Summer of 2023 will go down in history as “hot labor summer.” Many different kinds of workers went on strike, most notably the Writer’s Guild of America and Screen Actors Guild, who are still striking together for the first time in 60 years.

As we move towards fall (and the WGA and SAG are still on strike) I’ve been thinking about the relationship between basic needs, psychological safety, and the experiences of non-exempt employees in all kinds of industries, not just in Hollywood. I’ve been asking myself what leaders can do to break out of the bubble and turn their attention to the whole organization – not just their executive team or “management” employees.

Most executive teams are relatively unaware of the day-to-day problems in their organization. You might have heard before of the “Iceberg of Ignorance” – that famous image of the iceberg, with just a tiny bit above the water, and a whole lot of ice below the surface. It refers to a 1989 study by Sidney Yoshida, whose research showed that only 4% of organizational problems are known by executive leadership. This illustrates really clearly that most of the time, the people who know exactly what’s going on in organizations aren’t in the C-suite. They’re the front-line workers.

Why don’t front line workers share their frustrations and explain the biggest organizational problems to their management? One possible explanation could be a lack of psychological safety. Broadly, employees have psychological safety when they feel safe to make mistakes, provide feedback, and share new ideas without fear of being ridiculed. When I lead workshops on psychological safety, we’re primarily booked to speak to office employees and executive teams. But, in many organizations, I realize that we are just scratching the surface and I often express this to our clients.

I’ve asked workshop participants to reflect on the following question: when we talk about psychological safety, who is being forgotten? In answer to this question, I’ve had some leaders who have implied that non-exempt employees aren’t interested in psychological safety, referencing Maslow’s needs. It’s implied that they are just there to make ends meet, make money, and go home. But they are mistaken. My dad was a blue-collar worker and I know from personal experience that’s an absurd assumption. Yeah, there might be different motivations of coming to work but it doesn’t mean that basic needs are any different. Every person you talk to during your day – baristas, gas station attendants, postal workers – deserves to feel psychologically safe at work. It’s so important to think about this not just in a bubble, but from a whole-organization perspective.

Building whole-organization psychological safety means taking into account the knowledge, perspectives, and experiences of your employees (KPEs, as I like to call them). Every employee brings different knowledge, perspectives, and experiences to their role, and by sharing those unique KPEs they provide a diversity of ideas that can lead to better problem-solving and stronger teams. By becoming aware of the KPEs of all employees – not just the folks on the executive team or the folks in corporate – leaders cultivate a greater awareness of what’s going in the organization, better communication, and greater accountability. Believe it or not, it’s actually easier to hold people accountable when psychological safety is present. For more on that, check out my post on the relationship between psychological safety and accountability.

Bringing things full circle to the Hollywood strikes, it doesn’t feel like much of a coincidence that so many people who work in the entertainment industry have horror stories about a lack of psychological safety at work. Just one example: the Tonight Show and the Kelly Clarkson Show have both recently been called out for fostering toxic working environments, especially for non-exempt employees. But even in industries where psychological safety is more common, leaders need to do more to ensure that all employees feel safe at work. This is a core pillar of below the surface leadership. Below the surface leaders understand that whole-organization psychological safety helps retain and engage employees at all levels of the company, increases the flow of communication, and ultimately makes organizations stronger.

What are some things you could do to work on increasing psychological safety throughout your organization?

Check out these resources to learn more: