‘Creating psychologically informed conditions for employee growth and culture change…’
29.09.2023: As I sit down to write this PIE blog, as the Head of Psychologically Informed Environments (PIE) at the national youth homeless charity — Centrepoint, I have been reflecting on the work the PIE team are undertaking with staff within the organisation. Aside from the significant focus on relationship building that is the heart of any PIE in the homeless sector, two other key ingredients involve direct work with staff, particularly ‘frontline staff’ (i.e. those that have direct contact with the homeless young people we support across our various housing and support services). Namely, staff training and staff reflective practice spaces (c.f. Keats et al, 2012; PIE Good Practice Guide; Westminster Council, 2015; PIE Guide). Therefore, it is critical to offer a varied psychologically informed staff training programme (c.f. previous PIE blog here: https://drhelenmiles.medium.com/the-value-of-developing-our-skills-and-knowledge-through-training-within-a-psychologically-661add9fe2b3) as well as regular reflective practice as resources in our team allow (c.f. previous PIE blog here: https://drhelenmiles.medium.com/reflecting-on-reflective-practice-in-a-psychologically-informed-environment-9d3d3c4ed160). Both staff training and reflective practice are important PIE ways of developing our staff to ‘grow’ in their roles and result in better outcomes for them (i.e. less burnout / attrition and increased satisfaction / performance) as well as for the homeless young people they support.
However, as Centrepoint has been undertaking its PIE journey as an organisation, I have also been contributing to the wider ‘People Strategy’ within the organisation. For example, this has involved work around equality and inclusion (c.f. previous PIE blogs here: https://drhelenmiles.medium.com/what-does-inclusion-mean-in-practice-reflections-from-the-pie-team-for-national-inclusion-week-24a0aecaffde and here: https://drhelenmiles.medium.com/are-we-inclusive-a-psychologically-informed-perspective-on-national-inclusion-week-bfc0a3063519) as well as work around staff well-being (c.f. see previous PIE blog here: https://drhelenmiles.medium.com/an-approach-to-supporting-staff-well-being-in-a-psychologically-informed-environment-pie-d1c8471d48dc). Moving forward, I am keen to continue this close working with the People / HR team, as I believe that there is more to be done to ensure that we are creating psychologically informed employee growth and wider culture change.
Those readers of this PIE blog that know me in real life, know that I am a massive fan of nature and plants, and consequently my house and garden are full of them! I am however not the most ‘green fingered’ individual, so I would not say that they are all flourishing as I am an ‘aspirational’ gardener rather than a successful one! Nevertheless, I persist because I appreciate the value that nature has upon our mental health (c.f. previous PIE blog here: https://drhelenmiles.medium.com/being-at-one-with-nature-reflections-on-the-importance-of-nature-upon-our-psychological-7b7eb0d177aa). However, one thing I have learnt about plants, which is beautifully illustrated in the picture at the start of this blog, is that different plants grow in different ways, at different rates and in different directions. What they all have in common is that they need light, water and nutrients.
I do not think humans are necessarily so different. None of us are the same as each other. We also all ‘grow’ in different ways particularly within our employment role. Some of us come to this role with academic qualifications, which we may have obtained in a fairly straightforward pathway from school to college to university etc. Others of us come to our roles having gained academic qualifications later in life, having perhaps had to overcome challenges or barriers to study first. Others of us come with practical or vocational qualifications or even ‘lived experience’ that allows us to undertake our current role. In other words, our ‘growth’ to be the person we are now working at Centrepoint or any other homeless sector organisation, may be varied and different — even between two people undertaking similar roles within the organisation.
Moreover, some of us ‘grow’ further in our roles at a different rate to others. Maybe we have specific learning or neurodiversity issues that mean ‘reasonable adjustments’ need to be made to help us to grow further. Perhaps some of us grow quickly at certain times of the year or within certain roles or projects, but might not grow so fast at other times or within other aspects of our role. The reasons for this may be linked to a variety of psychological factors such as motivation, interests, support from our teams or managers, or personal challenges we might be facing outside of work. Perhaps we might even grow in different directions from our colleagues when we might start in one role but then change direction and grow differently, may be if we are given opportunities for secondments or further professional development. Nevertheless, in a psychologically informed culture, all types of ‘growth’ are encouraged and supported, and most importantly, if we are not growing any longer — we are given the opportunity to reflect upon why this is with our managers and what can be done about it.
So what helps ‘growth’ in a psychologically informed culture? There are many individual and systemic factors that influence employee growth that have been identified by psychologists but to keep this blog PIE focused, I am going to explore further those that are related to what PIE can bring to the ‘party’. Going back to our plant analogy, we know that all plants need water. For people, this can mean ensuring that we are meeting the basic needs of staff. At Centrepoint, I have begun discussing with our Head of People about how we can take a more ‘employee centric’ focus. This means ensuring that there is appropriate workforce and resource planning, enabling staff to feel that they have the time, space and ‘things’ they need to perform well in their job. It sounds so simple, but as I noted in a previous PIE blog on staff well-being at work (c.f. https://drhelenmiles.medium.com/what-do-we-need-a-psychologically-informed-approach-to-our-well-being-at-work-65b347b8b862), if we don’t get the ‘basics’ right for our staff, then we will not have high performance across our teams.
Moreover, we need to ensure that whenever an employee has a ‘touch point’ with the organisation (i.e. recruitment, induction, probation, supervision, appraisals, grievances, sickness etc.) that their experience is psychologically informed and positive. Do they have the psychologically informed support that they need to ‘grow’ throughout their time with the organisation? If something starts to halt this growth, can we fix it quickly? Since I joined Centrepoint, I am really pleased that our offer to staff in terms of healthcare and remuneration has improved, which is an important first step. The PIE team have also made positive changes to supervision and appraisal processes, but arguably there is still more work to be done in this area, and I look forward to working with my colleagues in the People team further in the future. Of course, conflict and challenges within teams are to be expected (after all we are all human and none of us are perfect!) and work in the homeless sector can be difficult, messy and hard at times, especially on the ‘frontline’. Therefore, these issues are not necessarily the sign of a ‘toxic culture’. Instead, it is how these are addressed and managed that define whether a culture is positive or psychologically informed (i.e. do we use meditation, restorative approaches, give opportunities to ‘nip issues in the bud’ quickly before they become more significant etc.)?
Being employee centric in a PIE, also means ‘co-production’. In other words listening to our staff and what they actually want and need, and then (arguably most importantly) acting on this feedback as much as possible and reporting this back (i.e. ‘you said, we did’). When decisions feel imposed upon you (and perhaps you believe are even against your best interests or those you support), the culture of an organisation can feel dictatorial and psychologically unsafe. When you feel psychologically unsafe, then you stop speaking out, become less motivated and may leave your job as soon as you can. Conversely, when you feel you are heard, your experience and expertise is valued, and even if not everything works exactly how you want it because of something that cannot be changed, it is easier to manage the associated frustration. Part of creating a PIE culture is therefore reflecting on how we do ‘co-production’, how we create psychological safety (c.f. see previous PIE blog here: https://drhelenmiles.medium.com/do-you-feel-safe-a6f17f92acb7) and how our leadership can be psychologically informed (c.f. see previous PIE blog here: https://drhelenmiles.medium.com/psychologically-informed-leadership-in-a-post-covid-19-world-a7738dc8c0ab).
Plants (and humans) also need light for ‘growth’. Sometimes in the reactive and often crises driven homeless sector, we can feel like we are running around operating in the ‘dark’. A PIE culture is one that is full of ‘light’. We can see the bigger picture and work not just in our own service or directorate, but wherever we are needed. We can share good practice across teams, and have space to think about what we are doing and how we can do it better, and we have business empathy for other teams within the organisation. The PIE ‘ingredient’ that helps to create this ‘light’ is of course having space for reflective practice, which can bring teams or groups of staff together in psychologically safe, respectful and confidential spaces. Reflective practice allow us to be able to ‘stop and think’ about what we are doing, why we are doing it and whether this is the best way of doing it in the future (Homeless Link, 2017). As the wider world and the homeless sector landscape changes, a psychologically informed culture is one that allows us to respond to these changes. Therefore, the next challenge for our PIE team at Centrepoint is to ensure we have sufficient resources to enable every staff member in the organisation to have access to reflective spaces (i.e. not just our ‘frontline’ teams but also our ‘support’ teams — those that fulfil important and vital functions such as finance, fundraising and policy / communications but may not directly work with homeless young people).
Furthermore, another ‘ingredient’ of a PIE (i.e. evidence and data-driven decision making), can also be part of what helps us to grow, by shedding ‘light’ on challenges with facts rather than assumption or opinion. We need to ensure that we collect accurate data and information within the organisation so that this can be utilised to inform our decision making, and it therefore clear why we are doing X and not Y, or why we need to change A to B, and whether any of this is ultimately helpful in ensuring that we enable homeless young people in the UK to achieve a ‘home and a job’ and #EndYouthHomelessness in the future. For further information on why data and research matters in a psychologically informed culture, see the previous PIE blog here: https://drhelenmiles.medium.com/not-just-numbers-why-data-and-research-matters-in-a-psychologically-informed-environment-db7da280ecd2, although do also see the previous PIE blog here on why this is actually challenging in the homeless sector: https://drhelenmiles.medium.com/measuring-positive-changes-in-a-psychologically-informed-environment-is-a-successful-outcome-9c0ddc62809
Finally, we know that plants need a steady supply of nutrients as these help a plant to ‘grow’ rather like food does for humans. In a psychologically informed culture of growth, this is where investment in staff in terms of ongoing training is key. As noted above at the start of this blog, a large part of our PIE work to date has been setting up a PIE training programme for staff, as well as inputting into the wider Centrepoint training programme from a PIE perspective (e.g. Modular Development Programme: MDP for Managers). This work is ongoing, and we will continue to add to, modify and reflect on the PIE training programme to ensure that it meets the needs of all the employees within the organisation. However, when I reflect on whether training alone is enough to nurture and develop staff, of course it is not. We need to be proactive in identifying, nurturing and supporting talent within our teams, encouraging a culture of continuous professional development. How can staff progress or build on their skills to move into new or more senior roles? Without such a focus, we will always be at risk of losing the best staff as they move on to work for other organisations that do recognise their talents and skills.
Of course, growing a psychologically informed culture is not just the responsibility of the People or the PIE team, so whilst we are working together to consider further some of the reflections noted above, it is also the responsibility of everyone within an organisation to create a positive or psychologically informed culture that encourages ‘growth’. For those managers, both internal to Centrepoint or external in other organisations reading this PIE blog, perhaps take a moment to consider what you are doing within your own teams to support their ‘growth’ and what else you might need to do? Those working in teams, how are you supporting not only your own growth (i.e. are you taking the opportunity for training and reflective practice when available?) but also the growth of your colleagues, and what else might you need to do?
For example, other things that help create a psychologically informed culture can include how we communicate with others and the importance of ‘soft skills’ (c.f. see previous PIE blogs on these topics here: https://drhelenmiles.medium.com/he-said-she-said-creating-psychologically-informed-communication-to-build-positive-5b80e9c9a3e6 and here: https://drhelenmiles.medium.com/soft-skills-or-psychologically-informed-skills-why-are-these-important-in-a-pie-7cf5b9a15515). Therefore, as noted at the start of this PIE blog, we know that everyone grows in different directions but if we, like plants, get what we need then we will ‘grow’. Consequently, I look forward to continuing further conversations and actions over the coming months about all aspects of what makes a psychologically informed culture as Centrepoint continues to ‘grow’ on its PIE journey…