Leadership and Psychological Safety in Teams

The problems in far too many organizations today are legion:

  • Unproductive, boring meetings
  • Astonishing amounts of wasted time
  • Avoidance of sensitive issues
  • Lack of full engagement
  • Reluctance to provide candid, constructive feedback
  • Political games and hidden agendas

Sound familiar?

The effects are far-reaching, from low quality work to employee turnover. According to a Corporate Executive Board study, “Nearly half of all executive teams fail to receive negative news that is material to firm performance in a timely manner because employees are afraid of being tainted by the bad news,” and only “19% of executive teams are always promptly informed of bad news that is material to firm performance.”

“So many times, I’ve heard people say, ‘I knew our strategy wasn’t working, but no one was willing to tell our CEO. No one wanted to lose their job.” –Susan Scott in Fierce Conversations

Andrew Kakabadse found that an alarmingly high percentage of top management team members in countries around the world report that there are issues not discussed because they are too sensitive, as shown below.

Lack of Dialogue among Top Management Team about Sensitive Issues (% of top management team members reporting that there are issues that should be aired but are not discussed because they’re too sensitive)

Source: Andrew Kakabadse, The Success Formula: How Smart Leaders Deliver Outstanding Value (Bloomsbury, 2015).

A related problem is groupthink—when people feel pressure to conform to an artificial consensus instead of pressure-testing ideas thoroughly without fear or favor.

What’s to be done?

Psychological Safety

What’s needed—desperately in some cases—is what Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson and others call psychological safety: a shared sense that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking, such as floating a new idea for improving performance, raising a concern, or admitting a mistake.

Timothy R. Clark notes that psychological safety exists when people feel included and safe to learn, contribute, and challenge the status quo—“all without fear of being embarrassed, marginalized, or punished.”

Easier said than done.

Our neurological wiring helps explain why psychological safety is fragile: our brains process a raised voice or a cutting comment as a threat, triggering certain parts of the brain with a fight-or-flight response and shutting down the parts responsible for advanced reasoning and creativity. We become unable to think clearly just when we need it most.

Edmondson found that “Low levels of psychological safety can create a culture of silence… in which speaking up is belittled and warnings go unheeded.”

She notes that speaking up is only the beginning. If a manager responds negatively when someone raises a concern, psychological safety is diminished or destroyed.

She also notes that “psychologically safe workplaces have a powerful advantage in competitive industries,” because they benefit from the feedback loops when customer service agents raise concerns with their managers or when line workers mention production problems to their supervisors, thereby identifying opportunities for improvement. In too many organizations, people are afraid to speak up, and so countless ideas are never shared.

The Importance of Trust—And Conflict

To create psychological safety we must build trust. Stephen M. R. Covey has noted that with high trust in organizations, speed increases and costs decrease.

Enter the work of Patrick Lencioni, who has noted the value of conflict in organizations (productive, not destructive, conflict). Most people view conflict as something to be avoided, because it can be awkward and uncomfortable.

Healthy teams use conflict productively, for example, to work through a difficult problem or understand the root cause of a breakdown. Lencioni observes that the best leaders “mine for conflict,” almost like it’s gold.

“Weak leaders want agreement. Strong leaders want the truth.” -Susan Scott in Fierce Conversations

Most teams run from conflict like it’s the plague. The first “dysfunction of a team” noted by Lencioni is an absence of trust. When people aren’t comfortable being vulnerable in the group (due to a lack of psychological safety), it’s impossible to build a foundation of trust because people are not open about their mistakes, weaknesses, and needs for help.

This tees up the second dysfunction: fear of conflict. Without trust, team members can’t engage in an unfiltered and vigorous debate, instead relying on veiled discussions and guarded comments that don’t get anywhere near the core issues.

“Trust is the foundation of real teamwork…. Great teams do not hold back with one another. They are unafraid to air their dirty laundry. They admit their mistakes, their weaknesses, and their concerns without fear of reprisal…. The most important action that a leader must take to encourage the building of trust on a team is to demonstrate vulnerability first.” -Patrick Lencioni

By showing vulnerability, leaders model the way and open a space where others feel comfortable doing the same.

The results of disciplined attention to these matters over time can be extraordinary. With high levels of psychological safety, fueled by vulnerability and trust, people rise to new heights of performance and engagement.

Psychological safety, while fragile and rare, is precious and powerful. The best leaders cultivate it carefully.

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Gregg Vanourek is an award-winning author and entrepreneurial leader who trains, teaches, and speaks on leadership and personal development. He runs Gregg Vanourek LLC, a training and development venture. Gregg is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose and passion) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards).

To get Gregg’s manifesto on how to avoid the Common Traps of Living and free book chapters from his books, check out his Free Guide. Or check out his TEDx talk on “LIFE Entrepreneurship.”

The Power of Empathy in Leadership

These days, we ask much of our leaders. Organizations and governments are under great pressures to perform, and these days leaders are responsible for crisis management during a pandemic with its attendant economic destruction and social and emotional anxiety.

More and more we are realizing that empathy is a powerful aspect of leading well.

Empathy is the capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing from their frame of reference (i.e., the capacity to place oneself in another person’s position). Researchers have identified several types of empathy:

  • Cognitive empathy is the capacity to understand someone’s mental state.
  • Emotional empathy is the capacity to respond with an appropriate emotion to another’s mental states, including a concern for others when they are suffering.
  • Somatic empathy is a physical reaction in our nervous system that entails physically feeling someone else’s pain (e.g., getting a sense of physical pain when you see someone else get hurt).

According to the research, when managers exhibit the most empathy toward their team, they are viewed as better performers. What’s more, when we exhibit empathy as leaders, we build trust with others because they see that we are paying attention to them and recognizing their issues and concerns.

When we empathize, we relate to and connect with people, and that contributes toward building a sense of teamwork and camaraderie.

According to Roman Krznaric in Empathy: Why It Matters and How to Get It, empathy “is not just about seeing things from another’s perspective. It’s the cornerstone of smart leadership. The real competitive advantage of the human worker will be their capacity to create relationships….”

Great leaders focus not just on vision and execution but also on building healthy and close relationships with people they work with.

Empathy shows up in several modern leadership frameworks. For example, it is one of the ten characteristics of a servant leader and one of the components of emotional intelligence (and its social awareness aspect).

In our “triple crown leadership” model for how to build excellent, ethical, and enduring organizations, it shows up in our “head and heart” practice, with leaders hiring, developing, and rewarding people not just for “head” skills like knowledge and skills but also for “heart” factors, including empathy. What’s more, we can view leadership as a quest (e.g., to achieve a higher purpose). But as entrepreneur and author Jim Rohn notes, “As a leader, you should always start with where people are before you try to take them where you want them to go.”

Recently, we have seen troubling examples of narcissism in leaders, including an excessive need for admiration as well as a disregard for others’ feelings, interests, or safety.

That is a real shame, because it keeps the focus on the leader as opposed to the larger purpose and the people in the organization and those they serve.

The best leaders leverage empathy to understand their customers much more deeply and thus lead their teams in creating products and services that solve real problems—and in seeing opportunities for innovation that others miss.

Empathy is an essential aspect of effective leadership and a powerful human trait that binds us together in the ups and downs of life and work.

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Gregg Vanourek is an award-winning author who trains, teaches, and speaks on leadership and personal development. He runs a training venture focused on helping you lead yourself, lead others, and lead change.

Gregg is co-author of three books, including Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards) and LIFE Entrepreneurs (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose and passion).

To get Gregg’s manifesto on how to avoid the Common Traps of Living and free book chapters from Gregg’s books, check out his Free Guide.

Personal Resilience and Self-Care in Hard Times

In times of great upheaval and uncertainty, we struggle to find ways to thrive despite the challenges. Much of this comes down to self-talk, self-regulation, and self-leadership—navigating our reactions to external events and ensuring that our inner voice does not undermine us amidst the difficulties.

The toll of the pandemic is massive, from disease, suffering, death, and mourning to unemployment, financial stress, disruptions, and restrictions. The effects on our quality of life and inner state can be more profound than we realize. Stress, pressure, and fear—for ourselves and our loved ones—exact their price in insidious ways.

But we humans are strong and adaptable, with amazing capabilities—both individually and collectively. Two of our most precious assets in times like these are personal resilience and self-care.

Resilience. What is resilience? Tony Schwartz, author and founder of The Energy Project, defines resilience as the “capacity to function effectively under intense stress and to recover.” As humans, we can develop different types of resilience, e.g., emotional, mental, physical. Schwartz notes three pillars of resilience:

  1. Self-awareness: naming what you are feeling is a good first step, and sharing it can help build trust
  2. Self-regulation: calming your body in the face of anger, fear, and anxiety (note: slow and deep breathing can help greatly with this)
  3. Self-care: engaging in regular practices to take care of yourself and build up your reserves so they do not get depleted under pressure

How do we build resilience? Here is a punch list:

Regular Self-Care Practices. We all have different preferences, but most of us are not doing enough on this front. Examples include:

  • Breaks. As humans, we can only go so long before getting depleted. Many professionals and leaders today are quite ambitious, and also attached via ego to success and prestige, causing them to get lost in overwork or burnout. Simple practices of regular breaks (e.g., Pomodoro technique) can be quite helpful and restorative.
  • Exercise. We need to move our bodies, and when we do so we can build strength, endurance, and energy. It causes positive reactions in our bodies that affect our mood, and it helps us sleep well.
  • Gratitude. According to researchers, being grateful for what we have can have powerful effects on our quality of life, including improved well-being, life satisfaction, sense of connectedness, and physical health. Activities such as gratitude journaling each night or writing gratitude letters to those who have helped us can have surprisingly strong and lasting effects.
  • Hobbies. Find something you enjoy and build it into your daily or weekly routine. It could be gardening, puzzles, podcasts, or whatever. Reading is one of my personal favorites, and I have often noticed that times in my life when I feel down have been times when I have neglected reading. Reading can take us into new worlds of imagination and new vistas of learning.
  • Meditation and Mindfulness. Mindfulness has been defined as “awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally” (Jon Kabat-Zinn). Researchers have found many benefits from mindfulness practices, including improvements in mental and physical health as well as performance.
  • Nature. As physical beings in a dynamic ecosystem, we need to be outside. Fresh air and sunlight are essential. If our days are loaded with Zoom sessions and emails, we need to be sure we are getting outside enough through walks, hikes, runs, bikes, or trips to the park.
  • Nutrition. We’ve all heard that “you are what you eat,” but how many of us take it seriously? Our bodies need good fuel if they are to remain resilient and energized for all that we want to do in life. For great tips on food, check out Dr. Michael Greger’s Nutrition Facts web site and books, starting with How Not to Diet.
  • Reframing. According to researchers, we humans have a negativity bias—over-focusing on negatives and underappreciating positives. It is important to reframe things from setbacks or defeats to challenges or opportunities (e.g., for learning and growth).
  • Sanctuary. Places or practices of peace, allowing us to transcend our ego and connect with something larger than ourselves (e.g., prayer). In a world driven by ego, accumulation, and stress, how powerful is it to step away from our worldly cares and tune into a higher power, recognizing that there is something so much greater than ourselves with our flaws and our brokenness.  

“In life itself, there is a time to seek inner peace, a time to rid oneself of tension and anxiety. The moment comes when the striving must let up, when wisdom says, ‘Be quiet.’ You’ll be surprised how the world keeps on revolving without your pushing it. And you’ll be surprised how much stronger you are the next time you decide to push.” -John W. Gardner

  • Savoring. Given the challenge of the negativity bias noted above, it is essential for us to savor the positives. Savoring means fully feeling and enjoying positive experiences, and thereby extending them.
  • Sleep. Many people today have poor sleep habits. We tend to take sleep for granted, but it turns out to be one of the most essential practices for physical and mental health. Poor sleep has been found to have tremendous deleterious effects on a wide range of factors (e.g., addictive behaviors, anxiety, appetite, attention, concentration, creativity, decision-making, depression, ethical behavior, impulsiveness, irritability, memory, motivation, relationships). A great resource for those struggling with poor sleep is the book, Sleep Smarter, by Shawn Stevenson, with a terrific punch list of simple practices to improve sleep.
  • Writing / Journaling. Research has shown that writing about stressful experiences can help people create meaning from them. I have found that writing can be a creative outlet for emotional catharsis. The same can be true for talking through feelings with others.
  • Yoga. Yoga has been a powerful grounding practice for people for thousands of years. The practice can increase flexibility, strengthen muscles, center thoughts, and relax and calm the mind. At a deeper level, it can unite mind, body, and spirit.

In addition to the above self-care practices, there are other broader mindsets which are important to developing and maintaining personal resilience in good times and bad:

Full Responsibility. This is one of the most powerful principles of human development. Life may not be fair. We may be enduring great hardship, as so many are today. But in the end, we must take full responsibility not only for the choices we make but also for the conditions of our lives. No one is coming to save us. We are responsible for our lives and must continue doing the best we can.

Authentic Integrity. In our book, LIFE EntrepreneursChristopher Gergen and I noted “authentic integrity”—integration of all aspects of our lives in a way that coheres with our true nature—is an essential aspect of intentional life design. This can be thought of as a strong personal foundation. To build it, we can clarify the following and build them into the fabric of our lives:

  • Personal purpose (i.e., what provides us with a sense of meaning or significance)
  • Personal values (what we value most in life)

Healthy Support Systems. When we take time and care to develop relationships based on trust, diversity, reciprocity, commitment, openness, and vulnerability, we can build “healthy support systems” that act like roots that ground us in life. (Source: LIFE Entrepreneurs)

“Connection is why we’re here…. Courage starts with showing up and letting ourselves be seen…. True belonging only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world.”Brené Brown

Good Life Buckets. In his excellent book, How to Live a Good LifeJonathan Fields notes that, while we all may have our own unique take on what a good life is for us, for most people a good life includes three “buckets”:

  1. Vitality bucket: energy, nutrition, sleep, exercise, movement, strength, mindfulness, emotional calm, resilience, etc.
  2. Connection bucket: relationships with partner, family, friends, colleagues, and neighbors (e.g., ones based on love, openness, trust, intimacy, commitment, belonging, fun, etc.)
  3. Contribution bucket: service and impact on family, friends, colleagues, community, nation, world, and/or causes or places

I love the good life buckets in part because we can do a quick “bucket test” to determine which buckets may be low and in need of filling.

Hope and Faith. Faith can be defined as complete trust or confidence in someone or something. Regardless of your beliefs, faith can be an essential aspect of remaining resilient during hard times. Do we spiral down into resignation and assume the worst, or do we maintain a powerful and abiding hope and faith that, despite hard times, things can get better if we stay the course and give our very best?

Strength through Suffering. Since suffering is part of life, we need to learn how to deal with it in such a way that it does not break us. Sometimes suffering can help us break out of mindless routines, drifting, or complacency—or taking important things for granted. The pain somehow invites growth.

“In some ways suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning…. When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.” Viktor FranklMan’s Search for Meaning

According to Scott Barry Kaufman, adversity can lead to growth in several areas:

  • Greater appreciation of life
  • Greater appreciation and strengthening of close relationships
  • Increased compassion and altruism
  • The identification of new possibilities or a purpose in life
  • Greater awareness and utilization of personal strengths
  • Enhanced spiritual development
  • Creative growth

We do not wish for adversity and suffering, but when it arrives, as it will, we must figure out how to respond. Sometimes it is there that we find humanity at its best. In fighting for ourselves, we build our capacity to fight for others, and to endure this together.

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Gregg Vanourek is an award-winning author who trains, teaches, and speaks on leadership and personal development. He runs Gregg Vanourek LLC, a training venture focused on helping you lead yourself, lead others, and lead change. Gregg is co-author of three books, including Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards) and LIFE Entrepreneurs (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose and passion). To get Gregg’s manifesto on how to avoid the Common Traps of Living and free book chapters from Gregg’s books, check out his Free Guide.