Loads of research – prominently, the work of Amy Edmonson and her team – is bearing evidence to the importance of psychological safety. This important feature of a workplace is a prerequisite for innovation, team collaboration, quality work and a healthy workplace. It signifies a working environment where it is possible to state your opinion and talk about relevant ideas, where people feel free – or even compelled – to be open and honest.
The term “psychological safety” is becoming a term used almost as synonymous with trust, or with feeling personally confident to speak up. However, trust and confidence exist inside an individual person – psychological safety exists at the group or workplace level, and leadership’s efficiency in sustaining the conditions for psychological safety is crucial.
One example: encourage learning to avoid preventable mistakes, those that are due to lack of care and attention. To “encourage” means to REWARD, not just refrain from shaming. People making preventable mistakes should not be praised for their inattention (obviously) but for their willingness to come forward and admitting the mistake, enabling a process improvement to make sure this does not happen again.
Another example: Intelligent mistakes, exploring new ground, fueled by a willingness to take risks and to experiment, should be straight-up rewarded, even if the desired results are not materializing. (And yes, results should be rewarded as well, that’s not the point).
Encouraging these behaviors will take a little bit of imagination but is totally doable. Modelling learning, asking for help as a leader, setting high standards and continuously talking about how to reach them, builds and sustains psychological safety where it belongs.
Psychological safety is not about being friendly all the time; it has nothing to do with being introvert or insecure, and it’s not about lowering the performance expectations. It is about removing the breaks that are holding people back.
Turning psychological safety into a matter of individual assertiveness bears resemblance to the way some companies deal with mental health and stress (“it’s personal”). But it’s not personal; sustaining psychological safety is a key requirement on contemporary leadership.
Some teams are developing “house rules” or team charters, to set out to desired tone and behaviors. A great, easy-to-implement process, where unspoken expectations and reservations can be brought to the surface.
Businesses develop company values, where employees’ feeling of being valued and welcome will frequently feature centrally. Sometimes, the employees are even mentioned as the most important thing for the company and encouraged to bring their “true self” to work.
Truly belonging to a team, rather than just fitting in, means being accepted and valued – even if you’re different. Having your special skills and capabilities appreciated, and your background, boundaries and priorities respected.
This first day of the Ramadan is a good occasion to think about operationalizing your team or company value of belonging – or encouraging your employees to bring their “true self to work”. For Ramadan participants, the daily routine changes radically, almost to an extent where day becomes night and vice versa. Some businesses respect that, allowing their employees to start and leave earlier in the day (this is the case at global service giant ISS) or to have shorter working hours.
Team or company values are void of meaning and credibility if they are not expressed as behaviors. As desired behaviors, values become actionable guideposts, not just posters in the reception area.
For team members to “belong” rather than ”fit in” you’ll need to look at how you address sexism, racism, ethnocentrism, etc. The potential discomfort from having such discussions in your team will be totally worthwhile.
I just love this image of my grandmother, together with ALL of her siblings. What a crowd! Posing as #3 from the right, she was the oldest of the 11 children, her sister the youngest. You can guess who did the massive amounts of laundry.
From a family of hard-working and creative people, she herself was a warm and spirited young woman, an avid tap dancer who had to break off any plans of “making it” on stage – there was just too much work to do at home. Married with four children, she was widowed early. With no education, she got by as a seamstress, poorly paid and hard work which eventually made her fingers all crooked from arthritis.
I have so many memories from her home. The mixed scent of coffee and cigars, and the humming sound of the sewing machine. Always working as soon as my sisters and I were put to bed.
She had the most wonderful laugh and made cruel (great!) jokes about everyone we met. Always available for all her grandchildren (headcount: 10), cooking, sewing, reading bedside stories, keeping peace among us all. I remember her as a redhead and always found the color of her hair to go well with her temperament. Only later did I learn, this was a dye! She passed on years ago and must now be tap dancing in Heaven. A mover and a shaker for sure.
The New Year had a more somber tone than usual for me. Sure, I was happy to see 2020 go. But the start to 2021 was not the one I had hoped for: on the second morning of January, I lost my footing on black ice when walking the dog near the sea. Complicated bone fractures in both wrists and a twisted elbow were the unfortunate and painful results, leaving me with both arms in cast to the shoulders! Fortunately recovery is going well, and I will be resuming work and life (brushing my own teeth etc.) over the coming 2-3 weeks.
Setbacks can strike hard when you least expect it; they can also occur as the culmination of a long struggle. In any case, how you recover is largely dependent on your mindset. The most successful (ie non-traumatic) dealings with setbacks acknowledge the hardships as well as the silver linings. There is even a line of study investigating Post Traumatic Growth. This is not to be confused with false optimism, ignoring the pain; I’m skeptical of any approach distorting the truth.
Setbacks are a part of life, and the frequency will logically increase with your courage and exposure to new things. Executing a sweeping digital transformation of uncharted legacy technology? Leading your team from the distance? Home-schooling your children? Setbacks are guaranteed to happen. In my case, balancing on the edge of an icy harbor-front to see the view under a bridge was clearly too much of a physical challenge.
The solution is not resigning from life or not accepting a challenge. Both are negative results of unhealthy perfectionism, hampering sense of adventure and willingness to learn.
To build strength and resilience to better deal with setbacks (and failure, and other stressors of life), the important research of Stanford professor @Carol Dweck recommends cultivating your growth mindset.
An actual exercise in “growth mindset-building” from my online micro-training “Upside-Down View of Stress” goes like below. Think through (write, draw, talk with a friend, whatever works for you) your setback in these four steps:
Why was it important to overcome the setback?
Which convictions, attitudes or personal strengths helped you pull through?
Did you get any help from others?
This will activate your self-compassion and sense of connection. It’s not about analyzing deep emotions; there’s no mumbo-jumbo, it’s just looking at the truth, seeing yourself in the context of your own strengths and your important network of people. Not seeing yourself as a failure, or clumsy, or having to do everything yourself again.
The effect is remarkable.
As an example, regarding my own New Year setback, I’ve already mentioned what happened. The motivation for getting back to normal functioning should be obvious. I’m pulling through with my strong sense of personal responsibility for my health and well-being – doing all the ergo-therapy chores in spite of the pain, because I know it works. Did I get any help from others? You bet, for all kinds of things! I’m blessed with (and very grateful for) the dearest husband, family and friends, for the first weeks helping me with literally everything, and now keeping me company.
Engaging in conflict is often thought of as problem behavior to be avoided, especially in a workplace context.
into this world with a distaste for threats, our brains constantly scanning our
environment to avoid or eliminate them. Since conflicts can be hard on relationships,
and relationships in turn being something we crave for and need, conflicts can
be understood as a threat. This perception continues to be passed on between
generations, fuelled by every parent’s urge to train “good behaviors”: being
nice to others, staying silent if you have nothing positive to say etc. In Scandinavia
in particular, we are nice and polite and stay away from conflict if we can –
our social coherence is strong, impacting our behavior quite forcefully.
organizations, harmony is getting us nowhere. Conflict is a requirement for
development and growth, and frequently even a foundational element in organizational
design. Cross-functional teams have conflict – resolving different or opposed
interests – as the main purpose.
sales pursuits, my primary workplace for the last few decades, a cross-functional
team is mobilized to balance the interest of the client with the bidder’s risk
profile, financial health etc. Clearly a delicate balance when stakes are high
and executive leadership are watching closely. Conflict is perceived as
detrimental to teamwork, but the opposite: aiming for harmony, shutting conflict
down or letting it simmer under the carpets, may cause important issues to be
left un-explored, stifling collaboration and business growth.
can be very unpleasant, not least when driven by bad behavior, poor performance
or skills shortage. We may worry or even ruminate about conversations regarding
such topics, and conflict aversion can then lead to conflict avoidance, ie simply
not engaging in the conflict.
Thomas-Kilmann Instrument shows conflict as an activity in two dimensions: whether
any given approach meets your needs (level of assertiveness) and whether
it also meets the other party’s needs (level of cooperative-ness).
meet both sides’ needs is Collaborating, and to meet at least some of both side’s
needs is Compromising. A compromise is not the best outcome but the quickest
available option, as Chris Voss clearly illustrates in his book Never Split the
Difference: a compromise between black and brown shoes is to wear one black and
one brown, no swag at all!
own need and not caring about the other side is Competing; meeting the needs of
the other side without getting anything for yourself is Accommodating; and,
finally, not trying to get anyone’s needs met is Avoiding.
makes no sense, not for you, not for them. Topics are circumvented and
opportunity is drained. You change the subject, don’t call back, skip the
meeting – whatever it takes to not face the conflict, making no room for the
issue to be dealt with. Conflict-avoidance may buy you time, but it is unlikely
to make the conflict disappear. Pressure will build, and the conflict can even
grow larger when avoided.
But how to get
through it then? Focus on the positive outcomes that awaits when the conflict
is resolved. Your emotions will guide you, if you feel strongly about a
conflict it’s a sign that it’s touching something important to you. Don’t let emotions
take the steering wheel though! Stay calm, constructive and kind. Hard? Yes, but
not as hard as it sounds.
analogy: see conflict as a process like the one of hanging a tarp over your
tent. A good result requires people pulling from each corner; if one corner
pulls much harder than the other three, the tarp won’t hang properly. It’s not a tug-of-war.
the Conflict Code, developed by Liane Davey in “The Good Fight”, you may
prevent most conflicts and make the ones that are left, more productive and
less taxing on your well-being. The model is a three-step approach: “Establish
a line of communication”, “Create a connection” and “Contribute to a solution”.
Liane Davey includes a set of exercises
to train how to enable proactive management of tensions and interdependencies
in a cross-functional teams.
management is included in the half-day course “Teamwork in the Gig economy”, an
event designed for leaders, project managers and teams wanting to improve
collaboration, performance and respect. The event is introducing participants
to foundational skills for contemporary working life – willpower, self-awareness,
coaching, resilience, and can be tailored to fit actual needs in your team. More
and reflecting, setting goals and pondering about capabilities and strengths –
also good. Playing to the deep trends of optimizing everyone’s achievements and
inspired by bestseller books, many are developing their “Why”: the innermost
motivation and most powerful drivers to leave a mark in the world.
context of business, any change or dynamic will also be driven by a “Why”, a
goal substantiated by some form of business case driving financial benefits or
other types of improvement.
are interacting with clients to develop new joint opportunities, understanding
this particular type of “Why” is sought for like the Holy Grail. It bears different
labels such as Burning Platform, Core Business Problem, etc. The understanding
is preferably with rich and individually differentiated details, enabling
solution development and sales messaging to fit the requirement.
what type of product or service you are taking to market, there must be a
problem to solve or a need to fill. The Burning Platform is helping you
identify what that problem/need is. And the logical thing seems to be to
approach the client and ask: “Why are you XXX?” replacing XXX with whatever corporate
improvement program you can think of (reduce cost, grow revenue, reduce risk,
this particular question: “Why are you …..?” is unlikely to give you a
meaningful answer (and it might even be considered rude) for a number of
When we are asked Why we do things, we’ll examine the causes of our thoughts, feelings and behaviors. The human mind is prone to look for the easiest, most plausible answer and once that is found: to stop looking. The answer is therefore likely to be obvious tending towards the banal, eg: We are reducing costs to become more competitive. Doh!
Having to answer Why can have a negative impact on mental wellbeing. Responding to a Why-question can cause respondents (in this context: your clients!) to fixate on their problems and look for ways to place blame.
A person responding to a Why-question is likely to see situations from a victim’s point of view, rationalizing and justifying the addressed problem, explaining it away.
What, then, should we ask to explore the client’s thinking? Exactly that.
Ask “What” in stead of “Why” and you’ll see a different behavior and response quality. A “What” question (as in, eg: “What’s going on?”. “What’s the outcome you want to see?”, “What is the type of business you are now pursuing?”) will keep your client’s mind open to discover new information, even if this new information is negative or even in conflict with existing beliefs. What-questions are generating high-value discovery and potential solutions from the conversation.
questions stir negative emotions, draw focus to our limitations and puts the
spotlight on the past; “What” questions keep us curious, help us see potential
and look to the future.
exist, of course: in some situations, you need to know every painful detail of
the past (root cause analysis of operational failures, product launch failures
etc). But for a business conversation trying to open up new opportunities based
on insight into a Burning Platform, this is not what you need.
Left to its own
devices, the human brain will find negative uncertainty as stressful as actual
negative outcomes. Although the statistical probability of falling prey to the
Covid-19 pandemic may be a low number, this will not be enough for an
individual person to feel safe. The normal access to social support (for most,
an effective stress relief) is currently limited by Social Distancing, adding
to the problem.
Assuming that everyone
is just a bit more worried than normally, and with days in our own company at
hand, now is a good time to train how to get rid of worries and keep calm. The
skills are always, and they will remain useful when we return to the anthill of
modern working life; to overcome challenges more easily and learn more from
them; to collaborate more effectively with people we don’t like; to stay cool in
the face of provocations; in sum, to not get bogged down by the unexpected
crisis, mistake or unwelcome surprise.
In general, humans
have a great ability to adjust to new circumstances and become happy (again). This,
too, shall pass – but for those able to mobilize their brain’s “discovery”
state, the bouncing back will happen with less effort.
Our brains are constantly
scanning the environment for threats and rewards – to avoid/defend against or
seek out/discover, respectively. Defensive state is comparable to the knee-jerk
reaction causing you to respond to emails (too) quickly or sneer at the
colleague cutting the line at the coffee machine. It is also keeping you safe
in traffic and around predators. The neurological basis is the familiar fight-or-flight
response, automated and very fast but also inflexible and not always useful. Thinking
back through the thousands of email responses I have seen; I can’t think of a
single one that couldn’t wait 10 minutes. The colleague skipping the line could
be someone you’d like to have a favorable impression of you.
Discovery state is
engaging your deliberate self, noticing what is going on and letting you connect
with your best behaviors, goals and intellect. This engine is slower but more advanced,
stimulated by feelings of pleasure and reward. Research shows how we’re able to
solve more complex issues (most social issues are complex btw) and make more
advanced analysis in discovery state, with our minds not being cluttered by the
panicky fight-or-flight neurotransmitters.
Defend or discover?
As with most functions of the brain, it’s not an either-or; it’s not even a sliding
scale from defend to discover or vice versa. It’s two completely different and
separate reaction patterns, present at the same time to deal with different
types of situations, but with shifting command over your attention. You may
open a call prepared and with all the best intentions, but a comment challenging
your professional capability instantly activates a defensive reaction pattern.
Defensive state is
not good for business, ever! No sneering at the coffee machine, no snappy email
responses (no matter how fast), no surly skype comments, etc etc. Letting off
steam should only happen in 100% friendly environments, and only upon prior
explicit agreement with everyone involved. Not very likely to be part of anyone’s
So, back to the
training of coolness skills. Evidence-based interventions you can rehearse on
your own come in different varieties, and can help you improve how to manage your
reaction to a sudden unwelcome surprise, to move on from unpleasant feelings
that have been nagging you for a while, and improve your ability to manage
Affect labeling is where you label your emotions, call them out clearly by their official name.
Clearly articulating the fact that there is a problem will cause the brain to silence
its alarm bells. Mind you, this is the exact opposite of “sucking it up”:
suppressing negative emotions will cause your physiological stress response to
increase. Affect labelling is not pondering endlessly about your negative emotions
– this could lead to draining rumination and sleepless nights. It’s merely to
acknowledge how you feel, before you start working out what to do next, in
writing or verbally with someone you trust.
Distancing; here, it’s not about social distance
– it’s about making a distance to your own perspective, trying to see your
situation from the outside. You can
trick your brain by simply talking to yourself, addressing yourself in second
person – in stead of saying “I’m really worried about this meeting tomorrow”,
say “You’re really worried about this meeting tomorrow”. Or imagine you’ll be
advising a friend about a similar situation.
Mobilize your Discovery state by asking yourself reward
questions (no, not bonus. You’re looking for reward which materializes much faster,
plus it needs to be totally within your own control). Examples are “How have I
managed to overcome difficulties like these in the past?”. “What capabilities
helped me last time?”. “What can I learn from this?”. A strong sense of purpose is super-rewarding
and will always help mobilize the discovery state, however it can be tricky to process
when you’re in a negative state of mind – a reduced version will be to focus on
“What’s the most important now?”.
Breathe, with your belly! Diaphragmatic breathing – deep, slow breathing for 90 seconds
– will instantly reduce your level of stress hormones. And no one will notice
(not even when we get back into the office!).
Some of these tactics require a bit of time and thinking, which is why I am suggesting you practice them now, in the safe harbor of your home office. Others, like the breathing exercise, is a response that will help instantly and only requires you to remember that you have it at your disposal. This is harder than it sounds, and requires willpower (which can also be trained, check out this previous post for more about how to do that).
Wishing everyone less worries and more discovery.
Findings in this
post are sourced from the brilliant book “How to have a good day” by economist
and former McKinsey Partner Caroline Webb.
Many of us are working
from home for at least a few weeks, spending hours every day in isolation.
Modern life on a “normal
day” is filled with social distractions from the buzz of co-workers in large office
spaces. We are social beings with a constant impulse to connect – but for a while,
the social buzz will be silenced, and we’re having to seek social interaction online.
Online meetings are
safe and hygienic replacements for real human interaction. However, it takes
focus to bring out the human qualities of communication in the somewhat
unidimensional web meeting. But with effort and planning, maintaining your
social exchange creates a feeling of security and normality (and is also an
effective way to reduce anxiety and stress).
Advice is everywhere
on how to run productive online meetings – how to plan agendas, which tools to
use for whiteboarding etc. Allow me therefore to only make a few suggestions on
how to make online meetings more human, helping to maintain the
friendships at work that are so critical to our engagement:
Make it a deliberate priority in your team to have human online meetings, at least for as long as the current isolation is in force.
Take turns to do the thoughtful planning of this, eg to formulate a non-work question for all participants to answer at the start of the meeting. Make sure everyone gets time before the meeting to prepare.
Turn on the video. This improves the focus from all participants and introduces the option to have a bit of fun. Why not show your co-workers around the house? Compare coffee machines? Introduce family pets?
Make sure your voice is clearly associated with your full name, and that both are known to all participants. “Ghosts” in the call will prohibit everyone else from being open. It’s hard to exaggerate the importance of proper introduction in online meetings.
For corporate video content, organize Movie Nights (or rather, afternoons) to view them together instead of streaming individually.
Finish your agenda 5-8 minutes before the meeting ends, to have time for “watercooler talk”. The kind of informal evaluation that would normally happen in the corridors after a face-to-face meeting. This can be solicited with a question: “Does anyone disagree with the conclusions we just made?”.
Would you consider using any of these ideas? If yes how did it go? As you can imagine I’m isolated and hungry for comments.
I was recently made aware of a so-called “crab analogy”: A fishmonger cannot be bothered to keep a lid
on a bucket of crabs. Even though many of them will be able to climb over the
edge and escape, the other crabs will make sure to pull this potential escapist
back into the bucket (ultimately securing the demise of the whole gang, but let’s
focus on the “pulling back” for now).
In the analogy to humans, the way of thinking can best be
described as “if I can’t have it, neither can you”. Allegedly, we like to see
friends get ahead, but not too far ahead. People, driven by envy or spite, will
work hard to block your success.
I’m not subscribing to this analogy. My view of human beings
remains positive, and I keep seeing evidence of empathy and support. Our
ability as social beings to connect, care and support, is hardwired in our DNA.
It’s even visible as a certain quality of stress response,
known as “tend-and-befriend”: in stressful times, we may become trusting,
generous and prepared to risk our own well-being, all to be able to protect
others (: our offspring). Tend-and-befriend is designed to overrule our own
survival instincts: we feel fearless, and feel that our actions really matter. Stimulated
by the brain’s release of oxytocin, dopamine
and serotonin, our fear is reduced and
we are more social, brave and smart. A gift from evolution to our kids.
And a gift that can
keep on giving: you can actually trick your brain into activating
tend-and-befriend. It’s very simple: help others. Helping others is indeed a
surprisingly, even counter-intuitively, effective relief against stress. If you
are in a period of feeling overwhelmed, look for a way to help others, it will
help you. You’ll be able to register the same effect by pursuing goals bigger
than your “own”. If you see your own job in the bigger picture: how is my contribution
viewed in the perspective of what it contributes to users, clients, leadership,
the company mission? Exploring your “why” is bound to improve job satisfaction.
So, what’s the limitation here? Tend-and-befriend is not the
only possible response in stressful times, sometimes we get angry, even crabby.
But the way we think is critical to
our experience, not as in ”thinking positively” about a traumatic event. But as
awareness of our biology’s potential to help. And – importantly – as the
awareness that isolation and loneliness will block your well-being and
Remind yourself, that feeling challenged and overwhelmed, at
least some of the time, is a universal experience. And that one of the greatest
sources of resilience is to engage with others, not to stay away for fear of crabbiness.
By the way: I hear the reason the crabs are pulling each
other down is simply that they are trying to escape, pulling on everything they
can lay their delicious claws on. The poor thing has been taken out of its
natural liquid environment and will do anything to get back. Another case of instincts trying to