Updated: Aug 16
Leaders who want perfectly oiled teams often make the mistake of inferring lack of conflict as a sign of perfect alignment. The voices of dissent are the ones that make the picture messy. Leaders do not want a mess. They want the task accomplished, the work done, and the trophy won. But winning trophies is a messy job.
Then the task perhaps is to create a safe space for dissent, for the uncomfortable questions. There is so much talk about psychological safety and yet people wonder how to go about creating it. Leaders would like organizational specialists to come and resolve the problem. But are they ready for self-action?
Rhizome was recently invited to create a psychologically safe space so as to create common ground for a team unable to work smoothly together. The team is culturally diverse with people from many Asian countries and headed by a Westerner. The brief was to help the leadership team understand what were some of the issues, underlying fears and apprehensions, and assumptions which were operating under the surface. Even though day-to-day interactions were relatively smooth, the leadership felt the overall calm was deceptive.
Understanding the issues from grounds up in safe one-on-one interviews.
Creating experiential workshops with training on communication, and perception. We used Lego Serious Play and PRISM, an applied neuroscience behavioral exercise.
Talking about and creating one team vision for the entire organization as well as the constituent teams. At the outset, the leaders asked the question, must we? At the end, they said, wow, that was the first time we brought it all together.
Here are some models that people built of their own perception of what safe teams looked like. It was a joy to even experience this process.
People are acutely aware that success cannot be attained in silos. Lego humans holding hands to signify ideal work environment.
The energy of people when creating together is high and positive. Lots of laughter, giggles, and excitement.
The red box indicates the importance of boundaries. In order to be one’s best, as beautifully built by one of the participants, the individual also needs boundaries to reflect, rest and recuperate.
Vulnerabilities are common and yet we think ours are unique. Participants talked freely about their vulnerabilities.
The One Vision of the company created by joining the vision of all the leaders, in charge of different functions. Simplifying a complex task.
About Creating Psychological Safety at Work
What exactly is psychological safety? In simple words, it means I can ask questions, bring forward my reservations, and talk to you about my concerns without being fearful of consequences and without feeling that I will be judged for asking. Watch this insightful talk by Amy Edmondson, the Novartis Professor of leadership and Management at the Harvard Business School. Here she explains how critical psychological safety is to the proper functioning of a team and the nuances of it.
Do Asian employees find it harder to speak up? How must a Leader read the signs in his or her team?
In Asian cultures, we do not like to be put in a spot and we are not willing to put others in a spot. The Hofstede’s Culture in the Workplace Study looks at different countries and has worked on computing “power distance scores” of various countries. This gives an indication of the tendency of certain nationalities to honor hierarchical structures at work and therefore not speak up. The countries which score high in Power Distance believe that hierarchy is important at work, and it is not appropriate to openly disagree with the boss. In these countries, inequalities amongst people at work are accepted and desired.
In that study, some Asian and Western countries stack up as follows:
Score of Power Distance
Score of Power Distance
Therefore, in these cases, the Leadership needs to work with extra awareness or else they could completely misread the sentiments brewing in their teams. Whatever be the incidence of speaking up, it does not take away from the fact that underlying issues – anger, feeling slighted, feeling unheard and undervalued, feeling resentful keep simmering and eating up teams in organizations. To make it worse, the management sometimes displays extreme toxicity towards employees who do speak up and challenge.
There is plenty of evidence to say that in workplaces, pent-up survival emotions of anger, sadness, and shame do take the human energy inwards. Not letting employees have safe spaces and communication channels to voice their views is death knell for motivation for performance in a company.
As one of the respondents admitted to me in the recent project – “You know, it is not difficult for me to go to work and do my tasks and be done with it. But at the end of the day, I do not feel motivated to contribute to new ideas or think of solutions with my team members. I just want to get done. And ultimately, I fear that I will want to quit at the next opportune moment.”
The respondent was a highly skilled technical person in the company, responsible for many critical functions. She had worked there for about eight years, and she felt no one cared.
What Psychological Safety Looks Like?
As per Amy Edmonson’s research,
What is not
- Candid place
- Being nice
- Asking for help
- Being soft
- Admitting a mistake
- Critisizing a project
- Wanting appreciation everything I do
- Permission to slack off
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