Thinking about how much she appreciated Barry sharing his ideas with her after last week’s meeting, Blair reminds herself how intimidating it can be to be open with a new boss. She recalls what it was like with her previous manager, Owen. Very few people shared anything with him, good or bad. Owen was as known for his quick wit in response to good news as he was for the biting quips with which he met bad news.
Blair drops Barry a quick note, letting him know that his input about last week’s meeting was just the type of collaborative spirit she wants in the team. She asks what ideas he has for encouraging others to share their opinions about team dynamics.
An hour later, Barry appears in her office, eager to share his thoughts. Blair quickly learns that the department’s previous manager, Gia, was not quite as dismal as Owen had been. Still, Gia hadn’t fostered a workplace where people tried new things or shared more than they had to.
Barry tells a story about how, two years earlier, a few employees in the department had proposed a way to route their work more efficiently. Gia voiced her lack of enthusiasm yet still agreed to let the team put the new approach in place, without any testing or trial runs. The timing was unfortunate, however, because just as the new process began, unexpected legal changes required that many contracts be quickly revised, forcing the department to revert to the previous process to get the work done on time. Gia immediately deemed the new process a failure and, over the next couple of years, used it to illustrate the perils of trying out new ideas of any kind. Innovation in the department ground to a halt as the team kept their heads down and did only what was required.
Thinking back to her interview for this job with Ms. Barton, Blair now understands why Ms. Barton put so much emphasis on the need to modernize the department and address the programs’ concerns about outdated processes.
After hearing Barry’s story, Blair realizes that her team probably is not comfortable enough yet to really test out some new ways of doing things. She tells herself that, even though her leadership style is different from Gia’s, it will take time for people to get to a state where they can really trust her and each other. But, Blair reasons, if she takes a consistent approach, she can get them to make progress. It will just take a bit of time and focused energy on her part. After all, they do have to get new processes in place to keep up with the volume and pace of work.
Blair tells Barry, “That story explains a lot about how the team operates. You certainly seem frustrated that you can’t do things more efficiently to support your customers. How do you think the rest of the team feels?”
“I think almost everyone is frustrated with how slow and inefficient things have become,” Barry answers. “A few of us are probably willing to go out on a limb and try something new. The rest will come around in time.”
Before we get into the details of routines and levers, we need to cover the most important concept in an agile organization: enabling employees to feel that they will not be embarrassed, rejected, or punished for embracing new routines. Another way of saying this, using terms from chapter 1, is that employees need to feel that it’s safe to sense, interpret, and respond to changes that affect, or could affect, their organization. This feeling is called psychological safety. Just as we feel physically safe when we make sure to lock our front door or not walk alone at night, we feel psychologically safe when we know that we can share our thoughts and ideas with others and they will listen without being insensitive and hypercritical. In a work setting, psychological safety is the feeling that you can take a risk when interacting with coworkers, direct reports, and others, and still emerge respected and valued.
This feeling is not a mere nice-to-have. Without a minimum level of psychological safety, people are unlikely to feel comfortable sharing information, having transparent discussions, or trying out new ways to respond to changes. Indeed, in many traditional organizations, these behaviors are not encouraged. Instead, employees are expected to do their job, with sensing, interpreting, and responding routines carried out only by those with formal authority. And employees who do try to engage in agility routines are often discouraged through formal punishment, such as a reprimand in their personnel file or a low rating on their performance review. Employees can also be discouraged in more subtle ways, through remarks such as “That’s not your job” or “Let me worry about how this change will impact your job.” Discouragement can be nonverbal, as well, such as an eye roll from a colleague, a shake of the head from a boss, or an employee suggestion simply going ignored. Further, staff members don’t even have to experience discouragement personally to get the message—seeing how others are treated is often enough to learn which behaviors are not tolerated or valued. In other words, psychological safety is foundational. It forms the basis for agility routines and is a necessary condition for changing how the organization carries out work.
As a leader with foresight and an eye on the trends in your domain, your instincts might tell you to start by asking your team to pay closer attention to events and patterns that could have an impact on their work—to sense what’s happening around them. However, if they don’t feel psychologically safe, then asking them to engage in sensing may feel not only pointless but scary. To address this, first find ways to encourage a sense of trust. This is especially important as you are just beginning the journey toward agility. For example, when someone mentions a new piece of legislation that could affect the long-term prospects of your organization, thank them for sharing that information—in public if possible. When an employee takes a few minutes to talk with a colleague about a new type of customer request, let them know that’s a valuable discussion. When a colleague sends you an article describing new technology that could improve your team’s efficiency, tell them how much you appreciate their taking the time to send it—and ask them to present their thoughts at the next all-hands meeting. When someone with good intentions tries something new and doesn’t succeed as well as they’d hoped to, praise them for the attempt and encourage them to try again, sharing their learnings along the way.
In a moment, we’ll explore other actions you can take to build psychological safety, but first, let’s take a moment to understand some of the science behind why our brains require this sense of refuge. We’ll briefly explore why it’s so easy to feel unsafe and then describe some specific actions you can take to enhance this type of well-being in your workplace.
To get everyone on board with agility—paying attention to what’s changing and what might impact the organization, initiating conversations about events that could impact the work, sharing information openly, trying out new ways to do work or improve productivity—everyone must feel that it’s safe to do so. But what do people need in order to feel “safe” in the workplace—that is, to feel that it’s okay to offer suggestions or try something new? Or that it’s okay to give a coworker positive feedback for testing a new way to perform a task?
Research from neuroscience finds that our brains continuously and unconsciously scan our surroundings for threats. This “always on alert” function made sense thousands of years ago, when humans needed to be on the lookout for predators and enemies. Unfortunately for our coworkers and bosses, our brain is still always scanning for threats. Our brain remains always on alert, even though threats no longer come in the form of a wild animal or warring faction. Today’s hazards are different—a micromanaging boss, a co-worker who spreads gossip, and meetings where innovative ideas get shot down. So our brains are attuned to even small hazards, such as that coworker’s furrowed brow when we offer an idea or an impatient sigh when we excitedly describe what we learned in a webinar. All of these modern-day hazards can make us feel embarrassed, ashamed, or like our thoughts are unwelcome or illogical. And more import ant, they discourage us from partaking in those behaviors again. That’s because when we feel threatened, we naturally move into a self-protective mode of operating. And this defensive crouch reduces our creativity and willingness to take risks.
We can’t help but feel this way. It happens automatically and usually unconsciously. It also happens instantaneously—neuroscience research indicates that it takes only 8 milliseconds to identify a hazard that triggers a fight-or-flight response. However, it takes longer—40 milliseconds—for the thinking and reasoning part of our brain to start working. The difference between 8 and 40 milliseconds might not sound like a lot, but it was a big enough difference to keep our ancestors alive. And in today’s workplace it’s a big enough difference to stop people from speaking up in meetings or contributing ideas during brainstorming.
However, there is still hope! A good starting point is knowing that it’s easy for people to feel that they could be embarrassed, ashamed, or punished when they act with good intentions—and that it is possible to create a workplace that minimizes those feelings. Also know that, while you might have little control over changes that impact your organization, you do have control over how people experience those changes.
As a leader, your most important job is to create psychological safety in your own sphere of influence: your work setting. Although you will need to get everyone on board with the concept, it’s up to you to start addressing it. You will need help from other leaders, both those with overt authority and those who lead from behind. Leaders at all levels are a primary influence over employees’ sense of psychological safety.
You’ll also want to pay attention to how coworkers impact each other’s psychological safety. Praising one of your direct reports for offering to give a lunchtime presentation about industry trends will probably be negated if his coworker says, “That sounds like a waste of time.” It’s easy for just one person to tear down the psychological safety that has been carefully built up over time, so you’ll want a cadre of supportive associates ready to notice signs of fear or withdrawal and to help you respond. You’ll also want to try to encourage people to provide positive rather than negative feedback to enhance the feeling that it’s safe to propose a new idea.
As you start to enhance psychological safety in your organization, remember to take a consistent approach. It takes time for people to learn to trust you and each other. Some people may get there sooner than others. How exactly do you know if your team feels a sense of psychological safety? Let’s take a look at ways you can answer that question.
Most people are familiar with the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” However, when it comes to creating psychological safety, the Platinum Rule—”Treat others the way they would like to be treated”—is better. The Platinum Rule acknowledges that everyone is different and that we shouldn’t assume or infer that others want to be treated the same way we do.
If you are just beginning the process of building psychological safety on your team, it can be helpful to spend time with team members individually to learn more about each person’s communication and workstyle preferences. Then create time for the group to learn those things about each other.
Asking people about their preferences may seem like a simple, maybe even insignificant, action, but this process indicates to your team members that you are paying attention and that their needs matter. This conversation is helpful whether your team is newly forming or whether you have worked with each other for years.
You will probably hear some common themes as well as some individual differences. Even seemingly small differences that emerge are important to pay attention to. For example, most people want to be recognized when they do excellent work, but while some enjoy being recognized in a staff meeting, others prefer their boss pull them aside for a private, heartfelt “good job.” To start to understand how your employees want to be treated, ask them directly. Consider framing the conversation something like this: “Thanks for making time for me today. I’d like to make sure the way we are communicating across our team meets everyone’s needs, and I’m starting by polling the staff in person. Okay if I ask you some questions? There are no right or wrong answers—don’t worry.” If you get a green light, forge ahead with questions like these:
Engaging in conversations like this helps builds trust—and psychological safety—in a variety of ways. It establishes two-way communication and provides team members with the ability to give input on ways they would like you to engage with them. Starting an ongoing conversation about their preferences also demonstrates that you care about their ideas and views. People’s preferences can change over time, however, so remember to also build in time for periodic pulse checks. And be sure to act on what they say—they will notice if the conversation goes nowhere.
Finally, another question to ask, and act upon, is in regard to feedback about your leadership style. Encourage your team to give you concrete, specific feedback on how your actions affect them. In chapter 1, Barry did a great job providing upward feedback when he let Blair know that making a list of all the changes the team was experiencing sent a positive message to the team. Blair’s actions were beneficial, and Barry felt safe enough to give Blair constructive feedback when asked; hopefully, that’s a start to Barry offering upward feedback when he sees the need for it.
Likewise, you will need to be receptive to suggestions for modifying your behavior based on input from your team. Showing that you are willing to listen to—and act on—upward feedback will not only help you develop as a leader but will also further enhance your team’s sense of safety.
Promoting curiosity is another action you can take to increase your team’s sense of psychological safety. When your organization is getting hit from all sides with constant, unpredictable change, no one person, not even a leader, can know everything there is about the changes, let alone how to respond to them. An agile organization needs everyone to be curious about what’s happening within and outside the work environment—and to be curious about how to design responses.
For a leader, curiosity often means having a thirst for information and knowledge that can guide decisions. Like many leaders, you might find that you rely less on your technical or functional skills and more on your interpersonal and leadership skills. You probably rely on people who have up-to-date technical expertise to balance your judgment and inform your decisions. It’s probably also impossible to know everything that is happening across different departments and divisions, even when situational awareness is imperative. Although it can be faster to simply make a decision in the moment, without first looking for relevant information, being curious about what others are thinking and doing might help ensure that your decisions are not just well-informed but also defensible.
Constructive debate is another technique you can use to bring different perspectives to bear. Rather than pitting people against each other, ask some people to make a case for one solution and others to argue for a different solution. Start by explaining that your intent is to get them to think about the solutions from a variety of perspectives in order to bring the best solution to light. For this technique to work, you’ll need to enforce the ground rule that people are debating the merits of the possible solutions—not arguing with each other; the goal is not to have one side win but to have the whole team win by finding the best solution or at least by identifying possible solutions to test. You also could ask people to debate (not argue) for the opposite side. This can enhance psychological safety by showing that ideas can be interrogated without assailing the person offering the idea. Part of building organizational agility is testing out responses to new situations and problems, which requires employees to feel safe sharing their ideas.
To encourage others to be curious outside of activities that you design for them, you can make sure that people understand the benefits of gathering and discussing information as well as trying out new solutions. For example, if you call together a cross-functional group to address a certain problem, you might explain that you are intentionally ensuring that multiple perspectives are represented—in order to yield the best solution—and then make sure that the solution is accepted by those affected. When doing this, your tone is extremely important. Rather than a tone of judgment, take a tone that conveys, “What can I, as the leader, learn from what you discover?” This latter tone is more likely to generate a rich set of responses.
Another action that encourages curiosity is to explicitly ask for people’s ideas and input into problems and decisions. By doing so, you demonstrate your own curiosity while role-modeling the behaviors that you want to see in others.
When others then share their ideas and input, be sure to listen—really listen—to what they have to say. One way to do this is through active listening. Some tips for engaging in active listening:
Also, acknowledge the person’s input, letting them know you value their effort. A simple “Thank you for sharing that” or “This information will really be helpful” can be powerful. More importantly, be sure to act on their input and acknowledge their contribution. Almost everyone finds it frustrating to take the time to research a topic or hunt down some information, only to have it be ignored by a decision-maker. Even if the information ends up not directly informing a decision, still take time to acknowledge the effort and value in their work. It is likely the information they gathered will come in handy at some point, even if you don’t know when or how. You might affirm their efforts by telling them about a time when a team member found information that later solved a problem or helped identify a blind spot.
Leaders in agile organizations reward appropriate, well-intentioned behaviors, even if the results of those behaviors are not what they expected. You might have heard sayings such as “Don’t punish mistakes” or “Try to learn from failure” used to describe this concept. While we agree with the intent of these sayings, we believe that using terms such as mistakes and failure can still detract from psychological safety and are, therefore, best avoided when discussing outcomes. Alternatively, get in the habit of using the term misstep to refer to honest mistakes. Ask what missteps happened when the team tried the new approach and then ask, “What did you learn from this experience?”
Agile leaders do not consider something a mistake or failure unless an employee intentionally engaged in the wrong behavior. If the employee flouted a rule on purpose, for example, then you’ll want to hold them accountable and make them understand that the behavior is unacceptable. Generally, however, we suggest that you assume positive intent. Reward informed, innovative behavior even if the outcome was not favorable, making your reasoning clear to the team member.
Very rarely does something go wrong because an employee was intentionally negligent. More often, you are not aware of the information that was available to the employee at the time. Learning from unexpected challenges can further refine sensing and responding practices by telling you which events to focus on or which steps might get you closer to a solution. In the end, spending time focused on learning is more productive and valuable than spending that time attributing blame. An agile leader distinguishes between the behavior and the results and, in this way, helps employees understand clearly what they are supposed to be doing.
Focusing on specific, desirable behaviors will help you with another essential trust-building tool: giving productive feedback. Often, people associate feedback with something negative or punitive. In an organization focused on increasing psychological safety, providing productive feedback is an essential part of building trust. By taking time to give feedback, you show people that they are worth investing in, which enhances trust. You also demonstrate that you are paying attention to their actions, which helps them understand that the choices they make matter.
One technique for building trust and psychological safety is to aim for making 80 percent of the feedback you provide over time specific and positive. You want to “catch” people doing things well. With this positive focus, you provide valuable information about what the employee was doing right and should continue to do. When you give feedback, be sure to focus on the desirable behaviors as well as any positive results. Those behaviors might include effective decision-making, improved outcomes, or contributions to the psychological safety of the team.
When you do need to tell an employee that she is not doing something right, try to present that feedback constructively and from a developmental perspective. A powerful formula for building trust quickly is to focus on a specific behavior that happened at a particular time and place, along with the impact of the behavior on you or the situation. For example, if a teammate is dominating the discussion at a meeting, you could say, “You know, at today’s meeting, I noticed that you talked for about thirty-five minutes, which meant that we didn’t have time to get to two important agenda items.” This formula focuses on the specific behavior, not the person, which helps defuse the person’s natural tendency to be defensive. After practicing this formula a few times, you’ll probably find many opportunities to use it each day, mostly focusing on catching people doing things well.
Once you have established a strong relationship with each employee and developed the skill of providing feedback, you can give additional information about any negative impact that employees’ actions might have had on project outcomes or other team members. When you provide this level of feedback only 20 percent of the time, employees recognize that you are still paying attention to their work and are focused on helping them build their strengths rather than looking for their wrongdoings.
Developmental feedback should also focus on behaviors or skills that could be helpful in the future. You could provide your thoughts on what those behaviors or skills might be, or you might ask the employee what he could do differently or how he could be better prepared in the future. For example, you might say, “When your slides were out of order for the presentation, the audience seemed confused and likely didn’t get as much out of it as they could have. Given your career goals, you’ll probably want to continue to develop your presentation skills. What ideas do you have for preparing for the next presentation? How can I help?” When used in this way, people begin to realize that you are paying attention to them—their effort matters—and that you are noticing the good things they are doing. This formula for providing feedback further enhances trust and psychological safety, which makes it easier when you need to give feedback in the future.
When situations rapidly evolve and change, it can be easy to make a decision that doesn’t go well. As a leader, acknowledge that your instructions, guidance, and decisions are affected by what you do and don’t know. Although it’s easier to give clear direction when you know the situation, it becomes harder to provide clear direction when the situation is volatile and has many unknowns.
For example, a cross-functional team that is asked by a leader to find a solution to a problem will first need to define the problem. Rather than relying on the leader’s understanding of the issue, the team may want to gather and discuss information (i.e., engage in sensing and interpreting routines). They may find, especially in a volatile environment, that the real problem differs from what the leader originally described. By understanding the real problem, the team is more likely to find an effective solution. If the team explains the redefined problem to the leader, who responds with, “That’s not the problem I asked you to solve,” then psychological safety will immediately plummet. The team will probably spend considerable time thinking about the solution the leader wants to see and not the solution that will solve the problem. In contrast, an agile leader enhances psychological safety by listening to the team explain the real problem and then praising them for investigating and understanding the issue before finding a solution. And an agile leader acknowledges that she doesn’t know everything—including her own blind spots!
Finally, once people begin sharing their ideas and thoughts with you, make sure they know that you appreciate it. Thank them for their feedback and acknowledge their contributions and effort. When things don’t wind up the way you or the team had hoped—a plan goes awry or a desired outcome doesn’t materialize—focus on what can be learned from the experience, not on what went wrong. And, when you do get the results you want, be sure to highlight the behaviors that led to those good results and to celebrate that success collectively.
Leaders often share with us that, although they tell their employees, “This is a safe space,” no one shares information, asks for help with a problem, or talks about what they’ve learned. Sometimes this happens because the team sticks with what it learned from a previous leader. Other times, the leader has good intentions but hasn’t yet demonstrated to the team that it’s safe, and expected, to try something new. An example is when a leader delegates a decision and says, “It’s your decision. Just let me know what you choose to do.” The team member then makes a decision, but it is overruled by the leader. Or the team member is asked to reconsider the decision because it wasn’t the same decision the leader would have made; and when the team member comes back with a new decision, it is also questioned by the leader. While the leader might think he is showing high standards or coaching the team member to make better decisions, what he is really doing is teaching the team that their decisions, no matter how well thought out, are not good enough. Even though they’ve been told they are empowered, they begin to feel disempowered. Another way to say this is that team members have learned that it is not psychologically safe to make a decision, regardless of what the leader says.
The truth is that psychological safety is based on employees’ experiences, not only on what they hear the leader say. Consider Blair’s important realization as she started to work with her team: that simply telling them that they could share what they learned without fear or embarrassment would not help them do so. Rather, she knew that she needed to invest effort in demonstrating that they would not be punished or embarrassed. She would also need to demonstrate this using a consistent approach over a period of time to show them that they could trust her as well as each other.
After a few team meetings, Blair realizes that her team is not yet engaging in a lot of back-and-forth discussion or even gently challenging her ideas, let alone those of others. She wants the team to get to the point that they feel comfortable sharing their past experience and expertise, while helping them vet ideas before implementing them. Based on what she learned from her mentor, Carmen, she decides to start having twenty-minute one-on-one conversations with her direct reports to help them come to know her as someone who is genuinely concerned about their well-being and understands the challenges they face.
Blair puts together a short agenda and sends it to each person with the meeting request. She wants to make sure they know what the conversation will be about—that it’s not anything punitive or investigative, but rather just a conversation to help her understand the business better. She asks them to come prepared to share three recent examples: something that they are proud of their team for accomplishing, something that they are proud of accomplishing as an individual, and a current challenge that they are working on.
Blair’s first one-on-one meeting is with Barry. As she gathers her thoughts beforehand, Blair reminds herself to spend most of the time listening, not talking. “If someone does ask for my input,” Blair thinks, “I need to remember to ask them what their thoughts are first.” She also wants to ask for Barry’s ideas on how to make their team meetings more productive. When Barry arrives, he seems pretty receptive to the meeting format. He gives some great examples of recent work that he is proud of, which Blair had not known about. When she asks about ideas for the team meeting, Barry tells her that the previous boss would often ask for ways to improve the meeting but then would never make any changes, so people might not yet be open to saying what they really think about the meeting.
Blair recognizes that there’s a lot of history behind the team’s lack of willingness to speak up—some team members just seem quiet, while others may not feel a sense of inclusion on a team that has increased in diversity of backgrounds over the past few years. It’s not a matter of simply practicing good meeting skills. She decides to start with a new meeting segment called “What have I learned?” Knowing that it will take time to build trust and psychological safety, Blair starts off the segment at the next meeting by sharing what she learned this week. It’s small—a mistake she made in pronouncing a senior person’s name in a meeting. But she then explains that she will avoid future embarrassment by finding out pronunciations ahead of time. The second week, Blair picks an example that’s a little more meaningful. She talks about a team that she was on a few years ago that was blamed when something went unexpectedly wrong. That event negatively affected that team’s ability to make informed decisions, which had, in turn, reduced the team’s productivity.
The following week, Blair opens up the segment for others to share their stories, and she is pleasantly surprised when several team members talk about positive outcomes as well as lessons they learned from unanticipated outcomes. Blair thanks each team member, explaining, “I am really learning a lot about each of you and how your experiences can contribute to the team. Sharing what you learned will help others learn from your experiences. It also helps us know that we can trust each other.”
After a couple of months, Blair lets the team know that they will continue to spend a few minutes each week sharing what they learned, whether it’s something that went well or not. And she says that she thinks they can incorporate their willingness to talk about what they have learned into other work discussions. “If we can talk openly about challenges, then I know that we can solve problems together,” Blair tells them. “Each of us has a role to play in improving our team’s productivity.”
Blair feels confident that building up the team’s ability to share without feeling insecure will pay off. She knows that she won’t get the team to approach work differently if they don’t trust each other.