Teams and Psychological Safety
In case you missed the NYT Magazine article on teams a couple weeks back, here is the link for the article:
(I hope you can view it without a subscription.)
It does a great job of distilling loads of current team data and decades of research to answer the basic question: What is the essential criteria for the most effective teams. Every day this blog gets loads of hits on this very question. To add to what I’ve written in the past, let me expand on a key idea from this NYT article.
When team members feel comfortable speaking their minds, taking risks and deeply listening to each other that is called psychological safety. To develop and encourage those habits, the starting point is getting to know each other. It is harder to dismiss, disrespect or criticize others when you know just enough to call forth your empathy. The more we are in relationship to someone, the more we care. That caring causes us to listen, ask questions to learn more and to take our own turn at revealing ourselves. In other words, some basic human connection is needed.
Somewhere along the way the workplace got defined as rational, task and goal oriented, devoid of most emotions and dog-eat-dog. Anything to the contrary was deemed too touchy-feely. Beyond those forced offsite team building exercises that consultants like me forced you to do, there is precious little opportunity to get to know our colleagues. Yet that is exactly the most important ingredient to successful teams. We need to know and care about each other…just enough.
I was working with the CFO of a major international corporation. Raj had done a great job growing into his role on the leadership team and building his relationship with the CEO. But he wasn’t satisfied with how his team was functioning. They were all dedicated and smart individuals who always went the extra mile but something was missing. Since they were located in six offices in four countries it was hard to feel any esprit de corps. Raj felt strongly that the stress of their jobs would be greatly reduced if they collaborated better; if they felt less isolated. I had to agree so we worked out a plan for a two day leadership meeting at the corporate headquarters. I decided not to show Raj all my cards and instead asked him just to trust me to facilitate the first morning. He agreed.
Once everyone settled into their seats and Raj welcomed everyone, I took over. “I’m aware that most of you have known each other for at least three years. Many of you have known each other for much longer than that. This morning I am going to ask each of you to answer three questions out loud. You can reveal whatever you are comfortable with and are under no obligation to bear your soul. Raj is going to go first and then you each decide when to chime in. Okay?” Finance folks, you gotta love ’em! They looked at me with skepticism, there was some eye rolling and then the silent consent.
I can’t claim originality for the three questions. As a consultant I am obliged to rip off the good ideas of others! The questions were: Where did you grow up? Where are you in the birth order? Describe one experience in your childhood that had a lasting impact.
Raj began, “I grew up in New Jersey and I am the oldest of…” His voice caught and he burst into tears. Everyone in the room was aware that Raj’s sister had died three months earlier and they waited with respectful silence. When he was able, Raj continued, “It is still so strange. There were five of us until so recently. I was very close to my sister and the loss is so big. I cry a lot these days.” He took several swigs of coffee, dried his eyes, thanked everyone for their patience and then dove into the last question. “I guess the childhood experience that comes to mind is playing the piano. My mother was classically trained and taught at a small conservatory. She insisted that all of us had to learn. There is nothing worse than having a parent as your teacher! Her expectations were crazy high. For the first five years I absolutely hated practicing and learning how to play. And then something clicked into place and I would shove my siblings away from the piano so I could play to my heart’s content. In fact, there was this time that I bribed my sister to give up her practice hour. In exchange, I had to do her math homework. That backfired so badly for both of us! My mother was furious at us but, much worse, my sister’s math teacher embarrassed her in front of the whole class. The teacher wanted to know if she had an overnight math awakening or if she had cheated. For years we laughed our heads off every time we remembered that moment.” After a slight pause he added, “It feels good to share that story with all of you. Unexpected, but good.”
Several team members asked simultaneously, “Raj, do you still play the piano?” “Oh yes. Every day. It is my passion and my solace,” he replied.
What happened next was quite magical and nothing I could have planned or foreseen. Each team member revealed something vulnerable that wasn’t quite resolved or tidy. Raj had (unexpectedly) set the tone that it was safe to expose something honest and even emotional. I could feel the shift in the team. It went from a collection of respected peers to people who were interested in and cared about each other. With each person’s story, the team’s connection grew.
This was fabulous enough but something else emerged. Oddly enough, 9 out of 14 people were serious musicians! Multiple instruments, different genres, shared devotion. Before this moment the team had only a passing knowledge that two people played instruments. By lunch time they had asked Raj if they could find time in the couple days to enjoy some music together. It was then that Raj let them know that he had arranged to have the team at his home that very evening rather than at some formal restaurant. Their reaction was large. “How thoughtful of you to welcome us into your home.” And then loads of commotion to find out what other instruments there might be in his home so they could jam.
That happened three years ago. This team was transformed by those two days together. They reach out to each other for help, they vent their frustrations more openly, they experience an easier rapport with Raj and cut him some slack on his bad days and they report higher job satisfaction. When members have taken new jobs the team celebrates their time together and wishes them well. Raj takes great efforts in welcoming new members to the team so they can feel connected as quickly as possible. The team’s productivity was always high but now there is less stress and more collaboration.
It is so simple to create an environment and opportunities for team members to connect and feel psychologically safe. We need to stop thinking that doing so is too kumbaya.