Why isn’t my team talking to me? (Hint: Psychological Safety)

Why isn’t my team talking to me Hint Psychological Safety

It’s a common issue in many organizations – teams not voicing obstacles or issues in their work. If you’ve been a leader for a while, you’ve probably experienced it firsthand. Maybe you and your team had a check-in meeting with everyone, and everything was positive. Everyone gives a status update. And no one is asking for help. So, the meeting ended, and everyone went about their business.

But you were suspicious. Your team was saying it was all good. But then they started missing deadlines, or the project came in over budget, or it didn’t come in at all.

You’re not alone. In fact, in many organizations’ failures happen and get covered up at many levels of the organization. It’s not uncommon for senior leaders to be the least informed about what’s really happening in the organization because everyone at every level is trying to minimize failure…or trying to minimize their role in it.

No one trusts each other enough to share their setbacks, so no one knows what’s holding the team back.

But trust doesn’t automatically resolve teamwide issues. Building trust is great, but research suggests that trust alone is insufficient. Instead, teams need to feel psychological safety—a climate of mutual trust and respect that helps team members feel safe to take interpersonal risks. Risks like voicing failures or disagreements, but also risks like sharing their “crazy” ideas that just might be brilliant.

Teams with psychological safety have members who can be vulnerable and authentic with each other. They ask questions or offer ideas that may seem odd but can lead the team’s thinking in new directions. Psychological safety encourages team members to speak up when they disagree, and as a result more diverse viewpoints are shared. Psychological safety reduces failures, because when people feel that they can speak freely they’re more likely to intervene before a team makes a mistake. In fact, research from Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson, who first discovered the power of psychology safety on teams, suggests that on diverse teams, psychological safety determines whether their varied strengths are harnessed or if they perform below their potential.

In her work, Edmondson describes psychological safety as “a team climate characterized by interpersonal trust and mutual respect in which people are comfortable being themselves.”

Trust and Respect.

These may seem similar. But they have their differences. The interplay between them is what builds psychological safety. Trust is how much we feel we can share our authentic selves with others. Respect is how much we feel they accept that self. If I trust you, then I will share honestly with you. If you respect me, then you will value what I’ve shared. High-performing teams don’t need to just trust each other, they also need to learn how to respect each other’s contribution.

So how can leaders build a sense of trust and respect on a team? Here’s a few ideas:

Celebrate Failures

Celebrating failures on a team doesn’t mean teams throw a party every time they lose, but it doesn’t mean that every loss immediately triggers a round of “shift the blame” or that they forbid each other from talking about “the project which shall not be named.” Failures are inevitable, and often for reasons outside of a team’s control. Clients change their mind. Budgets get cut. Global pandemics disrupt the supply chain and force everyone to look at each other on video calls. To build trust on a team, the team must be comfortable with the idea that they will fail—and that they will learn from failure.

So, taking the time to celebrate what the painful experience taught the team can be a worthwhile exercise. This happens in several ways. You could draft a “failure resume” for yourself and encourage teammates to do the same, listing every job or project that didn’t turn out as hoped. As a team, you could create a “failure wall” with pictures or quotes from projects that blew up or clients you didn’t win. Sara Blakely, founder of Spanx, throws regular Oops Meetings, where she admits her own mistakes and encourages the team to do the same. One pharmaceutical company went so far as to create “Failure Wakes” to gather researchers together around a promised but failed compound. The team said their good-byes, and expressed gratitude for the lessons working on that aborted drug taught them. These types of celebrations not only focus the team on lessons learned, but they encourage future risk-taking and keep teams motivated even when those chances of failure are high.

Hold After-Action Reviews

One way to at least celebrate learning if not failure is the after-action review. Although unlike clapping or waving, this is a more serious ritual done after the action (hence the name). Originally a military ritual, after-action reviews work well because they force the team to discuss strengths and weaknesses and to dissect past failures (and even successes) for lessons.
Just after the team finishes a project, or during an important milestone, gather them together and ask them a few questions:

  • What was our intended result?
  • What was the actual result?
  • Why were they different?
  • What will we do the same next time?
  • What will we do differently next time?

The purpose of the meeting is not to find someone to blame, or someone to give all the credit. The goal is to extract lessons from the project about where the team is strong and where they need improvement. When people are open and honest about their weaknesses and contributions to failure, celebrate the vulnerability they just signaled.

Model Active Listening

The easiest way to signal disrespect to someone is make them feel ignored. The reverse is true as well. Making people feel listened to and truly heard is one of the simplest ways to signal that you respect what they have to say. Great team cultures are marked by how well they listen to each other and take turns speaking so everyone feels heard. But our natural tendency as humans can make it difficult to show others we’re listening. We want to help people. So, when people come to us with problems, we want to jump in and help right away. For team leaders, this tendency is even stronger. People are supposed to come to us for help, right? So, we start helping…which means we start talking…which means we stop listening.

One simple trick for ensuring you listen longer and help others feel more heard is to get used to saying, “Tell me more.” When someone says something that triggers a thought in your head, and you feel your mouth starting to open so your brilliant advice can greet the world—stop. Instead of whatever you were going to say, just say “Tell me more.” If you want to take active listening even further, consider a useful acronym from communication expert Julian Treasure: RASA. When someone else is speaking, Receive their ideas by paying attention to them as they speak. Appreciate what they are saying by nodding or giving confirming feedback. Summarize what the other person said when they’re finished. Then Ask them questions to explore their idea further. Since respect is a learned behavior, as you model active listening your team will follow your example—and more members of your team will feel heard and respected.

Recognize, And Share Credit

Leadership thinker Warren Bennis once noted that good leaders shine under the spotlight, but great leaders help others shine. Teams that share credit and take the time to recognize each other are teams where members feel more respected and more trusted. But teams that fight for credit when a project is finished (or fight over blame when it fails) diminish what little respect they had before. Great team leaders look for as many ways to share credit with their team as they can, even if they desire most of the credit. This can be as simple as taking the time to appreciate each team member’s strengths, or as big as shouting those praises throughout the company. When team members know what you appreciate about them, they know you respect their abilities and their ideas.

In addition, find small wins that can be celebrated more often—hence creating more opportunities to recognize others. Small wins have a big impact on individual and team motivation—and that impact only gets bigger when credit for the win is shared team wide.

Conclusion – The Psychological Safety Cycle

When individuals feel respected, and respectful behavior becomes the norm on a team, trust will naturally increase as well. That ensures that great ideas, and great lessons, get heard and considered. Without respect, that trust you’re building by accepting failures and embracing held-back brilliance from your team, will have a very short half-life. You can’t sleep on respect.

It’s a cycle.

You build trust on the team, which encourages people to take risks (or to risk admitting failures) and if that risk is met with respect…trust grows even more. If it doesn’t, you’re failing even faster.

It’s worth including in the conclusion, that we’re not talking about repeat failures. Psychological safety doesn’t mean there’s no accountability for consistently underperforming. It doesn’t mean that people can get away slacking off or that teams will just keep failing. But it does mean they don’t have to be afraid to ask for help or admit those occasional times when they do fail. It means that they take learning and growth so seriously that don’t hold back talking about their own struggles and their own mistakes.

And that’s why high-performing teams are psychologically safe teams.


About the author

David Burkus is an organizational psychologist, keynote speaker, and bestselling author of five books on leadership and teamwork.

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