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MODULE 4

CREATING A SUPPORTIVE WORKPLACE ENVIRONMENT

By the very nature of being a leader, you have a significant impact on the people around you. While this gives you a lot of responsibility, it also provides the opportunity to effect change. In this module, you will gain tips for how to positively influence your work environment. By helping to create a culture where people feel safe and supported, you will reduce work-related stress and foster improved mental health amongst your crew members.

INFLUENCING MINDSETS

Psychologist and researcher Carol Dweck made tremendous contributions in the area of motivation by studying the impact of mindset on performance. Dweck examined two types of mindsets people can have: fixed mindsets and growth mindsets. Through the lens of a fixed mindset, people tend to believe that qualities like intelligence and talent are static – you either have them or you don’t. In contrast, folks with a growth mindset tend to see these qualities as capabilities that can be developed through hard work.

The impact of these mindsets on motivation is significant. People with fixed mindsets often give up easily in the face of challenge, whereas those with growth mindsets see setbacks as opportunities to learn and improve. Consider the question not only for yourself but for your whole team: what sort of mindset among crew members leads to a more engaged and productive workforce?

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One of the encouraging findings from Dweck’s research is that mindsets themselves are not static and can even be influenced by other people. As a leader, you may have heard how things like congratulating workers on their accomplishments can help build a positive team. With the mindset approach, you can take this a step further and encourage a growth mindset in your crew members.

Tip 1: Congratulate workers and when you do so, praise hard work over ability or talent.

For example, instead of saying “Great job – you have a natural eye for lighting” try “Great job – I can see how much effort you put into getting this just right.” The benefit is that meaningful effort is reinforced rather than some intrinsic ability. Effort is something people can control whereas naturally endowed talent or intelligence is not.

In general, encouraging a growth mindset in your crew means giving people new chances each day because of their potential, rather than making assumptions based on the past. To learn more, check out Carol Dweck’s 10-minute TED talk here.

CREATING A SENSE OF SAFETY

 

Another influential and relevant researcher in the field of psychology is Stephen Porges. Porges is best known for his development of “Polyvagal Theory,” which describes how a particularly significant nerve in our body – the vagus nerve – interfaces with our autonomic nervous system. The vagus nerve is a very long nerve that connects the brain, heart, and gut in mammals. It belongs to the parasympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system, which is the branch that helps us “rest and digest” (you may have also heard of the sympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system, responsible for our so-called “fight or flight” response).

That might sound technical, but the important takeaway is this: by affecting our vagus nerve’s functioning, we can create feelings of calmness and safety. What’s more is that the vagus nerve is intimately related to the social systems of mammals. This means that our vagus nerve functioning is affected by our social interactions with others. So we have the power to affect how safe and calm others feel on an instinctual level, just through the interactions of our nervous systems!

What does this mean for you as a leader? It means that you can create a sense of safety for those you work with by paying attention to your own physical presence. Using relaxed body language (shoulders relaxed, arms uncrossed, open hands, etc.), soft facial expressions (gentle smile, relaxed jaw, soft gaze), and prosodic tones of voice (i.e., almost musical, unstrained tones) will communicate safety. This will help others feel calm when they are around you.  

Tip 2: Keep your own body language, facial expressions, and tones of voice relaxed to help others feel calm and safe.

BEING A ROLE MODEL

As illustrated in the previous section, human beings have a remarkable ability to pick up on cues from other people. In addition to cues of safety, people are also sensitive to the behaviours of others. Research in Social Learning Theory suggests that we tend to mimic those we spend time with. This lends special importance to the idea of “leading by example:” the behaviours you demonstrate may be emulated by your crew members.

The good news here is that just by taking care of yourself, you are helping to take care of others! By engaging in good self-care practices, you will encourage others to do the same. This will look different for different leaders of course, depending on personal strategies for self-care. It might look like taking walks during breaks in work day, packing a nutritious lunch, or asking for help when you need it. Whatever your strategies may be, by showing others how you take care of your own mental health, you will be adding to their toolkits of healthy ideas and behaviours.

Tip 3: Take care of yourself at the workplace and others will follow suit.

Beyond demonstrating good self-care, you can also role model positive communication techniques. In previous modules, we have discussed strategies such as using stigma-reducing language, active listening, and empathetic communication. Through practicing these techniques on set, your crew members will learn them too. When you practice active listening with a crew member, for example, they may have the experience of feeling heard and valued. They may consider how you spoke to them and treat their fellow crew members in a similar manner. In this way, you are contributing to a culture of good communication that extends beyond any single conversation you may have.

Other ways to role model supportive communication include:

  • Expressing gratitude to recognize the contributions of crew members.
     

Share gratitude on a regular basis through positive emails, short notes of appreciation, or specific “thank you” visits to a person’s workspace.

  • Encouraging a gossip-free environment.
     

Don’t participate in gossip yourself and if there are interpersonal issues to be addressed, encourage crew members to speak directly with each other in a kind and constructive manner.

  • Checking in individually with crew members, when you notice changes in their moods or affect.

 

This may involve simply asking them how their day is going or how they are feeling. It may also involve communicating to them that you are available to chat or to be a listening ear.

 

To summarize with a final tip:

Tip 4: Demonstrate respect, courtesy, and genuine care in your communication as you encourage others to do the same.

 

With these tools in hand, you are well-equipped to build and maintain a safe and supportive environment on set. It may take time and effort to develop these skills, but don’t worry! Remember the lesson of growth mindsets: with hard work and practice, you will get there.