Have you ever wanted your team to take more initiative, be accountable, speak up, stay later, work harder, and produce better results? Are you tired of having to pick up the slack, and work harder to compensate for your team’s ineptitude? If so, you’re not alone. Linda, a physical therapist (PT) I hired to help me with nerve pain, shared openly about her frustration with “these lazy young professionals,” as she put it. 

“No one seems to want to work around here,” she said, with enough volume for all of her team members to hear. 

“Why do you think that is?” I inquired, selfishly hoping to offer ideas that might help her decrease turnover and increase accountability. I say “selfishly” because Linda was the first of thirteen PT’s in 18 months that seemed to know what was causing my nerve pain, and how to fix it. 

Within just a few sessions with Linda, my pain decreased. Then, when she passed me off to one of her team members, Kate, my progress slowed. Given Kate had trained with Linda for 15+ years, I was perplexed. Wanting to understand why Kate had less confidence and why Linda had troubles with retention and engagement, I started studying her company culture. 

What I found was a complex system laden with fear, thus a lack of psychological safety. Fear of public criticism, job loss, reputation damage, or gossip can prevent us from accessing our enthusiasm and delivering our best work. Enthusiasm, which is the birthplace of engagement, cannot live in fear-based cultures. Let me explain…

A Case Study in Ineptitude: The Psychological Impact on Employees

Three months into my treatment, Kate asked if I minded buying her some time for the neck traction machine to become available. “We can start traction in about an hour,” she said, “Do you mind getting your workout in here while you wait?”  I was happy to work out there… it’s right on the beach, with beautiful views of the water.   

Five minutes into my workout, Linda came up to me— “Misti,” she said, as others watched on, “This is a PT facility, not a gym. You are not welcome to work out here.” 

Embarrassed, my body tensed, and I defended myself – “Kate asked me to,” I said. 

“This is my facility, not hers. I own this place,” she said, as if ready for battle. 

I don’t battle. 

A few minutes later, Kate called me over to put me in traction. 

“I just got yelled at,” Kate shared with me as she prepared the machine. 

“Really, me too,” I said, struggling to calm my nerves enough to finish my treatment for the day. Once we were all set up, I reminded Kate to put the electrical stimulation pads on my forearms, which had been a helpful addition in my previous treatment. 

 “No,” she said, “it’s better that we not do that today… I don’t want Linda to yell anymore.” 

Yell anymore? I thought. What about my arms, and the reason I’m here? 

During my ten minutes in traction, I started understanding why Kate lacked confidence, and why Linda has, as Kate put it, “a revolving door” with her employees.

Lack of Psychological Safety Leads to Turnover

On the way out, I canceled my appointments for the following week, buying myself some time to think about what I was going to do. Surprised by my level of discomfort with staying or leaving, I suddenly understood why many employees stay even though they cannot thrive… they’re afraid they won’t find anything better. Instead of physically leaving their job, they leave all of their enthusiasm, confidence, creativity, and sense of ownership at the door.   

Rather than assume my hunches were right about why Linda fails to retain, or why Kate stays, even though her confidence is taking a hit every day that she’s faced with the potential of Linda’s wrath, I headed back in for two more sessions. 

Retained, but Not Engaged

“Why do you still work here?” I asked Kate, as she dug into the side of my neck, breaking up the muscle tissue that was constricting movement of my head.

“The grass isn’t always greener,” Kate said, and then she repeated a sentence I had heard Linda say several

times, “at least I’m not double or triple booked here, as some other PT’s are in this area. They don’t get any quality time with their clients.” 

Wow, I thought, Linda painted a terrible picture of how much worse her employees’ lives would be if they went elsewhere, scaring them into staying. This tactic clearly worked for Kate, but did it really work? 

Yes, and no. Yes, Kate stayed. And, no, Kate is not enthusiastic, engaged, or dedicated to excellence. She shows up, goes through the motions, and collects her paycheck, but she will not go above and beyond, get creative, or look for ways to bring more value to her work. If she did put herself out there, there’s always the potential of being publicly criticized or demeaned.

Moving Forward: Creating a Culture of Productivity With Accountability and Empowerment

Leaders who want to improve their team’s performance need to address the power dynamics that cause high turnover, low morale, and disengagement. Psychological safety and empowerment are critical to creating a productive and thriving workplace. Leaders should take a close look at their team’s culture and relationships and ask themselves the tough questions about why team members might be disengaged. By creating an environment where people feel respected, inspired, and can make decisions without fear of negative repercussions, leaders can inspire enthusiasm, growth, and loyalty. It’s time to move from a culture of ineptitude to one of initiative.

Here’s to your greatness,

Misti Burmeister

Misti Burmeister equips leaders and teams with skills and resources to empower and engage across generations. For nearly 20 years, she has facilitated communication that results in trust, increasing engagement and productivity across generations. Make sure your communication is coming across the way you intend, visit https://www.MistiBurmeister.com