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The 3 levels of psychological safety that are vital to business growth

Think back through your career.  Bring to mind the teams you’ve been part of.  How would you rate them on a scale of 1 to 10?  Which one was the best?  Was it a work or sports team? 

Ponder the reasons why this team was successful.  Was it because you felt safe enough to speak your mind?  Did you feel supported?  That the other team members had your back?  

Now relate this to your current team.  Is it the same? Maybe the people you’re working with are just as talented as this golden team.  But the elements of trust are missing.  

All of this boils down to psychological safety.  Don’t underestimate its importance. It’s vital to business growth. And it’s one of the key characteristics of high performing teams.

I was listening to a talk given by Steven Kotler, one of the world’s leading experts on human performance.  He gave some fascinating stats.  It costs $25,000 to train someone for the infantry but $3.5 million to train a navy seal in the US.  Almost all the cost difference is spent on developing their minds.  They’re trained to be in flow, think clearly under pressure and control their bodies to peak performance.  You can guarantee this involves building psychological safety amongst them. 

In the same way, CEOs need to stop thinking about leadership development in terms of giving people skills or tools.  That’s the same as a $25K investment in the infantry. What if you invested in the minds of your leadership team instead?  That’s how to make your team world-class.  Not to mention turbo-charging your business growth.

    Psychological safety – the secret sauce of high performing teams

    Google zoned in on psychological safety due to the $multi-million Project Aristotle.  This looked at which characteristics made the best teams at Google. Over ten years, they studied 180 teams, testing many variables. They knew they had no shortage of great people, but this didn’t guarantee a great team.  

    The best teams at Google had higher levels of engagement, increased motivation to tackle complex problems and better learning and development opportunities. And this was all due to a secret sauce—psychological safety.    

    After the results of Project Aristotle were published, Amy Edmondson brought out her best-selling book, ‘The Fearless Organisation’, and if you’re interested in this topic, it’s a must-read. I interviewed Amy for our Melting Pot podcast, and the conversation was full of insight. She occupies the first position in the Thinkers50 rankings. This shows the importance of psychological safety in the management thinking world. 

    Amy defined psychological safety as “a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.” Suppose you spend your life with teams and immerse yourself in the world of Patrick Lencioni’s ‘Five Dysfunctions of a Team’ and ‘Working Genius’. In that case, you’ll agree with me that teams and collaboration drive competitive advantage. 

    Psychological safety and leadership

    I contend that no company outperforms its leadership team.  If you want psychological safety in your culture, it has to start at the top. 

    The CEO clients that we coach have one thing in common.  A growth mindset.  And this means they recognise that they have a long way to grow and develop. This humility is vital to successful Executive teams.  It’s a key feature of Level 5 leadership. It builds trust-based vulnerability – something that’s a feature in the three levels of psychological safety. 

    Level 1 –  Belonging and feeling safe

    The first level of psychological safety is all around a sense of belonging.  Is your team a team?  Get that straight first.  This particularly applies at the Executive Team level, as it’s common for people to be in silos.  The Head of Marketing views the marketing team as their primary loyalty.  Same with Sales or Finance. So, before you do anything else, you have to agree that the Executive team is precisely as its name implies—a team.  And the most important team at that.

    Then there needs to be general agreement on how you measure performance. And the fact that you’re going to focus on psychological safety as a distinct theme to help you improve team performance

    Do you know each other on a personal level?  When we’re building psychological safety in the Executive Teams we coach, we often use a deck of cards to ask more intimate and searching questions.  You’re inviting people to share stuff and open up to each other. 

    When I was MD of Peer 1, the Executive team would rent a house every quarter and spend three days living together.  Each team member picked a meal they wanted to cook, and someone else would go to Costco to get supplies.   We’d hang out together, and the whole experience was sensational.  Our team had real cohesion. When things got tough, we could talk frankly, honestly and sincerely without any fear of judgement.

    Another tip is for everyone to write a One-Page Personal Plan.  This is a great way to explore people’s life journeys.  And how they think being on your team can help.  I interviewed Jeff Hoffman recently, founder of and best-selling author.  One of the stories he told me was of a team member who’d wanted to buy his mother a house.  She’d grown up in a trailer park, and life had been tough.  Working at Hoffman’s company enabled this team member to realise his dream.  As we chatted, I could see the emotion.  It brought tears to his eyes as he recalled the impact his company had had on this person. 

    Level 2 – Vulnerability and diversity of thought

    high performing team

    Can you ask for help from the team? Can you admit mistakes? Can you say sorry and mean it?  These are all signs that you’re heading into the second level of psychological safety.  You’re building vulnerability and cognitive diversity.

    Maybe your Sales Director has the Working Genius of ‘Enablement’ and ‘Tenacity’.  It’s made them great at execution.  But then a market shift happens, and they need to influence the go-to-market plan or think strategically.  Everyone else on the team will expect them to be comfortable doing this. 

    Without vulnerability, this Sales Director won’t be able to say, ‘You know guys.  I’m useless at coming up with a plan.  Could some of you collaborate with me, and then I’ll execute the shit out of it!’.  This is how you avoid guilt and judgement in teams. 

    Use Working Genius and Gallup Strengths to create a structure for these conversations.  The more your teams understand each other, the easier it is to have vulnerability-based trust. Everyone needs to feel safe enough to contribute with their unique skills and talents, speak up about challenging issues, disagree or think differently and ask for help.

    Level 3 – Fearless mindset

    The first two levels are about performing better and executing well as a team.  The third level takes everything up a notch to challenge the status quo.  It may even challenge the team’s unity and result in them making themselves redundant.

    The team becomes so self-aware that it may realise that the best thing for the organisation is that it ceases to exist.  Too often in businesses, you get white cells acting as an anti-viral response. Someone comes up with a plan and asks for resources.  Even though the plan is best for the company’s future direction, the vested interests work hard to kill it off.  How many times have you seen this happen?

    An excellent example of this level of psychological safety happened at Netflix.  Reed Hastings and Erin Meyer wrote about it in their book, ‘No Rules Rules’.  They described a management meeting held when 95% of Netflix’s revenue came from DVD sales and only 5% from streaming.  The leadership team knew that streaming was the future.  And they wanted to give resources to it.

    But the guy who ran the DVD business wanted to protect the status quo. They had a frank conversation where they were asked not to come to future meetings.  It was made crystal clear that their job was to slow the iceberg from melting.  They had to recognise they were the past. This takes high levels of psychological safety. Everyone had to realise it was the right thing.  And the rest is history!

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    Written by business growth coach Dominic Monkhouse. Find out more about his work here. Read his book, ‘F**k Plan B’ here.

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