Updated: Feb 15
“A great leader is someone who makes their employees feel secure, who draws staffers into a circle of trust.” - Simon Sinek
We all want high performing teams to succeed with whatever goals we set out. It is quite obvious that we want to get things done in the shortest possible time with tremendous quality. We want to change the world, essentially. We also agree that it’s not easy because this means fostering an environment that has the right team dynamics that yields the top performing results.
The key aspect of collaboration is compulsory here. We must understand that collaboration is a greater result than the sum of its parts, i.e. the parties involved who come forth with their own opinions, dimensions and ideas. Collaboration engenders greater and finer ideas or solutions and this leads to innovation. We all can envision what innovation brings to the company, society and the world.
We often misinterpret collaboration with cooperation. The difference between them, well, that is a topic for another day.
How does a team or an organisation achieve high performance through collaboration?
The answer might be a common theme that’s been knocking around for some time now, psychological safety.
In 2012, Project Aristotle was a study that Google carried out to better understand what separates the high performing teams from other teams. The study concluded that psychological safety was the top predictor of team performance in Google.
So what exactly is psychological safety?
Amy Edmondson, professor at the Harvard Business School puts psychological safety to be somewhere along the lines of "Not as cosy as most might interpret. Candour and directness is more prevalent, along with being willing to admit one's misjudgement."
Psychological safety is an ensued feeling in situations where you don’t get punished for making mistakes. This is having the freedom of expressing yourself and going to your unknown realms. You’re not doing this just for the sake of expressing, but to do something through your vision, your way. Your approach could be slightly or significantly different from your colleagues or managers. However, when you have psychological safety, you proceed without hesitation because you know you won’t be penalised for it. Here, fear is absent when you have to make decisions.
Psychological safety ensures that everyone can bring their whole while collaborating to get solutions.
We all have probably come across situations where people are hesitant to speak up about something important because of fear and repercussions.
Do we think they have psychological safety?
If not, what can we do?
It is down to the leaders of the organisation. Leaders have to cultivate the right environment for ensuring that psychological safety occurs in the organisation.
There are 3 desired activities that can be practised as below:
Alignment in understanding
Providing productive feedback
1. Alignment in understanding
We come across complex work everyday. Getting everyone on the same page to understand the importance of everyone’s opinion on tackling the complexity of the work that’s being carried out is necessary to push for psychological safety. Let’s envision a situation when people feel like they cannot speak up when they’re 40% or 50% confident about something. For them, the confidence range has to be upwards of 80%. This is a sign of low psychological safety because the threshold should be very low, and leaders should ensure that low threshold is well communicated to everyone beforehand.
It is the managers or the executives’ job to make sure that everyone’s valuable opinions, inputs and ideas are heard and possibly incorporated into the body of work that the team is trying to formulate. It’d be a shame when someone’s brilliant idea never surfaced because they didn’t feel safe to do so in the first place.
2. Fostering participation
Leaders ought to be genuinely interested in what others have to say about the project or the task in hand. Going through the Stakeholder Map and carefully orchestrating the involvement of everyone’s opinions, ideas and observations is essential. To ensure psychological safety, it is essential for the leader to become proactive and invite the participants to ask questions and use the listening skills. It pays to master the art of listening and not just hearing. It is imperative to ask the people about their real opinions, not just the usual “Yeah, everything is fine with this work we’re doing.” To ensure psychological safety, the leader has to make sure the participation is not just for participation sake. Soft skills like asking powerful questions and active listening should come handy.
Leaders in relative positions need to understand that soft skills are paramount. Understanding people is key. As leaders, you may find yourself in situations where you are frustrated with having to understand the multitude of confusions that participations could bring. In such situations, ask yourself, “What would a good leader do?”
3. Providing productive feedback
Feedback loops are important and are often practiced in the realms of Agility. Being able to provide productive feedback entails having to depersonalise the situation at hand.
For instance, it is okay to get disappointed but not angry when things don’t go as envisaged. It is in everybody’s best interest to not penalise people when mistakes are made. Making mistakes is part of being quintessentially human. Make people safe to express their opinions to further enable real feedback loops, and not the generic ones where the participants just want to get the meeting over and done with. If you notice a pattern as such, consider alarm bells around the notion of psychological safety.
We all know candour is important but providing candour in the right manner is necessary for ensuring psychological safety. No radical candour needs to be implemented here.
There are 2 ways candour can be provided:
Behavioural - where leaders have to show vulnerability and fallibility (being wrong)
Structural - setting up meetings in tactful ways to give and receive candour effectively
For instance, when poor incentives are provided by the organisation, naturally effective candour can be passed in a psychologically safe environment. This can further prevent attrition.
It was probably surprising to you to find out that even in a place like Google, psychological safety is the top predictor for high performance. This should hopefully provide more knowledge as to how humans operate, no matter how talented people might seem, the idea of being authentic in front of others, having the freedom with the absence of fear is the key to real collaboration.
One of the false narratives about leading or managing is not to appear soft and be out of touch with reality. When in reality, empathy, curiosity and passion are the commodities that’s required to instil high performing teams. Getting all hands on deck with an effective strategy might just not cut it. Bringing the whole of the team together should be on the top of our agenda. When the teams bring their whole, they allow for the ultimate expression of themselves by making mistakes and continuously learning.
Leadership matters. As leaders, you have been handed the authority to foster a psychologically safe environment. It’s up to you to make the necessary calls if you haven’t already, and it might not be too late to do that. There might be simply too much at stake that you may not have realised.
Materials to digest:
Podcast - Amy Edmondson (Harvard Business Review)
HBR Article - Laura Delizonna
Book - Trillion Dollar Coach