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The fastest way to mediocrity
You are rank and file below me, how dare you raise your voice and disagree” shouted an EVP to a manager in front of me and dozen others in one of my first jobs out of school. My first reaction was “where is popcorn when you need it” but my slow calm brain reflected on the experience and lodged “never disagree with a senior person” as the key insight. My conviction on this was strengthened when the above manager was fired in few months.
A year later, I moved on to a different company where in my first meeting a Director in an animated tone, in front of dozen others, told the COO that he was wrong. Darn, again there was no popcorn. However, this time the movie that followed was anti-climactic. The COO asked several clarifying questions, paused, reflected and eventually conceded. I replayed this conversation several times in my mind the next few weeks and after some time saw that the Director was promoted. Additionally, the new company that I was in, performed much better than the previous company. I was now left with the unsavory task of purging all my old models of leadership and career success to build new ones.
It was only much later that I came across Amy Edmondson's work on Psychological safety which while present since early 2000s was popularized by Google's project Aristotle. Amy's research indicated that Psychological safety was the primary trait of effective teams was confirmed by Google.
A psychologically safe team is one in which team members are very comfortable in voicing their disagreements; it is one in which team members feel that they can take risks with each other, without adverse consequences.
Unfortunately, as humans, we are wired to agree. We are social creatures and disagreeing is hard, let alone with people who are perceived to be senior. Amy suggests that the four main reasons that people dislike disagreeing are that they come across as ignorant, negative, incompetent or disruptive.
Additionally, most managers don't understand what it takes to create a psychologically safe environment. So, to make it tangible, think back to meetings and interactions you have had and check if
People mostly agree with each other
When there is a disagreement, you know it only because a you observed awkward body language like eye rolls or short remarks like “never mind I will shut up”
Person who is the most senior is often the first to express opinion and states it in a way that makes it risky to disagree
There is often an after conversation about the topic that should have been had in the meeting
If you answered yes to all four scenarios, congrats you got 4/4 but your team's psychological safety sucks. Before we get into how to change it, you need to grok why. Several studies show that teams that have high psychological safety
Think Deeper: Good ideas require debate and rigorous examining of all sides of an argument. In psychologically safe teams, this is the normal order of business. They debate ideas not people and thereby elevate and refine thinking of the group.
Mitigate failure: By giving naysayers air time, you are effectively doing pre-mortems and are hence proactively addressing failures. Someone smart said that the fastest way to success is to double your failure rate. Psychologically safe teams promote failure and get to higher and higher levels of success faster.
Promote innovation: When there are opposing points of views that are debated with respect and openness, often a new solution emerges that creates convergence between the opposing views. Great leaders are looking for new ideas that create convergence and not ones that promote compromise.
Increase accountability: On the surface, accountability may seem at odds with psychological safety. People feel accountable when they know they have something special in the team. Individuals in psychologically safe teams know that they are part of special group that is rare and a privilege that is not to be misused. Hence, they naturally feel very accountable.
OK all this sounds intriguing, but how does a leader deliberately enable this in his or her teams. Following is a motley collection of ideas inspired by Amy and by experiencing safe and unsafe environments in the valley:
Don't be the first to voice an opinion. When you lead a brainstorm with an opinion, you are already tipping the scales in favor of your opinion. Instead, let the problem settle in people's minds, give it space and hear other's opinions deeply. It does not matter if your idea is executed. What matters is that the right idea is given the nourishment to germinate, emerge and get executed.
Check your motives when you ask for feedback. When you are asking for feedback on a plan of action, check if you are seeking endorsement or if you are genuinely open to changing the plan of action.
Practice humble enquiry. Excellent leaders are excellent questioners and they do it in a way that makes others feel respected. Having the best questions but making others feel belittled will quickly create the opposite of psychological safety.
Take risks and don't be afraid to look ignorant. An easy way to practice is when there is verbal diarrhea of acronym soup. Ask for clarifications on the acronyms and that opens the door to deeper questions on the subject being discussed.
Be accessible. Looking really busy always makes you unapproachable. It also has a host of other problems but that is for a different article. Shoot the breeze, find people to go to lunch with, hang out by the coffee area and more than anything, smile.
Publicly acknowledge and appreciate behaviors that create a safer environment. One of my previous managers, used to publicly thank the person who disagreed with him and that set an excellent example that it was kosher to disagree and debate.
Speak directly and clearly. Metaphors are great for giving the brain something tangible to anchor on but when overused, it becomes a source of confusion. Instead of directly talking about the issue in hand, the team ends up discussing through a layer of abstraction. Overuse of metaphors can be identified by presence of violent agreement.
Set boundaries. There is a difference between taking risks and being reckless. In psychologically safe teams, the boundaries for risk taking is very clear. By setting boundaries, people know how far they can stray. In her book on teaming, Amy suggests that setting boundaries is similar to a bridge that has guard rails. Without that vehicles will go slow and stay in the center for the fear of falling off.
Listen deeply. The best conversations have long pauses and if you are a team that is fighting for airtime, fix that. The best way to fix it is by modeling the behavior. One of the main obstacles to listening deeply and patiently is the disease of busyness. Individuals who are carrying this disease suffer from never being able to enjoy the present moment and from never being able to stop their mental chatter. Consequently, they don't experience the joy of listening to the person in front of you, as if, that is the most important thing in the world.
Celebrate failures and be open with yours. Failure is normal and happens almost every day. However, acknowledging, talking and celebrating it has unfortunately become abnormal. By fostering a culture where failures are viewed as learning opportunities for all, you move the needle significantly on psychological safety. The CEO of Shopify, Tobu Lutke, defines failure as the successful discovery of what does not work.
We all spend a good portion of our lives at work with the intention of mastering our craft and becoming better versions of ourselves. Doing that is a group project, something that requires a safe environment, that brings out the best in us and in others. As a manager, creating this environment is job #1 and as a team member adopting behaviors that promote this environment is job #1.