The Leadership Perception Gap: Bridging the Divide for a Psychologically Safe Workplace

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Leadership - I dont know is not a legal defence

Leadership in any organisation carries the burden of ensuring that strategic goals align with the workforce’s daily experiences. However, a persistent gap often exists between how leaders perceive their performance and how frontline employees experience it. Addressing this divide is crucial for fostering a productive and healthy work environment. 

This article explores key areas that have been identified in the People Plus Science Australian Psychological Safety + Well-being Benchmark 2024.

 

The Leadership Gap

In the book, “Legacy Leadership – The emergence of a new leadership model after more than a decade of crisis” the largest perception gaps identified by more than 460 leaders globally and leading leadership researchers included: 

  1. A Leadership Skills Gap – Communication is the largest skills gap which is consistent in the majority of workplaces we support. With listening being the top issue and the second is the ability to facilitate conversations, hold difficult conversations and motivate employees when stress is high.

    Listening Skills: Hearing vs. Understanding – The ability to listen actively and empathetically is crucial for effective leadership. However, a Gallup poll revealed that while 74% of managers believe they listen well, only 34% of employees feel heard . This gap can lead to feelings of undervaluation and disengagement among staff. Leaders can address this by implementing regular one-on-one meetings, actively seeking input during team discussions, and demonstrating that they value and act upon employee feedback.

  2. Employee Engagement – According to the Gallup State of the Global Workplace report, 85% of employees are not engaged or actively disengaged at work. People Plus Science found that one of the strongest influencers of employee engagement is the perception of reward and recognition and importantly appreciation. Whilst 83% of executives believe that they recognise employees for their work, only 43% of employees agree.This disparity suggests that recognition programs might be ineffective or inadequately communicated. Leaders should ensure that recognition is timely, specific, and aligned with company values. Implementing peer recognition programs can also help in creating a culture of appreciation.
  3. Consumer Loyalty and Experience – 80% of organisations they surveyed by Bain and Company believed that they provided a superior customer experience to their customers. Meanwhile, just 8% of consumers shared this opinion
  4. Psychological Safety – Only 23 percent of  frontline employees felt their workplace was “psychologically safe” compared to 45 percent of leaders. Overall this is a very low level of psychological safety. Given that culture starts from the top we also found that the psychological safety of the boardroom was only 40% ie only 40% of board members feel safe to speak up, and challenge the status quo.
  5. Accountability – Research by Macquarie Business School found that lack of clarity around accountability and authority to make decisions is one of the main contributors to misconduct and reputational harm. Research found that 69% of HR leaders reported that decision-making authority is not clearly defined in their organisation. ** Blame Cultures: Shifting to Accountability – in the People Plus Science research 79% of leaders claimed their organisation had a culture of accountability, only 29% of employees felt the same. This was again highlighted where only 21% of employees felt safe to report issues or “bad news” to leaders with a delay of up to 3 weeks before issues were identified.
  6. Trust – Close to one in six respondents globally have “very little” or “no trust” in their current employer and the decisions that are being made from the “top”. 
  7. Change Management –Change is inevitable, but managing it effectively is often challenging. A study by McKinsey revealed that while 80% of senior executives believed their change management initiatives were successful, only 30% of frontline employees agreed . This discrepancy highlights the need for leaders to involve employees at all levels in the change process, ensuring they understand the reasons

    behind changes and how these will impact their roles. Regular updates and transparent communication can help align perceptions and improve the overall success of change initiatives.

  8. Addressing workplace stress – despite over 72% of employees reporting stress or burnout in the workplace. Only 15% of leaders feel confident dealing with employee stress. This is also highlighted in the US,according to the American Psychological Association, while 66% of leaders believe they provide sufficient resources to manage stress, only 40% of employees feel supported . To bridge this gap, leaders must actively promote mental health resources, encourage work-life balance, and create an environment where employees feel comfortable discussing stress-related issues.

"In the long run, the most important single factor in driving workplace engagement is the ability to create an environment where employees feel safe to voice their ideas and concerns."

The Gap Between Intention and Action

Leaders sometimes prefer to “keep their heads in the sand” and ignore or fail to identify real issues due to a variety of psychological and neuroscientific factors. These include cognitive biases, stress responses, and social dynamics that influence decision-making and perception. Here’s a deeper look into why this happens:

Cognitive Biases

  1. Confirmation Bias:

    • Definition: The tendency to search for, interpret, and remember information in a way that confirms one’s preconceptions.
    • Impact on Leaders: Leaders may ignore or downplay issues that contradict their beliefs or the positive narrative they prefer about their organization. This bias leads them to selectively gather information that supports their current strategies or views, reinforcing a blind spot towards real problems.
  2. Status Quo Bias:

    • Definition: The preference for the current state of affairs and the fear of change.
    • Impact on Leaders: Leaders might resist acknowledging problems because it could necessitate changes that are perceived as risky or disruptive. Maintaining the status quo feels safer and more manageable than confronting and addressing issues that require significant effort and adaptation.
  3. Overconfidence Bias:

    • Definition: An inflated belief in one’s own ability to understand and control events.
    • Impact on Leaders: Overconfidence can lead leaders to underestimate the severity of issues or overestimate their ability to manage them without taking appropriate actions. This bias blinds leaders to the complexity and potential consequences of emerging problems.
  • Stress Responses
  1. Fight-Flight-Freeze- Appease

    • Definition: A physiological reaction that occurs in response to perceived threats, preparing the body to either confront or flee from the threat.
    • Impact on Leaders: Chronic stress and high-pressure environments can trigger a fight-or-flight response, leading to avoidance behaviors. Leaders might metaphorically “flee” from issues by ignoring them, hoping they will resolve on their own or disappear without direct confrontation
  1. Lack of prefrontal cortex involvement :

    • Definition: Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett’s theory, we understand that what has traditionally been called an “amygdala hijack” is actually a complex interplay of brain regions that construct emotional responses based on a combination of sensory input, past experiences, and contextual factors. In stressful situations, the amygdala’s rapid response can overshadow the more deliberate, rational functions of the PFC, leading to less effective leadership. Recognising and addressing this dynamic can help leaders manage stress better, make more considered decisions, and create a more engaged and resilient workforce.

Social Dynamics

  1. Groupthink:

    • Definition: A psychological phenomenon where the desire for harmony and conformity in a group leads to irrational decision-making.
    • Impact on Leaders: Leaders might ignore issues due to the pressure to conform to the group’s consensus, even if it contradicts their own observations or the available evidence. The fear of disrupting group cohesion or facing opposition can lead to a preference for inaction.
  1. Social Comparison Theory:

    • Definition: The idea that individuals determine their own social and personal worth based on how they stack up against others.
    • Impact on Leaders: Leaders might avoid acknowledging issues to maintain a favorable comparison with their peers. Admitting problems could be perceived as a weakness or failure, which can be particularly threatening in competitive or high-status environments

Neuroscientific Insights

  1. Cognitive Dissonance:

    • Definition: The mental discomfort experienced by a person who holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values at the same time.
    • Impact on Leaders: When confronted with information that conflicts with their self-image as competent and effective leaders, they experience cognitive dissonance. To reduce this discomfort, they might ignore or rationalise away the conflicting information rather than addressing the underlying issues.
  2. Neurological Reward Systems:

    • Definition: The brain’s reward system, involving structures like the nucleus accumbens, that reinforces behaviors through the release of dopamine.
    • Impact on Leaders: Leaders might focus on short-term successes and positive feedback that activate the brain’s reward system, thereby reinforcing behaviors that avoid conflict. Addressing complex problems often does not provide immediate rewards and can even be punishing in the short term, discouraging leaders from taking necessary but difficult actions.

Closing the gap

Bridging the Perception Gap: Strategies for Leaders

To overcome these biases and tendencies, leaders can adopt several strategies informed by neuroscience and psychology:

  1. Cultivate Self-Awareness:
  2. Mindfulness Practices: Encourage mindfulness and reflective practices that enhance self-awareness and emotional regulation. Mindfulness can help leaders recognise their cognitive biases and stress responses, allowing them to approach issues more rationally and with greater emotional control.
  3. Encourage Diverse Perspectives:

    • Diverse Teams: Build and promote diverse teams that bring various perspectives to the table. Diverse viewpoints can counteract groupthink and confirmation bias by challenging the prevailing assumptions and offering alternative solutions.
  4. Implement Regular Feedback Mechanisms:
    • Implement regular surveys and feedback sessions to gauge employee sentiments and identify areas for improvement.
    • 360-Degree Feedback: Utilise 360-degree feedback processes where leaders receive input from peers, subordinates, and superiors. This comprehensive feedback can help leaders gain a clearer understanding of their blind spots and areas needing attention.
    • Where low levels of trust exist seek external supports to assist in rebuilding trust and identifying root cause analysis.
  5. Transparent Communication: Use clear, consistent communication methods and be open about both successes and challenges. The skills gap we often hear is that leaders believe that they are good “listeners but in fact are not”. Leaders think that they know how to have difficult conversations but in fact they do not. These skills require training and practice. Upskill in Active Listening techniques to ensure employees feel heard and valued.
  6. Recognition Programs: Develop and maintain robust recognition programs that reward employees consistently and meaningfully.
  7. Promote Work-Life Balance: Encourage practices that support mental health and reduce workplace stress.
  8. Cultivate Accountability: Focus on creating a culture of accountability rather than blame by setting clear expectations and supporting employees in meeting them.Establish clear accountability structures and regular reviews to ensure that issues are addressed promptly and responsibly. This can reduce the tendency to ignore problems and improve overall organisational transparency. In many cases this starts with being clear about performance metrics and the skills needed to achieve these goals. Identify the gaps and then use this to develop staff in both technical skills and soft/essential skills. Ensure that performance metrics include psychological safety and trust and team cohesion and leadership supports, communication – factors that are often seen as stressors in the workplace.
  9. Foster Psychological Safety: Foster an environment where employees feel safe to express concerns and ideas without fear of retribution.
  10. Build Trust: Trust is the foundation of a healthy workplace culture, yet it is often lacking. A PwC survey found that while 55% of leaders believed their employees trusted them, only 37% of employees felt this trust . Building trust requires consistent actions that demonstrate integrity, competence, and empathy. Leaders should follow through on commitments, be transparent, and genuinely care about their employees’ well-being

“The art of effective listening is essential to clear communication, and clear communication is necessary to management success.”            – James Cash Penney, founder of J.C. Penney stores.

 “Leaders need to quickly identify the gaps in perception if they wish to foster psychological safety. Effective communication, high levels of trust and respect are the foundations upon which everything else is built”.  – Carolyn Grant  

 

 

 

Key Takeaways:

  • In majority of cases the skills gap in leaders is exposing individuals, managers and leaders to both personal and organisational reputational and legal risk.

  • Leaders need to recognise when “organisational betrayal” exists within their organisation – as the levels of trust will be too low to successfully engage employees without external validation and supports.

  • The gaps in perception between leaders and frontline employees can significantly impact an organisation’s culture and effectiveness.

  • By addressing these gaps through improved communication, active listening, and fostering psychological safety leaders can bridge the divide and create a more engaged and productive workforce.

  • Recognising and mitigating these perception gaps is not just about improving performance but also about building a workplace where every employee feels valued and heard.

“Neuroscience is the foundation for the approach we bring to every engagement, and it provides a means for consistently making informed decisions that accelerate organisational performance and well-being”.  Carolyn Grant

Interested in Learning More?

Book a briefing on psychological safety today. Mitigate your greatest risk and drive high performing, thriving teams.