is the most threatening word that makes top-down, command-and-control bosses cringe. It's also one of the most revered workplace values you'll find for attracting top performers.

Leaders at companies like Zappos, Glassdoor, Hulu, and Groupon are looking to crack the code on removing fear from work. They are seeking to become workplaces where people feel a sense of community, citizenship, and see themselves as stewards of the culture and the company.

The impact of freedom in the workplace

Fear is detrimental to achieving a company's full potential. We just can't be engaged or innovative when we are afraid. Some subscribe to the notion that "fear is a motivator," but what fear does is kill trust -- the ultimate demotivator.

Research on freedom and psychological safety by Amy Edmondson of Harvard indicates that when encouraging leaders foster a "culture of safety" -- where employees are free to speak up, experiment, give feedback, or ask for help -- it leads to better learning and performance outcomes.

Killing fear is also good for your bottom line. The management consulting company WorldBlu recently released its annual list of 20 companies it certifies as "Freedom-Centered Workplaces" based on such principles as company culture, leadership style, organizational structure, and others, and found that companies on its list generated significantly higher revenue growth than Standard & Poor's 500 companies. For example, Boost, a WorldBlu-certified technology company that builds web and mobile apps in New Zealand, spends half a day per year workshopping ideas with the entire company and voting on which are worth pursuing.

If the idea of more freedom at work sounds promising, the first order of priority for leaders is to ensure more psychological safety in how the business operates. Julie Winkle Giulioni, a prominent consultant and co-author of Help Them Grow or Watch Them Go, urges leaders to employ a systematic method to boost psychological safety. She explains the concepts in a SmartBrief article:

1. Model authenticity

When leaders are authentic, demonstrate vulnerability, and are willing to admit to not knowing everything or to making mistakes, the door is open for others to take more risks of putting themselves out there.

2. Amplify inclusion

Inclusion is at the core of psychological safety, says Giulioni. Leaders can amplify inclusion by setting the expectation that respect is non-negotiable and routinely asking followers for input and ideas. Giulioni says the more opportunities people have to contribute their thoughts will build their confidence and confidence in others, promote safety, and contribute to a virtuous upward cycle of involvement and inclusions.

3. Foster healthy conflict and debate

Leaders must work hard to encourage and model open and honest communication, and for differences of opinion and healthy debates to be freely expressed, without making issues personal.

4. Encourage experimentation and even failure

As part of the learning and growing process, Giulioni says, "This means elevating the role and value of curiosity and making sure that falling short is consistently an opportunity for dialogue, problem-solving and understanding, rather than punishment." 

When freedom and psychological safety are routinely demonstrated in collaborative work cultures, such practices will support the framework for what every CEO is after at the end of the day -- business results. 

Clarification: This column has been updated to describe WorldBlu's Freedom-Centered Workplaces list.

Published on: Jun 19, 2018