This weekend I had the opportunity to visit my grandson. It was great just to spend time with him and see how he had grown and how his personality is developing. It got me thinking about environments that encourage growth. My grandson is thriving because his parents are intentionally providing an environment in which he can grow not just physically but mentally as well. The same is true of teams. Leaders need to create empowering environments in order to encourage growth and participation.
Over recent years the term psychological safety has moved into mainstream thinking for helping teams and the people in them to bring their best. Google conducted research on team effectiveness which was published in 2015. “Project Aristotle” was tasked with finding out what factors made Google teams effective. They discovered that it was not so much who was on the team that mattered but how the team worked together. Amy Edmondson an expert in this area describes psychological safety this way:
“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.”
For teams to be effective, there has to be an environment which enables those on the team to pitch in with new ideas, to question or debate the decisions being made, and where people can raise any concerns they have without the fear of being cut off or humiliated by other team members or the team leader. Google discovered this one factor was key in teams being effective and performing at a higher level.
The question will be what are you doing as a leader to intentionally create this kind of environment in the teams that you lead? This environment or culture doesn’t happen by accident, it is born out of intentionality. A deliberate and consistent application of values that enable people to feel safe enough to speak up, to try new things, to bring new ideas and to disagree.
Safety not less risk
The top organisations in the world are implementing these discoveries in their teams because, no matter who you work for, you want to achieve the purpose for which they came into existence. Leaning into this approach is not about putting up with poor performance or expecting less of the team; nor is it a place without challenge. Both encouragement and challenge are significant in building culture this way.
What factors help build a team culture like this?
- Leader goes first – it is the leader that sets the culture. As a leader you have to decide and implement values in the team that enable people to be seen and heard, not cut off, humiliated, or undermined as they make their contribution.
“We keep our values up very high, it’s a place where there are no internal politics, honesty, and integrity are most important. It’s an environment where people they are to speak up, we encourage people to say their opinion because it is important for your personal development.”
“Toto” Wolff, CEO of Mercedes AMG Formula One Team
- Active listening – listening is a skill you can learn. Discovering there are different voices on your team and learning how to hear and appreciate them.
- Permission to fail – to engender innovation, creativity and create an atmosphere where taking risks is celebrated, team members will need to know that they have freedom to fail. This is not about failure to deliver core competencies but enabling experimentation and not looking for blame if it fails but looking at what you have learnt.
There are 5 other factors needed to build such a culture, you can find them in my new book here.
The evidence is significant: that environments which encourage team members to speak up without the risk of interpersonal safety will empower the team and result in them being more effective.
I will leave you with a final quote from Amy Edmondson and challenge you to think about how you can create an empowering environment:
“Speaking up is only the first step. The true test is how leaders respond when people actually do speak up. Stage setting and inviting participation indeed build psychological safety. But if a boss responds with anger or disdain as soon as someone steps forward to speak up about a problem, the safety will quickly evaporate. A productive response must be appreciative, respectful, and offer a path forward.”