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Want to build a high-performing team? Start with creating a safer work evironment
Amy C. Edmondson
Amy Edmondson is a management professor at Harvard Business School and has done a tremendous amount of work in the area of psychological safety.
In her Tedx Talk, she describes psychological safety as “a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking.” Psychological safety is a critical yet often overlooked concept, and one which underpins Edmondson’s latest book, The Fearless Organization – Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth.
Psychological safety is not a personality difference but rather a feature of the workplace that leaders can and must help create.
Most companies do not pay adequate attention to the need for psychological safety to help people cope with the uncertainty and anxiety of organizational change. Psychological safety at any company is vital for helping people overcome the defensiveness and “learning anxiety” they face at work, especially when something doesn’t go as they’d hoped or expected.
Company strategy can be viewed as a hypothesis, to be tested continuously, rather than a plan.
Organisational learning – championed by company leaders but enacted by everyone – requires actively seeking deviations that challenge the assumptions underpinning a current strategy.
It means an absence of interpersonal fear. When psychological safety is present, people are able to speak up with work-relevant content.
For many people during the pandemic, the explicitness of the physical lack of safety has been experienced as a shared fear, which has allowed them to be more open and intimate and more able to voice their thoughts and concerns with colleagues.
This collective fear thus becomes a potential driver of collaboration and innovation, further contributing to an open environment for producing and sharing ideas that under normal conditions may have remained unshared.
Even though face-to-face interactions allow for a level of intimacy and understanding that may be lost online, with video formats you can still pick up cues and detect whether someone’s in some period of mild distress.
Leaping into task orientation too quickly may almost feel like a violation to the person on the other end of the call. Taking a pause to acknowledge where the person is and what they need can build trust over time and make the shared interaction emotionally less risky. Yet this might also make the exchanges themselves even more draining as you pause to doubt the interactions.
What makes management by wandering around so successful is the ability to make a genuine link between a task or job and a larger overarching purpose.
Although not as spontaneous as walking around, video calls and chats, when kept to relatively small sizes, can still develop the connective tissue linking actions to a shared vision for the future.
During the last 20 years, the agile movement that originated from the Agile Manifesto has gained momentum, even outside of software development.
Most organizations report that their agile efforts have paid off in terms of speed, quality, value, and long-term growth. However, about half of organizations that undertake agile transformations fail in their attempts.
If your team has yet to reap the rewards of agile, you need to understand what’s preventing you from delivering fast, frictionless and scalable solutions.
While agile processes and tools provide support, the primary mechanism is how team members interact.
Can team members interact with conflicting ideas, talk and listen, give and take, question and answer, analyse and solve? Or do they censor one another and end up withdrawing themselves?
If you drop agile tools and processes into a legacy culture where individuals are criticised, embarrassed, discouraged, or intimidated, they stop being agile.
When organisations implement agile, they often revert to technical processes and tools because cultural considerations are difficult to put into practice. It's easier only to pay lip service to the human side and then move to processes with measurable and observable indicators that give the illusion of agile.
Start by framing agile as a cultural rather than a technical or mechanical implementation. Be careful not to approach culture as the completion of tasks. Culture can't be completed.
Team intelligence exists when team members eschew self-interest, move beyond the individualized concept of emotional intelligence and take up a think-together operating mode that embraces the collective good—reaching optimal team performance.
Teams built on a solid foundation of positive culture, who work in sync as a cohesive unit, irrespective of hierarchy position, will achieve better results —if they can think systemically through inter-connectedness of multiple viewpoints. With strong leadership, a team can adopt a think-together mode and view only through that lens.
If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.
Knowing what makes the team successful is a prerequisite for harnessing team intelligence. Small team inter-connectedness efforts can seem insignificant, yet their impacts on your organization at large can be huge (the Butterfly Effect).
We can harness team intelligence for business success when we capture what makes us unique in skill set, personality, and drive and bring together emotional and cultural intelligence with empathetic managers orchestrating team synergy.
Research shows that the brain responds more strongly to bad experiences than good ones — and our memories retain them longer.
Five positive experiences are about equal to one negative one. This five-to-one ratio, discovered by psychologist and relationship researcher John Gottman in the 1970s, still applies to our present-day workplace.
We are all naturally wired to blame other people or circumstances when things go wrong. These propensities are partially psychological, driven by something called the fundamental attribution bias.
We tend to believe that what people do is a reflection of who they are, rather than considering there may be other factors (social or environmental) influencing their behavior.
We don’t even notice how often we do it. And our brains interpret blame the same way they interpret a physical attack. When we’re blamed, our prefrontal cortices effectively shut down and direct all our energy to defending ourselves, which, ironically, sabotages our ability to solve the problem for which we are being blamed.
Blame also kills healthy, accountable behaviors. Nobody will take accountability for problems if they think they’ll be punished for doing so.
Dr. Amy Edmondson (who coined the term psychological safety), defines it as, "a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes."
This is a critical factor for high-performing teams.
Teams with strong psychological safety are less afraid of the negative consequences that may result from:
One way to measure psychological safety in your organization is through employee surveys. Consider asking questions that measure employees' perceptions of psychological safety both at work and within their team.
When reviewing your results, focus your data analysis at the team-level, rather than within the organization overall. While it's valuable to have an understanding of the level psychological safety throughout your organization, any action that you take to improve psychological safety will be most effective within teams.
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