What inhibits the learning and evolution of a team? Safety. Throughout 2020, our collective safety has been upended in myriad ways, and it’s extremely evident in how teams are functioning with each other and overall in an organization. The events of this year have caused a new human to emerge; often vulnerable, uncertain, fatigued and insecure at levels not experienced collectively before. Anxiety is substantially increased when massive change is happening in our organizations and communities. When we are required to make decisions and take actions without much knowledge, if any, living with the uncertain outcome is a huge stressor for all. Will everything work out? We just can’t be sure.
So, what holds people back from speaking out, challenging ideas, offering suggestions, developing trust and vulnerability? As humans, we’re hesitant to engage in behaviors that may threaten others’ perceptions of us that cause judgments, criticisms and alter our public image. We risk being seen as incompetent and disruptive or negative. And when this also connects to the “hierarchal” ladder, the risk becomes even greater for speaking up, yet this is a huge strategic advantage for an organization. Those that have teams with high comfort levels of safety are more innovative and resilient while enhancing the culture of learning, acceptance, trust and engagement.
As a senior leader or manager of a team at any level, creating the environment where your team members feel safe enough to ask hard questions, poke holes in processes or projects, ask for help and share vulnerability is key. How do you know you have that type of climate in the workspace? According to Amy Edmondson, Novartis Professor of Leadership at Harvard Business School and author of ‘The Fearless Organization’, there are clear signs you’re on or off track. In psychologically safe environments:
- “People believe that if they make a mistake, others will not penalize or think less of them for it.”
- “People will not resent them or penalize them for asking for information, help or feedback.”
- There is an existence of strong interpersonal relationships with high levels of trust
If someone on a team makes a mistake, is it held against them? Can they bring up tough issues? Is there a willingness to take risks? Do team members undermine others? Does anyone feel it’s unsafe to be different?
If your team tends to have unwritten rules saying “don’t speak up if the boss is there”, “don’t criticize ideas he has”, “this project is way too risky, but I’m the only person that seems to think so”, or “anyone that speaks up in those meetings is ultimately judged and gets labeled as a troublemaker and not a good ‘team player,’” then those are big, red flags.
In assessing your team or organization overall, the behavior of the leader is crucial. Consider these 3 key attributes:
- Accessibility: Does your team truly feel comfortable approaching you directly without the red tape of scheduling? Can they quickly catch you without feeling like they’re “taking your valuable time”, “being a pest” or “asking something they should already know about”?
- Fallibility: Do you have a tolerance for failure and mistakes in the company, including your own? Do you solicit feedback and ask for input while acknowledging you don’t have all the answers, or may be missing something critical?
- Power: Do those in lower-level positions feel empowered to speak up with confidence and clarity? Do you effectively help minimize the tendency of domineering or higher-level positions to overshadow conversations, project ideas or directions teams move?
While there are numerous components to assessing and facilitating a psychologically safe climate, not to mention a concerted effort to dive deeply beyond the above factors, what can a leader expect as an outcome to all of the change work? It’s profound.
Amy Edmonson demonstrated through her research that creating conditions of psychologically safe environments causes:
- A foundation of effective learning which motivates a team’s collective learning process
- Setting and reaching goals
- Comfort in experimentation and discussion of results, creating further innovation—the create, launch, assess and adjust process that is the hallmark of the best organizations.
- Implementation of ideas and projects with minimal delays and chaos
- Sharing of knowledge throughout the organization
- Increased accountability where team members own their ideas, mistakes and comments
Putting together the blueprint to bring all of this into existence is not complicated. You’ll run into a few bricks and dips most certainly, yet the long-term health and sustainability of your team will reap in untold ways.
Begin by setting the stage. What are the expectations for failure and mistakes? How will uncertainty be tackled? What does interdependence look like? Next, invite engagement. Be vulnerable and humble. Ask your team questions on this. Where do they see gaps? Be an active listener. Then respond in a productive manner. Find unique and consistent ways to express appreciation. Encourage and demonstrate candor.
While there are multiple arenas to work through in creating a holistically healthy organization, creating a psychologically safe climate is key and lays a foundation for many other efforts.
In the end, you’ll find a team that is happier at work, more motivated, committed to each other and the company goals, all while thriving in the “new normalcy” we’re moving into through this transformative time.