How to transform teams by improving Psychological Safety
The graph above depicts the 4 zones where teams typically lie. The X-axis depicts “Performance and Accountability” and the Y-axis depicts “Psychological Safety”. While this graph might be familiar to most of you, I am sharing what I learnt practically, while leading a team of engineers to complete a moon-shot project with a budget worth $1M. I am assuming that readers know what psychological safety means, if not please refer to the definition below:
It’s a shared belief held by members of a team that others on the team will not embarrass, reject, or punish them for speaking up. — https://www.ccl.org/
The Detached Zone
When both ‘psychological safety’ and ‘performance and accountability’ are low, teams fall in the “Detached Zone”. Nobody has a clue of what they are doing. They feel unsafe in the work environment, both as individuals and as teams. They do not clearly understand what is expected out of them, and are pretty much detached to the day to day happenings in their team and in their organization. This is a state where teams and individuals do not connect with the vision and mission of the organization / product division they are working on. Prolonged presence in this zone, creates a lack of interest in work and eventually makes them quit. There is a famous saying that ‘People do not leave organizations, but they leave managers’, but I would add to that. ‘People leave organizations, when they feel unsafe, not valued, and when they do not connect well with the vision and mission of their leadership.
The Anxious Zone
This where individuals and teams end up when leaders or management increase their expectations on performance and accountability without focusing or giving importance to psychological safety. This is a tricky space to be in. There are unknowns and challenges in any new opportunity, with higher expectations. Good leaders identify opportunities and place individuals or teams and prepare themselves for success. That said, both individuals and teams, need the confidence boost. When they get into an unknown territory and unchartered waters, leaders should be the guiding beacon. There is a higher probability of error when people get anxious. Prolonged existence in this zone affects the mental health and the physical health of people and will lead to burnout. It is better to avoid entering this zone, or identify and get this addressed as soon as possible.
The Comfort Zone
This is the zone where individuals and teams have higher levels of psychological safety but lower expectations on performance and accountability. With higher levels of psychological safety, the individuals and team feel safe, but do not feel challenged enough. Prolonged existence in this zone will lead to boredom, lack of feeling challenged for their abilities. At times, this might turn out to be dangerous, when this gets into the culture of an organization to stay in the comfort zone. I see this zone as a pit stop in taking the teams from Detached Zone to Learning Zone.
The Learning Zone
This is where we ideally want our teams to be in. The should feel they are in a psychologically safe environment and at the same time, they have high performance and accountability for the work they do. This is where teams connect well with the organization’s or product’s vision and mission. They feel valued for the work they do. They understand what it takes to complete the task at hand and also know where it fits in the bigger picture.
The Journey from Detached Zone to Learning Zone
As leaders we might find our teams and certain individuals, in one of these zone after careful assessment. We know the target and what we need to eventually achieve and where we want our teams to end up. Some leaders might not be able to assess this, and I would say that comes with experience and conscious effort. This was my approach when it came to my team and it has worked more than once. First and foremost, the journey to the Learning Zone should be via the Comfort Zone and not via the Anxious Zone. That means, we need to increase the psychological safety of teams before increasing performance and accountability expectations.
How to increase psychological safety?
- Connect with the individuals in the team one to one — This involves investing your time with individuals, trying to understand them, having conversations which makes them feel comfortable and safe. This might also involve understand past incidents that made them feel unsafe and giving them the confidence that it will not happen again.
If something happens once it might be accidental, but if it happens again it is intentional, when repeated becomes a habit, when left unattended it becomes nature. — Srihari Sridharan
- Connecting the individual conversations — After the one-on-one conversations are done, we need to connect the dots to understand where the team lies. This is a tricky bit, the factors and incidents leading to lack of psychological safety are within the team, it is easy to fix. If these are due to interpersonal conflicts, we can get them addressed by sorting out in the forum with folks concerned. If these are external to the team and the entire team is impacted, it might need leadership intervention to get things sorted out. That said, no problem is unsolvable, we need to provide the feedback needed to bring in the change. Again, feedback should be given such that, we bring in the desired behavioural change that we would like to see with individuals or teams. It should not be making them get into a shell and get defensive.
- Creating shared ownership — This involves creating a mindset shift where people feel that both success and failure are taken with collective ownership. We succeed as a team and we fail as a team! Also, in case of adverse situations, there should be no name calling and pointing fingers at each other. These should be set as the norm for day to day ways of working within the team and in any common forum.
- Being there with the team and for the team — We need to be with our teams in adverse situations and support them. Doesn’t mean we keep micromanaging the progress when something critical is getting addressed. When the team needs their leaders they should be approachable and be with the team, support them and guide them in such situations.
- Check with the individuals and teams and mean it — We need to periodically check with individuals one on one and with the entire team to see to that things are fine. Again this is a periodic activity and my 2 cents is to not wait for the next planned instance of the meeting. If something needs to be addressed, do it right away. This way individuals and teams feel supported.
Bringing it all together
While we take the teams towards the learning zone, we need to communicate with transparency in terms of the change we are trying to bring in. The most important aspect of change is timely communication. Also, individuals and teams are different and cannot be compared. What worked with one person or team or situation might not work with others. We need to find our way, regarding how to get this done. That said, in today’s work place and fast paced world, increasing psychological safety is paramount. Please share your thoughts in the comments. God bless.
The high-resolution poster for transforming teams can be purchased on Leanpub — https://leanpub.com/transforming-teams-mindmap. You can print this on a wall, hang in on your desk and use it as a quick reference guide. It is available as a mindmap that covers much more than what is discussed in this blog.
PS: This is my first post in medium and I am also in the process of learning and experimenting with the points shared above. All the best.