Psychological Safety in Cannabis: The Foundation for a Successful Workplace Culture & Talent Strategy

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We all know that culture matters in attracting and retaining top talent. As team cultures went remote in 2020, the conversation around what makes a great culture quickly shifted from perks like free food and ping-pong tables to conversations about creating more inclusive workplaces where everyone can thrive. This is especially true in industries experiencing rapid growth, like cannabis. In the early stages of a cannabis company, every employee holds a crucial role in the organization’s growth and success. This makes it even more important to intentionally create and sustain a culture that retains talent and keeps the talent pipeline full.

High turnover is disruptive to company health and business goals. Toxic cultures and burnout are now the top reasons people leave companies. Jason Desentz, Human Capital Managing Partner at FlowerHire, says, “Today’s work culture has shifted to one where employees seek ‘quality of life’ over standard of living.  They expect company cultures to focus on things like quality of the job with strong career development plans that provide each employee a clear pathway for success.” 

Mike Siebold, Advisor at FlowerHire says, “Cannabis requires flexibility, mobility, and utility. Not only are cannabis roles crucial but oftentimes a role that is typically handled by a team is handled by only a single or several individuals. Given this reality, it’s easy for the individuals to become overwhelmed, so it’s paramount that we see, hear, teach, and care for members of our community and promote a psychologically safe environment.”

Creating a sense of belonging on your team and fostering employee well-being are mission critical. Psychological safety is foundational to create a culture of well-being and belonging – a strong culture and healthy employee well-being significantly improves retention rates.

What is psychological safety and why is it important?

Psychological safety is a core attribute of the best cultures and the most effective teams. But the meaning has gotten watered-down over time as it became a buzzword that was tossed around in Linkedin posts and leadership webinars. So, let’s take a step back to understand what it really is. 

The term psychological safety has existed since the 1960s, but was popularized in the workplace in 1999 by Harvard Business School Professor Amy C. Edmondson when she began talking about psychological safety on teams. She defined psychological safety as a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking.” 

The concept later received a lot of attention from Project Aristotle, a 3-year study across 180 teams at Google, that showed psychological safety was the biggest factor in differentiating high performing teams from low performing teams. According to Edmondson’s later research, the benefits of psychological safety include the ability for teams to: 

  • Navigate disagreements
  • Increase innovation 
  • Increase accountability
  • Mitigate failure

A team that’s psychologically safe promotes a safe space for collaboration and risk taking. However, it’s important to note that you must FIRST create a team that does not allow space for harm. This requires companies to have a work environment that is physically safe – free from any type of abuse and harassment – and equitable in its practices such as hiring and compensation. If you want to create a culture of belonging and well-being, you must also proactively review your company’s practices to ensure equity across racial, sexual, ethnocentric, ableist, nationalistic, class, and cross-cultural groups among others.

How to create a workplace environment that has psychological safety in the cannabis industry

When employees feel psychologically safe, they bring their best ideas forward and are more available to learn and experiment which continuously improves business performance. It creates a sense of belonging and employee well-being which is critical for accelerating business results. To achieve this, leaders must take an honest look at their company’s cultural environment to evaluate whether it promotes psychological safety. Here’s how:

Start with psychologically safe values

Creating any type of cultural environment in a company always begins with the company’s values. Those that are attracted to careers in the cannabis industry are often purpose-driven and highly value inclusivity & authenticity of expression. 

“Cannabis is a vivid culture on the macro scale, but surprisingly can often be absent on the micro. The kind of mindsets and skill sets that are pervasive in cannabis, and the extraordinary array of personalities, are exceptional and focused on growth,” shares Mike Siebold.

Company values should support employee well-being and create a sense of inclusion. Values such as respect, transparency, and accountability set the tone for a culture of belonging and a psychologically safe environment.

Integrate your values into your daily operations

Company “culture” is simply the shared values, beliefs, and assumptions that play out in norms and rituals – both formal and informal. Early in a company, culture can form and exist somewhat organically, but as you scale your business, you have to intentionally scale your culture. Having norms and rituals that support your values creates a system to ensure you are “executing” your culture consistently as you grow. 

At Flowerhire, the four core values (Community, Authenticity, Gratitude, Execution) are supported with a team norm of celebrating company values. Flowerhire has a ritual called the “Values Shoutout” to support this very important element of the company’s culture. During each weekly team meeting, the team goes around the (virtual) room and recognizes individuals who demonstrated the company values the previous week. This keeps their values integrated into their daily operations and provides concrete examples so that others can do the same. For example, two employees were recently recognized for sharing about their fatherhood journeys, encouraging others to share more of themselves at work and living the core Flowerhire value of Authenticity. “Culture is our strategy,” says Mike Siebold.

Here are a few other examples of core values and a team ritual that supports a psychologically safe environment:

  • Learning – Learning could be supported by holding a retrospective meeting at the end of every major project to capture what worked well or could be improved. 
  • Courage – Courage could be supported by recognizing and rewarding an individual each quarter who took a risk or spoke up about a challenge, regardless of the outcome.  
  • Inclusion – Inclusion could be supported by a “share the air” practice, appointing a person in each meeting to monitor who is speaking and ensure those that have not had the opportunity to speak up get a chance to do so.  

Role-modeling psychologically safe behavior at all levels of cannabis leadership

It’s often said that “leaders go first” which is particularly true when creating psychological safety within a team. A McKinsey Global Survey conducted during the pandemic showed a majority of business leaders were not able to create a team climate that can drive psychological safety in their workforce. Leaders must set the tone for a positive team climate by role modeling key behaviors. Here are a few important steps leaders can take:

Build trust by demonstrating vulnerability

For a team to have psychological safety, there must be a high level of trust. To build trust, the team members must be willing to demonstrate vulnerability. When leaders role model that vulnerability first, it opens the door for the team to follow without fear of judgment. As a leader, it’s important to be willing to admit and show your team that you don’t always have all of the answers.

Proactively invite feedback or opposing ideas

Remember that hierarchy plays a role in psychological safety, and challenging up can feel, well… challenging. As a leader, be proactive about asking for feedback, ideas, and challenges. The team may not offer it unless invited. Over time, as this behavior becomes normalized, your team will feel more comfortable providing thoughtful feedback and challenging ideas from leadership on their own. 

Challenge your own biases and adopt a growth mindset

Unconscious biases are part of being human. However, managers must be able to recognize when biases hold themselves and their teams back. Consider where you might be “filling in gaps” with assumptions instead of fully understanding employees and business challenges. 

To adopt a growth mindset, consider how you handle mistakes and failures. Do you penalize your employees for making mistakes, or do you turn them into a learning opportunity? How often do you create time and space for reflection for yourself, your people, and before and after important projects? Approaching your business priorities with a growth mindset by embracing learning and creating time for reflection can open up new ways of working and problem solving. 

Involve employees in creating psychologically safe environments

It’s crucial that team members contribute to the creation of a psychologically safe environment. Get the team involved in choosing values, norms, social rituals, and leadership behaviors. 

Mike Siebold says, “It must be acknowledged that the game and the rules that govern cannabis constantly change. The real opportunity is working alongside team members with whatever ideas come from one another.” 

The reality is that there are many work teams where people don’t feel heard or safe to speak up, and this can happen even on teams where the leader is open to feedback or challenges. Here’s how to help team members to feel safe:

Prioritize relationship building and trust

Human instincts sometimes get in the way of us taking risks, even in what may seem like a basic workplace scenario. Human brains can often perceive an interpersonal risk as a real, physical risk, activating the nervous system and signaling to us that it’s dangerous to proceed. 

Building meaningful social relationships among team members helps to mitigate this “interpersonal risk”. The team should have opportunities to get to know each other personally and facilitate spaces where vulnerable conversations can happen. A workshop or facilitator can help lessen the impact of any existing biases in the group becoming a barrier to group vulnerability. 

Create opportunities for your people to share their needs

In her work, Edmondson also discusses “image risk” – the concern of being seen as ignorant, incompetent, negative, or disruptive – as a key reason that people don’t speak up. 

Investing in self-awareness building activities and having conversations about what motivates or challenges each team member fosters better collaboration. They learn what fuels them and what they need to thrive. As a result, you have a team who can more confidently advocate for their own needs when faced with challenges to their well-being or important business problems. 

Invest in skill building for communication and navigating conflict

The importance of building communication skills cannot be understated, and an emotionally intelligent team is required for effective communication.

Improving self-awareness and social awareness helps individuals develop tools to self-regulate. This helps teams explore disagreements, navigate tension, and productively manage conflict in its early stages. This gives managers more time to work on strategic business planning. Leveraging a personality assessment, working with a coach, or investing in training on communication styles can be great places to start building your team’s emotional intelligence and communication skills. 

Create a cannabis workplace with psychological safety

By creating the right environment, role-modeling behaviors, and improving each individual’s ability to bring their best to the table, you can build psychological safety in your organization. Your business will benefit from more innovative ideas, accelerated growth, and a sense of collective accountability. And, most importantly, you’ll be able to attract and retain top talent while creating a workplace where employees can grow and thrive. Employees will want to grow with you, and support your internal mobility.

Jason Desentz says, “Great companies always reinvent themselves every generation as the workforce culture changes. Cannabis companies have a real chance for success with the new work environment and implement real tangible workplace processes that truly provide, this current generation, a quality work career experience.” 

 

Reach out to FlowerHire to hire leadership that values psychological safety.

Author:

Sandhya Sudhakar is a trauma-informed executive coach and Enneagram practitioner, who specializes in leveraging personality insights for emotional intelligence, leadership development, and creating team cohesion through trust building and effective communication. She built her career as a leader in commercial strategy and management before pursuing an education in organizational change and people strategy. She started her company, Self At Work (www.yourselfatwork.com), to help leaders create inclusive cultures where everyone can thrive and bring their fullest, best selves to work. Self At Work’s team coaching helps high-growth teams implement practical systems that empower each individual to feel valued, included, and engaged in their work.


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