Psychological Safety & Teams
Whenever I work with teams, I work hard to create a space where everyone feels they can speak up and that they can take risks with their contributions and learning. This is part of creating “psychological safety”, or having confidence that you will not be punished, embarrassed, or rejected for speaking up. Amy Edmondson, a Harvard business school professor and researcher published a study in 1999 about psychological safety on teams. She wrote, “It describes a team climate characterized by interpersonal trust and mutual respect in which people are comfortable being themselves.”
If you want to learn a bit more about psychological safety and teams and you haven’t yet read Charles Duhigg’s fantastic New York Times article from February 25, 2016, it’s a good place to start. I have referred to it before – but it’s worth mentioning again. In it, Edmondson is quoted and there are some other good references.
I discovered this requirement for successful teams from my own experiences leading teams as an operation’s manager and then later facilitating them in my current work. At this point in my career I can say that I have worked with hundreds of teams. It is some of my favorite work. When I first started out I made some mistakes that contributed to a few people not feeling safe. Those experiences have stuck with me. Though I didn’t mean to cause people to feel embarrassed, my actions and words contributed to it. Thankfully after these experiences I vowed to become more skillful and get better at facilitating teams and I did.
Creating psychological safety on teams requires skill. The more diverse the team, the more skill required by the team leader or facilitator. Setting up good ground rules that the team will use every time they meet (and in other sub-team meetings) is a foundation that has been shown to be important in creating a successful team. In my experience teams sometimes make this a “check the box” exercise. I now make a bigger deal of it when I facilitate teams. Equity in team members talking, listening and making sure all feel that their ideas matter, is also very important. Some lucky teams seem to naturally be better at this. But when the expected outcomes are complex or will have a big impact, most teams will need help starting off right. Skillful facilitation will go a long way in helping a team “form” and creating a successful team launch.
One thing I know for sure is that if you want a successful team, you need to create a team climate where everyone is more likely to bring their “A game”. There is so much to benefit from everyone being all in – it’s the point of a team. If you could do it yourself, you should. But if you need a team, a successful one will need to feel safe.
From years of research we know that the best leadership development happens on the job. There is no training, executive program or coaching that can compare to the growth that can happen through a difficult or challenging job assignment. This is true for a range of reasons. As a species I believe that we are wired for struggle and challenge. True, many folks avoid challenge and struggle if they can. But usually it’s not laziness or because they want the easy path. In my experience most of us want to grow and be challenged. We may choose to “hide out” or not fully engage because of a lack of skill or confidence and the corresponding fear that often accompanies both. All of these reasons can be overcome.
High performers and highly competent leaders experience fear like all humans. The difference is that they refuse to let it get in the way of their growth. They find ways to succeed through the fear. I don’t think there is any mystery to it. It’s requires deep practice and over time leaders become more competent at managing the fear and stress and often they learn to leverage it. They push themselves, try harder and practice struggling more. It makes them more masterful and more confident. But from my experience the fear never goes away because they continue to take on new challenges. We can all learn how to do this. It’s learnable and teachable.
So to truly grow human beings, some struggle and challenge is a “must have” experience. We are wired for it. It makes us stronger and more capable. I know some parents have made up that their job is to mitigate struggle on behalf of their kids. But all the indications are that kids, like adults build competence, confidence and sturdier self-esteem by the right amount of struggle with the right support and coaching.
Many leaders I have worked with still have trouble handing off challenging and difficult assignments to their team. Most of us find a few folks we trust and then we delegate everything to them. This is unfair and it’s a bad idea. With flatter organizations and fewer leadership positions, great development opportunities are the best “promotion”. When I ask leaders how they grew and advanced their careers they recount stories of difficult projects and challenging assignments (and research from the Center for Creative Leadership and other premier organizations concur). They will often mention mentors and coaches who helped them as well. But the common theme is that they are comfortable sitting in what I call the “hot seat”. To become great we need to know that others are depending upon us, we are accountable to succeed in spite of obstacles. This is the only laboratory that truly matters to leadership development: challenging projects, assignments and people.
True delegation is part science and art. You can’t “dump and run” a challenging assignment onto a direct report. Depending upon the developmental level of the direct report and upon how complex and challenging the assignment, advance planning and ongoing coaching will often be required. You will still need to be involved. Of course, some folks will fail. But if you support them through it, they will become more skillful and of greater value to your team and enterprise. It’s not easy to hand over a challenging project that you know you or your right hand person could do, but if you want to develop your whole team, you need to share the love and hand over the hot seat.
Welcome to Moira's blog. I write a (mostly) monthly post about the work of building better work places: people strategies, systems, teams and leaders.