This week the news seems to be full of people talking about climate change, due to the COP26 conference in Glasgow. Reflecting on this I was reminded how quickly local climates can change. I notice this when I’m out walking in the local countryside.
On one particular occasion I had set off with a friend for a short walk up a local hill. We had set off a little later than intended and as we made our way back to the car, the sun set. It is amazing how different the landscape becomes at dusk. It is difficult to get your bearing and, because you can’t see the terrain as well, the environment seems more hostile. At one point I wondered if we would ever find our way back to the car. On larger mountains many climbers testify to how disorientating the environment can become when the climate changes and fog comes down.
In leadership, as in climbing, our climate impacts our performance. We seem to easily notice this when it’s a physical change. What is it then about our working environments that means we fail to think about the climate that teams need to bring their best?
Amy Edmondson, author of The Fearless Organization, has done extensive research into teams, looking at what helps them to function well. She considers: what are the differences between high performing teams and the rest?
Safety is the critical factor – as Amy puts it: “A belief that the context is safe for interpersonal risk taking – that speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes will be welcomed and valued.”
As you think about the team you lead or are a part of, is it possible to do the things Amy describes here without fear of being talked over, cut off, or embarrassed? If it isn’t then it is possible that the climate needs changing.
Owning up to Mistakes
It is critical in this process to realise that the leader sets the tone for how things are done in the team or organisation. Certain things will enhance and empower team members. This is about not allowing behaviours that create toxicity in the team to continue.
For your team to perform at a higher level, team members have to believe it is safe to share ideas, challenge assumptions, and have regard and respect for their colleagues whether they agree with them or not.
Leaders can go a long way to changing the climate by modelling the behaviour that they want to see. When we mess up or make a mistake, the temptation can be to look to blame others, ignore it or brush it under the carpet. It is counter intuitive but when you as a leader choose to own your mistakes and process this with your team, the result is learning.
To equate unintentional mistakes with failure would be wrong. Mistakes are often the result of trying something new. If something goes wrong, it is important for the climate of the team to look at the why it happened and what can be learnt. Admitting you got something wrong as a leader produces more trust within your team.
An online survey conducted by Dale Carnegie Training across 13 countries and 3100 employees found that “admitting when they are wrong” produced the largest gap of any of the leadership behaviours in terms of the difference between its importance to employees and its consistent performance by supervisors. 81 percent said a leader admitting this was ‘important’ or ‘’very important’ and yet they felt only 40 percent of their supervisors did this. A gap of 41 percent!
To engage in climate change, seek to create an environment of learning around mistakes and failures. How can you do that? Simply, as a leader you must go first. By modelling this behaviour, you will give permission to others to do the same. The result will be better decisions, more innovation, and an environment of learning.
You may not save the planet by doing this. However, it is a further step to creating teams where thriving and not surviving becomes the norm.
“…leaning into the discomfort of mistakes is how we can learn from them.” Brené Brown