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The Secret Sauce of High-Performing Teams

For most of my fifteen-year coaching career, I have promoted the idea that high-performing teams must have a foundation of trust. I’d advise my clients that if team members don’t trust each other, there is little likelihood they’ll demonstrate healthy conflict about ideas or hold each other accountable. When reviewing team performance with a client, I would dutifully pull out Lencioni’s “Five Behaviors” teamperformance model. We’d talk about trust on the team and it felt like the model provided some great insight 

Now, several years later, I realize I was oversimplifying and overemphasizing the role trust plays in team performanceit’s more complicated than I thought! My work and some recent reading have dramatically changed my thinking.

I have learned a lot from my CEO clients, who are exceptional leaders with high-performing companies who outperform their industry peers. You can imagine that I’ve often asked myself: “What’s the secret sauce of their success?” When I think about these leaders, they are terrific operators who are deeply trusted by team members for their expertise, but, more importantly, they are trusted for who they are as people. They are very likeable and have great personal stories (that doesn’t mean that “being liked” is important to them). These leaders are accessible, nonthreatening, and positive in their leadership style.

It’s only in recent years that I’ve come to understand that they are succeeding because they create a lot of “safety” on their top team and throughout the organization. This was my breakthrough understanding—which leads to a second question: “Can you coach a leader to create psychological safety?” I believe it’s possible, but it requires some deep work and it’s not a fast process.

Before we get to that work, let’s start with a definition and some background.

What is “psychological safety”? While there are formal definitions, my definition is that safety exists when people are free to be themselves and express themselves without fear of consequence. It exists when people feel free to share their truth and tell the truth. It’s also uncommon. The term “psychological safety” was coined by Dr. Amy Edmondson and I highly recommend her book, The Fearless Organization.

Why is safety important? Various studies, including Google’s Project Aristotle, have found that of all the possible drivers of team performance, psychological safety is the most important. When psychological safety is low, fear triggers the self-censoring instinct and people divert productive energy into risk management, self-preservation, and pain avoidance. When psychological safety is created by the team leader, people will engage more deeply and offer discretionary effort to deliver outcomes.

While Amy Edmondson’s book is excellent, one of my high-performing CEOs recently shared another excellent book, by Dr. Donna Hicks: Leading with Dignity. I was so enthralled by the book, I read half of it in one day! Dr. Hicks has a pretty simple thesis: People will feel safe and contribute at a much higher level when they feel their dignity is recognized and respected.

Both books are written by academics and are thus quite theoretical. Dr. Edmondson devotes the final third of her book to practices and it’s quite thin on examples from her own work. Dr. Hicks is a conflict-resolution expert. I would describe her book as “theoretical”; it is an easier read that provides some tips about how to lead when dignity is at the center of your leadership approach (she also provides guidance for organizations). So, given the gaps in both books, I have my own suggestions for applying an approach to create a safe organization.

How do you create more psychological safety for the teams you lead or participate in?
First, let’s dispense with the notion that you can “leave your emotions at the door” when you go to work. That is simply not possible for humans. We all have a complex “emotional infrastructure” that drives our behavior. Much of my work has focused on helping leaders manage their emotions and develop their Emotional Intelligence (EQ).

With that in mind, here are ten of the most common exercises I assign to my clients that will also allow you to create psychological safety. Some are based on truly deepening your Emotional Intelligence (a complex undertaking) and others are purely tactical exercises. If you have some ideas/practices of your own, I’d love to hear from you at damien@damienfaughnan.com.

1. Monitor Your Reaction. You need to ask yourself: How do I react when I hear what I don’t like? How do I respond to people who bring me bad news? Pay attention to creating some curiosity when people tell you what might be bad news or ideas that are different from yours. Can you get curious about the other person’s thinking? Sometimes it’s helpful to use the “90-second rule” before you respond vs. react to a colleague (and sometimes it takes 24 hours). Another practice is to ask three questions before you respond to an idea you don’t like.

2. “Read the Field.” Learn to pay attention to what’s happening for people in a meeting. Who looks surprised? Who has withdrawn? Who has a visible reaction to what you are saying? Pay attention to how people are responding to you. If you say something awkwardly (don’t we all!), say something like, “Well, that came out all wrong. Let me try it again.” If there is one EQ skill every leader should work on, it’s demonstrating empathy.

3. Assign Dissent. In meetings where important decisions are being made, you’ll typically have the same people who express contrarian views (it gets old and I’m sure they get tired). A best practice on a team is to assign “dissent” to 2–3 people who are expected to poke holes in a proposal or idea. Tension and conflict will always exist on a team; assigning dissent brings it into the open in a safer, more contained way. This approach is especially important when a company is trying to change its culture of “niceness” or fear.

4. Create Disclosure. When team members are vulnerable, trust is built. Start every meeting with a question that requires some personal disclosure. This humanizes colleagues and allows us to decouple the person from their ideas or role. Here are some examples:

a. What was the first thing you saved up for?
b. What was the toughest thing you encountered growing up?
c. What’s the craziest thing you’ve ever done?
d. Who in your family or community do you admire the most?
e. What’s your favorite place to visit and why?
f. What is one fear from your childhood that has not materialized?
g. If you had not chosen your current career, what other career would you have pursued?

5. Speak Last. The higher you are in the hierarchy, the more important it is to speak last. It’s not a great idea to say something like, “I’d like us to have an open discussion about X, and I’ll kick off with my thinking (about X).” Make it a regular practice to honor ideas before articulating your own. Note what you have learned.

6. Learn Unique Needs. A few years ago, one of my clients declared, “Damien, it’s not enough for me to match the best talent to the critical roles on the executive team. It’s actually my job to find out what each of my directs needs from me. They all need different things.” You can do this by having a conversation with each of your direct reports about their aspirations, their preferred method of communication, preferred method of feedback, etc. Don’t assume you know what team members need from you; take the time to ask.

7. Be Transparent. This is a tricky one. Transparency creates trust, but inappropriate transparency creates unnecessary anxiety. Really think about what you need to share when the topic is challenging. Have a practice of asking yourself how each team member might react to what you plan to share.

8. Admit Mistakes. Much has been written about vulnerability—check out Brené Brown’s work. Put quite simply, admitting your mistakes is the human thing to do. It allows others to admit their mistakes too. If you want people to trust you, you have to trust them with your vulnerability. After empathy, learning to lead with vulnerability is a critical skill.

9. Notice Blame/Shame/Excuse Behavior. Related to mistakes, you will notice that team members often blame, shame, and excuse their mistakes. Pay attention to the language a team member will use to describe such suboptimal situations (especially when someone uses self-blame as a way to create sympathy—certain people love to “fall on the sword”). Some companies have a culture of blaming, shaming, and/or excusing. What’s the norm on your team when things go wrong? Talk to your team about dignity (use Hicks’ framework) and ask the team to notice when there is a violation of someone’s dignity. You could also introduce Brown’s work and point to vulnerability as a strength, or simply ask team members to adhere to a simple rule: Is what they are about to say true, necessary, and kind? If the answer is no to any of these, then it’s best to stay quiet.

10. Develop Your Curiosity. This is age-old advice for all leaders. If you want to have an innovative, creative team, be willing to ask questions and demonstrate inquisitiveness. Every leader will benefit from using phrases like, “Tell me more…” “Why?” “What else did you consider?” or “What if…?” The biggest pitfall here is that you ask questions that are closed-ended, leading, or in a tone that leaves someone thinking they are being interrogated. Creativity and curiosity are part of the human condition; they can both be cultivated.

While some leaders have great natural instincts that create safety, working on one or more of these items will greatly enhance how you create a safe environment for your team to do its best work.

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