As I’ve been imagining what a psychologically safe environment looks like, I’ve seen it as animosity- and sarcasm-free. I felt like getting rid of active aggression would solve the problem and make people feel free to share their opinions and take risks. As I’ve watched the world around me, I’ve realized that another huge obstacle to psychological safety is indifference. Mostly, it shows up as not being fully present and attentive during a conversation.
The goal of a great leader is to create positive relationships. We know from Google’s Project Aristotle that exceptional teams have psychological safety, which does, in fact, create and foster positive relationships. One of the ways to create positivity in a relationship is to pay attention to the other person and actively listen to what he or she has to say.
We also know that positive relationships require a positivity interaction ratio of at least 5:1, which means that we must have about five positive interactions for every negative one. In one study, asking a student how homework was going turned out to be a negative interaction. For the purposes of maintaining the positivity ratio, a negative interaction doesn’t have to include animosity or anger; it just won’t be positive.
When we continue to type on the computer while talking to someone, we are having a negative interaction because we are not making the other person feel valued. We are sending the message that what they are saying is not as important as what we are typing. In workshops, I hear complaints over and over about bosses who don’t stop what they are doing to actively listen to what someone is saying.
Each and every interaction builds positivity and, hence, psychological safety, or damages it. Dr. John Gottman, a well-known researcher on successful relationships, calls them “sliding-door moments,” after a Gwyneth Paltrow movie called Sliding Doors. In the movie, Paltrow’s character decides to go home because she isn’t feeling well. We first see her miss a train in the London tube. She goes home and uneventfully climbs into bed. Then the scene replays, and she catches the train. She gets home earlier than she did in the first scenario and catches her boyfriend cheating on her with her best friend.
Gottman contends that we face sliding-door moments all the time in relationships. The dramatic difference in outcomes might not be as immediate as in the movie, but every interaction is a chance to turn towards a person and meet a need for connection. Each interaction is also an opportunity to turn away and ignore an emotional need. In The Science of Trust, Gottman writes:
“Failing to turn toward our partner in any one of these sliding-door moments may not have hugely negative consequences. However, when we add up many such choices to dismiss emotion instead of attuning to it, the result is two different trajectories leading to very different universes.”
If we pay attention to someone’s emotions and need for connection, we help to create psychological safety and a positive relationship. When we ignore or dismiss a person’s bid to connect, we damage the relationship because we damage trust. Each bid is really asking the question, “Can I trust you to respond to me as a person you respect and care about?” Make no mistake, leaders must care about the people who work for and with them.
Lately, what’s brought home the danger of not being fully present for me has been watching parents and children. I’ve noticed a lot of children staring off into space while a parent talks on the phone, reads a book, or plays a game. It breaks my heart. A charming child who makes bids for interaction with an adult is ignored. What conclusions is the child making about the parent? It is an accumulation of moments that leads to a certain outcome, so I’m not saying that we need to focus every moment on our children. However, if we are physically present with a child or adult and pay attention to something besides him or her, we are saying that the person is not as important as what we are doing.
We combat the challenge of indifference by being fully present in each moment when we are with others. We pay attention to them, to what they are saying, to their emotions, to their body language, and to their message. We show them that they are worthy of our time and attention, and in that moment, we are focused on them.
I heard the retired CEO of Campbell Soup Company, Douglas Conant, talk about his book TouchPoints: Creating Powerful Leadership Connections in the Smallest of Moments. He said that he used to view interruptions by his employees as annoying intrusions. He felt like he couldn’t walk down the hall without being pestered to pieces. Then he made a mindset shift and looked at each one of those moments as an opportunity to reinforce company values and provide encouragement. In other words, each interaction was a sliding-door moment, and he got to choose how to act and react. Conant advocates for pausing and being fully present instead of hurriedly brushing the person off.
Seriously, wouldn’t the world be a great place if we inhabited each moment and turned towards the people around us? In her work on increasing positivity, Barbara Fredrickson found that micro-moments of positivity with complete strangers can increase our own feelings of positivity. We get something out of paying attention to others! I’ve had some great and brief conversations while waiting in line at the grocery store when I’ve chosen to look at the people around me instead of at my phone.
Psychological safety, trust, and positivity are things we create one moment at time, but only if we intentionally choose to fully inhabit those moments and give the gift of our time and attention to others when it is asked for.
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