How safe do you feel & Why it matters?
Updated: Nov 30, 2019
Many years ago, I was invited to help a leadership team of a mid-size product company become more effective.
The organization had been around for over 5 decades and was now being led by a third generation family member. The family had brought in a CEO from the outside to actively manage and lead the company.
The CEO was from an elite business school, had had a pretty stellar career as a Sales and Marketing leader and within two years of joining had launched a remarkable turnaround. He took an organization that had been deeply in the red and started posting modest, yet consistently positive numbers.
The turnaround itself was remarkable in that it actually involved improving very simple yet core organizational systems like more efficient point of sales processes and better cash flow management.
When I came in, I expected a leadership team that was enjoying its success and experiencing a high level of camaraderie.
What I actually saw was completely the opposite.
Each leadership team meeting was tense. Super tense.
Each meeting had a familiar rhythm:
The agenda was circulated several weeks before.
Each CXO had a few days to prepare a presentation around the topic against their name.
They did so with great effort and care. A week before each meeting, their own senior teams were focused on little else, as they rehearsed the messaging and prepared for questions.
Then, as they made the presentation, other leadership team members asked a few questions (mostly to show their own expertise), while the CEO tried to poke holes in each presentation, sometimes making sarcastic or cutting comments.
After each meeting, in private, the CEO complained about how difficult his job was given the quality of his team. What’s more—he didn’t actually trust half his team, but given their close relationship with the family, felt helpless about it.
In turn at least half of his team deeply resented him.
He had, over the course of the year “tried to clip their wings” and had interfered in their organization, and they did see him as an outsider—never mind the success that had just come in. In fact, they explained away the turnaround as a matter of the CEO simply following the recommendations of a consultant. What was so great about that? They would have in any case made those changes, and things would have turned around.
My assignment here didn't work out. But we all know how stories like these end.
Once the business developed a modest positive momentum, the founding family decided that the CEO had run his course and brought in someone else.
What might have been an opportunity for much needed organizational rejuvenation—was simply a modest business turnaround. There were no big ideas on the table, and no momentum within the leadership team.
Now why is this story important?
In 2012, Google tried to find out what mattered most when it came to effective team outcomes.
Called Project Aristotle, they studied 180 teams on every dimension of possible relevance—the capability of team members, the team mix, their tenure with the organization, whether they socialized outside office, and so on.
What they found was that the single greatest differentiator of great teams and others was, well — “ psychological safety”, or the extent to which team members felt it was okay to voice their views and opinions.
Note, it wasn’t the “talent” of team members that was the biggest factor —it was how “safe” they felt in voicing their views.
When you think about it—of course it makes perfect sense.
We ourselves may have been in teams where we didn’t contribute because the atmosphere didn’t feel right. It didn't really matter what we knew--we weren't going to say anything anyway!
Distressingly, in many organizations—this is not uncommon in senior teams. An INSEAD study of Nokia’s failure points to exactly this. An atmosphere of fear prevented a very talented organization from being able to come up with a good response to the iphone--the rest as we know is history!
In the case of our CEO, his format and style of team meetings guaranteed that there would never be any “real team-work”—simply some scripted posturing. There could never have been any real exploration of issues or discovery of breakthrough ideas.
And this is exactly what leadership teams will need to be able to deliver in a fast changing VUCA world. The problems are simply too complex to be addressed by single individuals no matter how smart they may be. They are team problems. And teams need psychological safety to operate effectively.
In fact a combination of high psychological safety and high standards may be the golden compass to highly effective teams. But psychological safety is the starting point.
So what can we, as leaders, do to build safety in our teams? Perhaps a great place to begin is to pause and reflect on what gets discussed and how.
Are we solution focused or problem focused? Does everyone share only what is going well or also shares what is not going well? How is failure discussed—as a learning experience or as a shortcoming? Do we have a process for collective problem solving and action?
Leaders have the privilege of setting the tone for our teams conversations, and deeply impacting their effectiveness. It is on us to use that privilege well.
1. What Google Learnt from its Quest to build the perfect team, NY Times, Feb 25, 2016. Read about it here
2. Prof. Amy Edmondson of (Harvard University) coined the term “psychological safety”—defined as the “shared belief among team members that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking”. "Psychological Safety in Work Teams", ASQ, June 1999
3. Who killed Nokia? Nokia did? Read more here