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psych safety zero-sum game 550 px

In the analysis of psychological safety, we’ve discussed the importance of creating a foundation of trust, but it was a superficial discussion based on personal experience. I wanted to find some research on trust, and the first person I turn to when I want research-based recommendations is Dr. John Gottman. Gottman is known for his work on marriage and relationship analysis through direct scientific observations.

He offers up a lot of good information on trust, but the first concept that I want to discuss is zero-sum game theory. In game theory, an underlying assumption is that we are all rational and want to maximize our own gains. In a zero-sum game, everyone wants to get the biggest payoff for themselves and also wants their opponents to get as little as possible. In a zero-sum contest, I’m happy if you get nothing!

I have worked with leaders who have a zero-sum game mindset. They want power, money, and promotions. They also don’t want anyone else to get these things. These leaders are nightmares to work with. Sometimes they experience success, but it’s at the expense of their organizations and everyone who works with them.

It’s key to understand that someone who lives in a zero-sum game mindset tries to win while getting you to lose AND believes that you are doing the same thing. This was a bit of a revelation to me. I know people who only look out for themselves, and I accept that about them. I didn’t realize that they believe that I am doing the same. Knowing they expect me to try to take advantage when I can explains a lot of behavior that was a mystery to me before. Of course, this is an accurate description of a negative relationship devoid of trust.

To me, this is an emotionally exhausting scenario. If I am working with someone who is trying to take me down, I am constantly watching my back and documenting every conversation. Neither one of us is focusing on work or organizational goals. We are wasting a lot of time and emotional energy.

In his research, Gottman found that in relationships without trust, partners did not feel joy in each other’s happiness and did not get particularly fussed when the other was upset. As a matter of fact, their emotions were only in sync when they were both in a negative or angry state.

I see professional relationships like this all the time! I am often called in to work with organizations when this scenario of distrust is present because the zero-sum game mindset keeps people from being productive. The team, group, or organization flounders because no one is focusing on organizational goals; they are all focusing on themselves.

Ok, zero-sum gaming is not good and is rife with distrust. Neither person is taking the other’s well-being into consideration. Let’s take a look at what Gottman says a trusting relationship looks like. Here is his definition of trust in What Makes Love Last?:

“Trust is not some vague quality that grows between two people. It is the specific state that exists when you are both willing to change your own behavior to benefit your partner. The more trust that exists in a relationship, the more you look out for each other. You have your beloved’s back, and vice versa. In a trusting relationship you feel pleasure when your partner succeeds and troubled when he or she is upset. You just can’t be happy if achieving your payoffs would hurt your significant other.”

He goes on to say that each partner doesn’t have to put the other’s needs first all the time – that is probably not healthy. However, their happiness is interconnected. Each will change his or her behavior to increase the gains and happiness of the other.

If we look at this from a leadership perspective, we cannot get a person’s best performance when we act from a zero-sum game mindset. To be a successful leader, we must do what we can to improve other people’s happiness and well-being. An exceptional leader helps to create success for the people he or she works with, as well as for the organization. I often use the truism “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” So when an employee or peer is upset, we need to feel some empathy.

In Gottman’s research, he had people watch the video of an argument that they had with their partners. They had a dial in front of them that they used to register the feeling that they had in each moment of the discussion. They turned the dial all the way to the left when they had been experiencing a negative emotion and all the way to the right when they had been feeling a positive emotion.

Gottman categorized the feelings into three boxes: Nasty, Neutral, and Nice. The Nasty box included negative behaviors like anger, criticism, belligerence, bullying, defensiveness, sadness, disappointment, fear, tension, whining, disgust, stonewalling, and contempt. The Nice box included positive emotions and behaviors like interest, amusement, humor, laughter, excitement, joy, validation, and empathy. Any sort of blah reaction in the middle, he put in the Neutral box.

I think the dial and emotion boxes are useful tools for leaders. When an employee is upset, our dial should move to the Negative box to show concern and sadness. We definitely don’t want to move our dial to the Nice box and be gleeful about the employee’s plight. We can check in mentally on where our dial is pointing during conversations to ensure we are acting appropriately.

We can only create positive, trusting relationships if we link our happiness and well-being to the happiness and well-being of others. Our friends, peers, family, and employees must believe that we have their best interests at heart.

Gottman teases out a difference between trust and trustworthiness. He says that trustworthiness indicates a partner’s willingness to sacrifice for the relationship. It means sometimes putting our own needs on the back burner because the partnership matters most.

As leaders, we can’t put the individual needs of everyone in the organization above organizational requirements. Our main goal is the organization’s success. However, that does not mean that we can’t take them into consideration, feel empathy, and make what accommodations that we can.

Gottman goes on to say that it is important to let the other person know that the relationship is unique and irreplaceable. In other words, we want to let the other person know that we value the relationship and that he or she is valuable. How great would the world be if we did that one thing in every relationship that we have?

Research on motivation shows that people respond to appreciation and want to know that what they do makes a difference. When we are trustworthy, we act in a way that increases trust, motivation, commitment, and productivity. We also increase the confidence and well-being of others.

We know from Project Aristotle that the presence of psychological safety helps teams excel. We know that trust and trustworthiness increase a person’s feeling of safety and confidence. We can create success for everyone by avoiding the zero-sum game mindset and truly creating win-win scenarios for everyone, including the organization.

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