I want to circle back to the study that started my exploration of psychological safety. Back in 2012, Google realized that not all its teams were performing equally – which is a bit odd if you think about it. Google is full of smart and motivated people. Why wouldn’t all their teams be doing great? They created an initiative called Project Aristotle and set out to study their teams.
The research team looked at the characteristics of the people on each team. They researched the effects of age, ethnicity, background, education, and interests. They compared groups that socialized outside of work to groups that didn’t. The researchers looked at 180 teams and couldn’t find any rhyme or reason to why one team did better than another – for a while.
The team followed a trail that started with something about group norms, to unwritten rules, to team culture. They knew that norms mattered, but which one was most influential? They found that psychological safety was the key.
We feel psychologically safe when we are sure that our teammates won’t embarrass or punish us (or anyone else) for asking a question, making a mistake, or suggesting a new idea. We are free to take risks.
I’ve focused mainly on psychological safety, but here is the complete list of influencing factors in order of importance:
- Psychological Safety. The team members feel safe to take risks and be vulnerable in front of each other.
- Dependability. Team members get things done on time and meet standards for excellence.
- Structure and Clarity. Team members have clear roles, plans, and goals.
- Meaning. Work is personally important to team members.
- Impact. Team members think their work matters and creates change.
I’m always trying to come up with clear, short guidelines for leaders to follow. It’s sort of a game for me, a puzzle. In a previous blog , I wrote a list of things that leaders can do to create psychological safety. Here a list that takes all of Project Aristotle’s findings into consideration.
Kathy’s Leadership List
- Be present, and show that you care.
- Enforce and model respect for self and others.
- Include others in decision-making as much as possible.
- Ensure individual and team goals are clear and in alignment with organizational goals.
- Be consistent, dependable, and positive in your actions, attitude, and mindset.
- Make curiosity your default.
We are going to explore my list one item at a time. I was going to include them all in one blog and quickly realized that I would be creating a monster blog for me to write and you to read. Let’s take it slowly. This week, we examine the first item on my list.
Be present, and show that you care. In every leadership workshop that I facilitate, someone complains of a boss who continues working on the computer while talking with people. When we aren’t fully present during our conversations, we are telling people that they are less important than whatever we are doing. It’s crucial for leaders to stop what they are doing and give others their full attention. If you don’t have time at that moment, turn and ask if you can talk when you’ve finished what you need to do. Then be sure to follow through and have that conversation.
We let people know that we are truly listening and paying attention with our nonverbal communication – facial expression, tone of voice, and body language. Face the person you are talking with, and make good eye contact. We show we are listening by reacting to what a person says; our facial expression should mirror theirs. Lastly, turn your shoulders and hips toward whoever is speaking, and do not cross your arms. There are books on nonverbal communication that are great, but these are the basics.
Leaders in my workshops struggle with finding a balance around caring for employees. It can be a challenge. First, we must always have others’ best interests at heart. As leaders, we can’t put individual needs over organizational requirements, but one of our goals is to create success for the people who work for us. We want them to succeed, and we want to help.
We also want them to know that we see them as fellow human beings and value the relationship. Know that a few minutes spent chatting is not a waste of time. People value time spent conversing with a leader. It’s time well-spent in creating a positive relationship.
However, boundaries are crucial. We want to show interest in people’s lives outside of work, but we don’t want to hear inappropriate details. It’s perfectly acceptable to say, “I am not comfortable talking about that at work.” It’s a good answer when someone asks a question that you feel is too private.
Here is item one of my list, with bullet point reminders:
- Be present, and show that you care.
- Focus on keeping your mind present during conversations and meetings.
- Use good nonverbal communication to assure people that you are listening.
- Show interest in people’s activities outside of work.
- Maintain appropriate boundaries for personal discussions.
Remember, people don’t quit their jobs; they quit their bosses. We do not want to be a boss that people want to escape. We create the positive relationships required for a good working environment when we are present and show that we care.
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