“I Was Given Three Marks and Told to Buy a Porsche”—Supervisors’ Experiences of Leading Psychosocial Safety Climate and Team Psychological Safety in a Remote Academic Setting
Leading Psychological Safety during Enforced Remote Work
2.2. Data Collection
2.3. Ethical Considerations
2.4. Data Analysis
3.1. Supportive and Challenging Aspects of Leading Psychological Safety and Well-Being
3.1.1. Supportive Leadership Practices for Enhancing Psychological Safety in the Remote Working Context
On Monday mornings, we’ve had a meeting half past eight, sort of such that the week gets started off well, and very informal so we’re definitely not presenting any results or such, more like if someone has something on their mind or something good to tell others, - - (so) that people meet with each other and remember who [laughing], who we’re working with.
It has indeed required more initiative from the supervisor, which is perhaps difficult for me, since I’m really quite an introverted type. But simply so that I have put it into my calendar and I’ve called the employees, asking how everything is and how they are doing. - - some are such that they don’t get in touch themselves and they are there in the meetings but if they come, at least they have their cameras off and they don’t say anything. In a way it’s really easy to become marginalized and to fall behind. Because of that these kinds of personal calls have been important, so that you see how people are.
In my opinion, you need to think much more closely about what you are doing and what the aim of those encounters is.
Trust in-, that everyone sort of knows their own goal, but the journey there is for everyone to define-, or they get to affect how they do things or reach goals, and so somehow it has brought us that mental safety perhaps the most, that everyone is important, everyone is a valued employee and everyone’s view, it is like everyone is the best expert regarding their own job, that has sort of brought it to us the most.
As to that psychological safety, apparently, I am very permissive [laughing], like in my opinion people are allowed to and even should make mistakes because they are perhaps also one way to learn. As a matter of fact, we have a fair number of those Erasmus students, they are in their third or fourth year, and especially those coming from southern European countries have been thanking me for being allowed to make mistakes over here [with a laugh]. - - I always say that we are learning together here, I do not have those ready-made answers.
Such that when we’ve got to finish some job, for example an article published, it has been brought up and highlighted, like hey this hero has got this kind of a thing done now, and then in our Slack forum everyone congratulates and so on. - - (gathering and having a glass of sparkling wine) has been dropped or replaced by these kinds of celebrations on Slack or something like that.
When I’m able to reset the situation when I get vexed, it helps me, - - I hope that, all of our employees need to have that kind of steam valve, that they can let out whatever is bugging them about me. They can say it to me directly too and some have, too, and it’s terribly fruitful. And I can’t say that I wouldn’t be offended sometimes, but I can take it just fine.
I suppose there are many things like, starting from the angles of one’s own well-being and coping, like how you separate work and free time yourself, and how you’re able to disengage, because currently I notice it clearly that I am genuinely very, very tired, and it affects resilience and many sorts of things then in your life. It is perhaps again one of those basic lessons, take care of yourself first before you take care of others.
Communicating that too, that we have the right, and in fact a duty too, to reserve those breaks there within the working day. Especially sitting here at home, it is so much easier to immerse oneself in front of the computer, when you don’t have that person next to you saying hey, should we go and have lunch. And then I’ve tried to be a bit of an example myself in that too, having booked those lunch breaks.
I think that it has had an effect too that I say out loud that hey, I don’t idealize you working in the evenings and I don’t expect it, and I don’t think that it’s reasonable to try to do too much.
3.1.2. Challenges in Leading Psychological Safety and Well-Being Remotely
When I see those people here, I can already tell based on their body language if they are doing well or not. - - You can tell based on the expression, but then, with the email only, I send a message asking how they’re doing. Then everyone’s going to be like yeah, everything’s going alright. - - But for example, if one of my subordinates had a drinking problem, it’s usually the kind that you don’t easily bring up. Usually it comes out a little too late since people try to hide it. And if we think, having worked about a year remotely, for example. Frankly, they could be even shooting heroine there if -, if you have for example that one hour-long meeting per week, of course you can prep yourself for it. - - So you’ll be able to be quite sharp and it works just fine. Compared to meeting live every day, it doesn’t show. So in my opinion it’s completely unrealistic that you could, especially this idea of early intervening, which is discussed a lot at the university. In my opinion, remotely, if not impossible, it is at least very hard.
One gets a rather erroneous impression that everything seems to be rolling along awfully well. We have all the equipment we need, and the capabilities required for them, it works well. On the average very well indeed, but then when you finally get to the top of it, the experience of loneliness for some has actually been quite rough.
But I have to say that for me it came as a surprise in one meeting that they started crying and such. And I had no idea that we were in such a bad situation. So that is maybe a good example of how you may answer by email and say yeah, doing okay, no problem. Doing work here, going well.
I kind of still constantly struggle with it a bit, if I have been in contact with people enough, although we have been in touch and so, but… and I have contacted people on a low threshold and organized meetings and called and such but somehow it always makes you wonder, was it now -, how has this been with them, did they feel left alone at some point or how has it been and for that I don’t really have an answer.
- - now during the pandemic I need to schedule a Zoom meeting six days away where I can see this person, and even then I somehow don’t get an honest picture, because the message is mediated like this, the kind of understanding that happens within a work community, it disappeared. And of course we set up all kinds of Zoom coffee meetings and such, but they’re not the same. So to some extent it feels like people have been working more efficiently, because they’ve been able to concentrate, but it has happened at the expense of the work community and at the expense of their own well-being.
We are also all, or this whole gang, quite performance-oriented, we take care of it and we’re efficient and then no one has the energy for the chitchat, it just doesn’t happen remotely like this which on the one hand is good but bad on the other. - - This is more like we have this agenda, let’s get this done.
The certain kind of informal being together, it’s missing. Somehow, I don’t know how to create it. Maybe it would require more of those one-on-one encounters where somehow one should dare to put oneself out there more too. But in a certain way that trust, and the sense of relatedness among that group is built on, the kind of, not taking care of work-related things, but all the small things that would happen if we’d go for coffee together and chat about this and that together.
Well, I would probably most need time. I mean, that I would also have time for stopping by at someone’s door when I come to work and ask how they’re doing and such. - - in a certain way it is creditable that we have training for this and that and for all kinds of things. But there is such an enormous amount of it, that if I really went to all of them, I wouldn’t have time for anything else anymore. - - in addition to just being trained to psychological well-being and such, in my opinion we should also have time to talk, because I find that it’s important. Time for the practical part specifically. That you treasure it with some kinds of actions, for example if it is possible sometime, to go for pizza together with everyone. All kinds of things, like let’s go exercise out of doors, let’s do something like this.
Even though I’m terribly busy, one can be in touch. - - then I quickly write it down on a post-it because I don’t remember anything since I have so much going on, and I’ve said that I have such a tough deadline on, I need to get this done, but why don’t I call you tomorrow. Then I’ve called the next day and we’ve had space to go through that issue calmly. I’ve made that space and ditched some other duties, said that I won’t come to this one if that’s been the only way to get that space, - - My own well-being is a little, on the risky side [with a laugh]. I have way too many working hours.
But this remote work, whether you’re a supervisor or not, it requires a lot of self-leadership skills from all of us, on a whole different level than working at the workplace. And in my opinion for that maybe there is not enough wakening the people up to how each of us would self-improve. Because whether you’re a supervisor or a team member, it requires self-leadership skills just the same. And it requires, it is also on everyone’s responsibility to bring things up. So it also requires courage and skills too in how to drive this forward.
3.2. Supportive and Challenging Aspects of Organizational Psychosocial Safety Climate Leadership
3.2.1. Perceived Organizational Support for Psychosocial Safety Climate and Well-Being
Over here [information removed for purposes of anonymization] things are pretty much OK for us, I have a pretty straight line both to occupational health care, we have this chat that I can reach instantly on my cell phone, for example, and we also have an occupational well-being unit and from them I receive (help) immediately, I have been in touch with them.—so there are quite good ones (means of support). Now currently I am also taking part in leadership training, so I have peer support as well, so I have a pretty good situation and then we also have our own group here (within the team).
Yeah, and our current deans are pretty interested, which has helped a lot, for example they have, without any specific request, written blogs on well-being related topics - - It is quite something.
And then of course the rectors and the vice rectors visit different departments regularly. Occupational health care as well, so people are given opportunities for that (to be heard).
I can’t tell how it is in the eyes of a regular employee, but at least I as a supervisor experience that I get to go to these, I get to talk with the rector one on one every now and then, which is also a rather big change to what it used to be like sometime earlier.
That the director always said directly that hey, during daytime, go for a walk after lunch or take the dog out during the day, these kinds of concrete things, that this is okay and you’re allowed. It was really important, because then I could repeat it (to my team), that for real, each one of us, we can do this and let’s remember these breaks and the part of well-being, we get the same pay whether we sweat our guts out or not, and taking the breaks is more important than you might think.
Now there are good structures and it has been invested in, like I said, I have been a part of these things for something like 12 years, a lot of effort has been put into them and they are very easily available (referring to well-being-related support).
3.2.2. Organizational Practices Perceived as Hindrances to Psychosocial Safety Climate and Well-Being
A lot of talk and few actions. Unfortunately, it does seem a bit as if it remains at the level of ceremonial talk.
I would think that there is interest in these things and that people are listened to. So I don’t take a negative stand on it. But, maybe I do in the sense that the priorities of that area have not so far been very high.
In my view the university has the will and the way to take care of the employees’ psychological safety and well-being, but it’s a question of resources. If we have completely overburdened people in their jobs, it doesn’t help that they’re offered maybe slightly better pay or something else, you can’t buy more resources from an employee with money, instead there’s two ways: hire more people or reduce the duties. There is no other solution.
We were gravely under resourced, that [information removed for purposes of anonymization] sector, because there was an intense wrangle at the level of university management between different sectors on who gets what and how to share scarcity. As soon as it was possible, I discussed with the faculty management that we need to get a new person here, or else there is a risk of the other [information removed for purposes of anonymization] specialist leaving, or they get burnt out, two options. Either they leave or burn out.
I had it really challenging -, the situation within the team was, let’s say that the situation is still like I’ve been given three marks and told to buy a Porsche. And when I ask which parts of the Porsche I should leave at the garage since I can’t buy them all, I’ve been told oh no, those and the luxury version too, and I’m like, right.
But in the last organizational reform that was carried out, people got very little say. Our gang was put through the wringer. It was really rough, if I think about my own old team, there were people who were really unwell. They were downright ill. I did a lot of work to get them fit for work, and at first to a zero level so that you don’t need to be positive, but so that you wouldn’t be pissed off about it all the time, frankly. There were some really tough experiences. - - then someone said to us that you’d need some kind of debriefing, I said yes we really would, but there’s no time for that. As a supervisor I did what I could. - - Then we were sent to [laughing] to some kind of in-service training and it was pretty ridiculous. I tried to keep [laughing] a straight face and not to laugh or cry, when, really, we would have needed mental resources of a very different kind and that we would be listened to. It was downright dismal, that last reform.
I don’t really know if there’s anything that hasn’t changed.
It took months before anyone even agreed to listen, - - that’s the impression that I got, that at the level of faculty management and higher they thought that the teaching personnel was just being difficult, they were being obstructive and were unwilling to learn a new system, or that this was resistance to change, or something like that. So it is very difficult, if the only way to be heard in a meeting like this is to have people on sick leave, and you need to talk like holding back your tears there, that is the way to be heard.
That kind of dishonesty of that jargon where you try to embellish certain things and you say that these are not problems these are challenges, these are positive opportunities for growth, - - it is really damned disrespectful of the university management to use that kind of language when they are trying to carry out a reform or more broadly in leading that organization - -. It alienates and feels arrogant and like primitive use of power where you systematically underestimate that community consisting of experts, whether they are researchers or administrative personnel they are all very highly trained experts, and then they are led in this kind of supercilious manner. - - it is completely useless to come and talk to people about their anxiety or what kinds of feelings they are having if you don’t come across as sincere. If you don’t seem like you actually care what the situation is, if you don’t care people are not going to tell you anything, they don’t put themselves on the line if you obviously haven’t put yourself on the line.
- - in the university, where, after all, the output is people’s knowledge capital, creativity, courage, enthusiasm and motivation, so the goal of the leadership should be that it doesn’t die, that it stays and there’s honor and people dare to take more risks - - How it’s done, leading people and engaging them and cultivating those prerequisites; in my opinion there’s really a lot to do, we should somehow get rid of this kind of managerial, finances-driven, indicator-driven conversation - - we should take care of that motivation and enthusiasm staying there. Now that there’s so much of that malaise in our university as well, I think it’s precisely because we have failed in that leadership. All that kind of ceremonial talk that remains at the level of talk and if the actions don’t match with it, it is very unmotivating. And building an atmosphere of trust, or destroying it, which happens very fast, it is very, very important.
- - if the mainstream culture were in accordance as well, - - it would be that organization’s way of functioning for real and not just in some ceremonial talk, in some slide set. That would of course be the biggest thing one could get. Otherwise you have to, there are some micro environments where there are different rules that apply than around it and it is always arduous and with what means do you set yourself against the mainstream culture - - that kind of clear support, that I notice what you’re doing and it’s really good that you do it, do keep doing it and tell me if you need anything—kind of signal is quite significant.
So as I said, I feel that at the immediate (leadership) level things are working very well, it’s just that there’s no support coming from the university management, on the contrary, they throw a spanner in the works.
Well, my most important function, as this term has already been used about these conversations, is to be a shit umbrella. The greatest threat to well-being comes from above, there’s all sorts of things leaking from there, and often they come like this needs to be ready in three days, and I try to filter them as best I can, so that that kind of endless interruption, endless bureaucratic waste of time would only be off my plate. So in my opinion a supervisor’s most central role is to enable success for their subordinates, and in our organization it means getting resources and protecting from things from above, that is sort of the absolutely most important role.
3.3. Support for Working as a Supervisor
At our workplace too, somehow my own supervisor’s support, there hasn’t really been any. - - I would have needed it at those times a bit, that they would have asked sometimes. You know, that someone had ever asked me how I was holding up.
Well of course that kind of support from above, that someone would support me in this supervisory work, it is virtually nonexistent [with a laugh]. Unfortunately. This middle management is quite an unfortunate level in that sense.
I would say that there is not so much follow-up or encouragement that hey, do remember these things in your teams, that it is more like we are left quite alone, I don’t know if I just haven’t read some memos that I should have read, or I don’t know. - - So it’s assumed that we probably will notice this issue from all of that mass of messages, this part of well-being, like that.
If the supervisors’ training is left up to their own initiative, then I would argue that quite many of the supervisors don’t actively find their ways to any info meetings or trainings. There should probably be more precise announcements, that there’s this kind of event or training happening, that you are asked to participate.
I mean yes at least at the strategic level and at the level of training offerings and if I think about the mail for supervisors that we receive, things are very well and if I think about corona and leadership I was very pleased with it - - But maybe I think that the challenge is how people receive it. Since it comes by email or yeah, you can find it on the intranet. Hey, check out these training offerings, and when your work is like, khh khh khh (making a busy sound), schedule all the time and you run, you never get to finish that week’s work. So in my opinion the challenge is for people to get it that it’s necessary to invest in this, when you’re like, I, I can’t. - - for example in some [information removed for purposes of anonymization] system, you’re simply ordered, simply ordered, there they view it so that it is such an important issue, that now you know you’re going to this one. Sort of softly ordered, but in a way they clear a space for it there - - maybe over here there’s no such understanding that when you get into a supervisory position, you kind of need a driving license for it.
At some point I thought that it would be nice to go and have some kind of counseling (for the supervisory work) - - I don’t have time for such a thing. - - Lack of time is predominantly the reason why. Too much work.
3.4. Characteristics Specific to Working in Academia
But in my opinion, no research is a nine-till five kind of a job. I think that we’re more like some kind of damned top athletes, you know, that we should be the first ones to publish in the world. And then we have the Academy (of Finland) funding battles that we should succeed in. And if I as a group leader prepare an application for the Academy, the number of working hours is pretty substantial. And where you take it from, for most, you take it from your free time, because the day is already quite burdened. - - And then if I think about, say, Iivo Niskanen (Finnish athlete), some skier, they’re not either like, oh, it’s 15.45, I will pack my skis now, I’m not training anymore. So in a way, you kind of have to do it, and there will be those pressure peaks too. There will be manuscripts and you’ll have a couple days to comment or something. And they are the kind that you’re never able to schedule them. They simply come when they come. - - So in that sense this is a very peculiar place to work, and this certain aspect, I don’t know if our construction workers, if they had to apply for money first so that they get to start building a house, it might not work.
It is though, in the academia, always that sort of balancing act, how close you are to burnout, are you a bit closer or a bit further away.
The recruiting system in academia where you advance according to your academic merits into a position and after this it is assumed that these people would be capable supervisors, in reality they have been successful researchers, and a researcher’s job is clearly quite different from working as a supervisor, and in this case one might have, for example, utterly wretched social skills, and no background for it, leadership-related or even understanding of why it would be necessary.
- - traditionally it has been that someone is obliged to become a supervisor, but now there’s investment in it and someone might even want to take that position, so that is changing.
And then if you think about all the things that you are responsible for as an immediate supervisor. I am responsible for all the finances of my research projects, human resources, health and safety at work, exposure issues. - - And then they always say, this will only take, a new piece of work, it’ll take ten minutes. And if I ever get to talk to the university management, I’ll take the picture of Gulliver from my children’s book when he’s down and those Lilliputians’ ropes are there (holding him down). So it is just the same for myself, nothing takes a long time, but when you have enough of those things. Then you don’t have time to do them properly.
From an organizational point of view, universities are rather fragmented in that they consist of many dissimilar units with differing characteristics and needs. Many participants pointed out that it was hard to lead such an organization or find ways that would work well for all concerned. There also seemed to be high appreciation for autonomy of the units to do what worked best for them. This definitely has its advantages, but the flip side may be the haphazard nature of leadership practices—if unified policies are lacking, the reality may vary from outstanding to poor and everything in between.- - that there’d be a shared experience for everyone that works here that you are genuinely cared for, I think that it is probably more challenging than in some enterprise. Simply due to the fact that at the university, people are committed to different kinds of things, you are committed to a research group or your field or the students or something, but few people are working there because of that institution. So it is different than in an enterprise - -. And it’s because of the structure of the organization. It’s because of those reasons that people are there for, and also because of how the whole thing is built. It is more challenging.
This is like, I wouldn’t want to lead this joint. It is so multi-dimensional, but there should be flexibility on the one hand for some wanting to go with the same rules for everyone. But it should be reflected on somewhere, at what point does the specificity of the field become an obstacle to it.
3.5. Interconnections between the Main Categories
4.1. Main Findings
4.2.1. Theoretical Implications
4.2.2. Practical Implications
4.4. Summary, Conclusions, and Future Directions
Institutional Review Board Statement
Informed Consent Statement
Data Availability Statement
Conflicts of Interest
Appendix A. Structure and Questions of the Semi-Structured Interviews
- Introduction to the topics and aims of the interview, going through ethical principles and defining the central concepts
- Orientation and Context
- Own Well-Being as a Leader/Supervisor
- Leading Well-Being and Psychological Safety
- Well-Being and Psychological Safety within the Organization
- Overview, Conclusion, Assessment, and Future
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|Main category||Generic Category||Subcategory|
|Supportive and challenging aspects of leading psychological safety and well-being||Supportive aspects||emphasizing trust|
|investing in remote interaction|
|being more deliberate|
|nurturing an accepting environment|
|providing sufficient task support|
|ensuring the well-being of both employees and oneself|
|Challenging aspects||limited interaction|
|uncertainty of the employees’ situations|
|increased intensity of work for employees|
|own workload as a supervisor|
|lack of time for maintaining sufficient contact|
|varying employee competence in managing their own work and well-being|
|Supportive and challenging aspects of organizational psychosocial safety climate leadership||Supportive aspects||prioritization and comprehensive means of support from the organization for well-being related aspects of work|
|regular opportunities for interaction with top management and healthcare services|
|explicit guidelines and support for well-being related practices|
|Challenging aspects||inconsistency in well-being related policies|
|excessive workload and lack of resources|
|straining organizational reforms|
|unsupportive organizational leadership culture|
|insufficient focus on essential aspects of leadership|
|little support for or adding challenges to well-being-related supervisory work|
|profound elements of uncertainty|
|Support for working as a supervisor||support from one’s own supervisor|
|systematic and clearly led forms of training and support|
|instant support in acute challenging situations|
|Characteristics specific to working in academia||work role beyond that of a typical employee|
|particularly exacting aspects of work|
|diverse paths to supervisory roles and wide variation in the related skills|
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Sjöblom, K.; Mäkiniemi, J.-P.; Mäkikangas, A. “I Was Given Three Marks and Told to Buy a Porsche”—Supervisors’ Experiences of Leading Psychosocial Safety Climate and Team Psychological Safety in a Remote Academic Setting. Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health 2022, 19, 12016. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph191912016
Sjöblom K, Mäkiniemi J-P, Mäkikangas A. “I Was Given Three Marks and Told to Buy a Porsche”—Supervisors’ Experiences of Leading Psychosocial Safety Climate and Team Psychological Safety in a Remote Academic Setting. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. 2022; 19(19):12016. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph191912016Chicago/Turabian Style
Sjöblom, Kirsi, Jaana-Piia Mäkiniemi, and Anne Mäkikangas. 2022. "“I Was Given Three Marks and Told to Buy a Porsche”—Supervisors’ Experiences of Leading Psychosocial Safety Climate and Team Psychological Safety in a Remote Academic Setting" International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 19, no. 19: 12016. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph191912016