According to McKinsey, just 26 per cent of leaders create psychological safety for their teams. This type of safety plays a significant role in establishing and maintaining mature relationships in leadership teams.
Colleagues must feel safe and believe that speaking up is expected, welcomed, and valued. When senior groups can operate this way effectively, they are more likely to innovate, make better decisions and fewer mistakes and adjust quickly. The teams they lead will also follow suit, allowing teams across the organisation to shine.
That being said, enabling an environment of security is less obvious. Does McKinsey’s research suggest that 74% of leaders knowingly or unknowingly foster the opposite of safety, a culture of fear and retribution? Fear is not ideal; it breeds anxiety, and anxiety initiates a fight, flight or freeze reaction. None of these reactions helps leadership teams inspire, innovate or create the change needed to lead their business effectively.
To help leadership teams move away from feeling like they are in the danger zone and into the safety zone where people feel confident to speak up instead of shut up, here are three things they can do to do better, together, with psychological safety.
Eliminate fear with your psyche
The Pixar brains trust responsible for producing countless successful animations, including the Cars, Toy Story and Finding Nemo franchises, decided to assume that all of their early ideas would be bad. The group leaders set the team up to keep the big picture (no pun intended) in mind, making it ok not to get it right immediately and accepting that mistakes will happen. Using this mindset takes the pressure off to be perfect. It enables an environment where leaders feel like sharing their challenges, concerns or conflicting ideas because it is expected, encouraged and critical to the team’s performance. Setting the right expectations in your mind will come out loud and clear, putting your people in the best position to speak up more often.
Shape a fear-free environment with your actions
Blowing up regularly, bringing up past mistakes, or critiquing people in front of the team will not move your team into the safety zone. It doesn’t matter how senior your team is, how much money they earn. They are human. Your words, tone, and body language make an impact. Be aware of your triggers and reactions. A 360 feedback process can help determine whether your responses help or hinder.
Reframe mistakes as learnings. This approach will go a long way to enabling a culture of openness. Share your stuff ups, regularly. When someone else shares an error, ask them, “What did you learn?”. Hospitals that reported more errors but discussed them with their units have delivered better results than hospital staff who kept their mistakes to themselves due to negative reactions in the past to mishaps.
Lastly, when was the last time you called someone into your office (physical or virtual) to acknowledge something they did well? Pull the phobia out of the boss's office by making your presence desirable instead of doomsday.
Ensure your team empowers the right environment
Creating psychological safety in leadership teams is also the responsibility of the team. Teams who commit to behaviours that will get the best out of the group win more often.
Have your team agree on what behaviours are non-negotiable to drive the best outcomes and identify which behaviours feed fear. Degrading, smartass and sarcastic comments, and subtle social nuances such as eye-rolling, secret chat groups, and phone checking typically fall into that category.
Encourage the group to listen to understand. Doing so will help your people feel heard and valued. You’ll know your team is listening to learn when you hear “Tell us more” more often from them.
You can also look to normalise risk-taking by including an agenda item for team meetings where everyone - including you - shares a risk they took and the result of the decision. Don’t get hooked on the outcome, but rather the individuals' learnings. By talking about risks regularly, the group will feel more confident to take risks without worrying about the team's reactions.
The safety zone is not the soft zone
Eliminating fear and replacing it with safety does not mean everyone has to agree with each other, avoid passionate debates or be held accountable. The less fear, the more disagreements, and disagreements are good. Managing differences of opinion are critical skills for teams to embrace. Teams that do this in a way that focuses on the issue, and not the individual, will make better decisions, improve engagement and buy-in.
Remember, fostering fear fails teams. Machiavelli’s famous axiom, “It’s better to be feared than loved”, is a crock. In my experience, leadership teams who enter the safety zone are twenty times more productive than teams who choose to shut up and five times more effective than teams who selectively share. Your mindset, actions and expectations can help the team enable risk-taking, innovation and collaboration. At your next leadership team meeting, pose these three questions:
“When we meet, what topics do you feel you can discuss and share your opinion freely?
“When we meet, what topics do you feel you must be selective with what you share?”
“When we meet, what topics do you feel you must shut up and say nothing about?”
These will get your team talking, give you a feel for how safe people feel in the group, and start to remove some of the fear that may exist. If you can do this, you are heading in the right direction to help your leadership team shine.