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Safe work environments integral to greater honesty for fast-moving startups

Start-up founders who create a psychologically safe space for their employees are more likely to see their start-up scale quicker, according to new research by Vlerick Business School.

Start-up founders who create a psychologically safe space for their employees are more likely to see their start-up scale quicker, according to new research.

The researchers found that employees are more likely to give honest feedback on the company in order to help it grow if they feel they work in a company that has a safe environment.

This research was conducted by Veroniek Collewaert, Professor of Entrepreneurship at Vlerick Business School and Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, alongside colleagues from Ghent University, , and Technical University Munich. The researchers wanted to understand how the role of founders and their early-stage employees evolves over time as the start-up evolves.

To do so, they studied the roles of both founders and employees and how these developed over time, regularly observing and interviewing all members of an AI start-up that was in the early stages of scaling up.

The researchers also found that both the formal and informal roles of team members changed over time as the company prepared for scaling. These changes could be defined as two separate phases; the ‘founder-driven phase’ where changes to the founder’s roles were entirely driven by themselves and what they chose to delegate; and the ‘interaction-driven phase,’ where the founder’s roles changed based on interactions between themselves and their employees.

The researchers state that when employees had a say in their future roles, and actually helped to craft their own expectations, the start-up was much more likely to develop efficiently. In fact, employees who did not have a say in their future roles were much more likely to leave the company due to either resigning or being dismissed.

“Founders aiming to scale their ventures face many challenges, but one particularly difficult challenge is preparing and reconfiguring the internal organisation of their ventures ,” says Professor Veroniek Collewaert. “A founder’s role often changes from focusing on a number of areas, to becoming highly focused on one. In doing so, it is important for founders to find ways to get the most out of their own role, but also the roles of their employees, in order to grow as quickly as possible.”

It’s clear from the findings that in order to make employees craft their jobs effectively, they have to feel listened to, and able to give honest feedback to the founders. That’s why, the researchers state, creating a psychologically safe environment for start-up employees is incredibly valuable for future growth. “Furthermore, in order for founders to support these employees in their job crafting efforts, they need to sense a fit between their values and the employees’, and particularly their values of striving for excellence”, Professor Mirjam Knockaert indicates.

“Employees typically craft their own role so that it better fits their preferences and strengths,” says PhD researcher Evy Van Lancker. “This role-crafting doesn’t only influence the employees’ role, but also impacts the organization’s culture and the founders’ roles.”

The researchers state that these findings showcase the importance of employee role-crafting, which can not only lead to changes in the founder’s own roles but also support the realisation of the founders’ ambitions for their venture, such as scaling.

*Article by Vlerick Business School

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