It’s one thing to be okay. Another to accurately recognize when we are not. And another thing entirely to feel safe enough to disclose our not-okayness at work. As discussed in my last newsletter, there are a number of reasons why workplaces collude against a more complete expression of the human experience, including open discussions of mental health or struggle. In many performance environments, we have been taught that intellect trumps emotion, and that emotions are messy, uncontrollable, and therefore things to be feared and avoided.
Contemporary leadership theory is turning some of these old ideas on their head. And good thing, too, since there is no way that workplace culture can shift toward a more humane approach to performance - an approach that values ALL aspects of the human experience - without the endorsement and advocacy of leaders—as well as modeling BY leaders. I have witnessed too many failed initiatives where athletes or employees are encouraged or sent to workshops to learn how to speak truth to power or to speak openly about their experience, only to have their coaches or leaders undermine those efforts with comments or reactions that suggest that free and open communication is not all that valued. Or, leaders who react awkwardly to personal disclosures, much less to admissions that things might not be going all that well.
One of the more powerful movements in this shift toward more holistic team cultures is that of psychological safety. In 2014, Harvard Business School Professor Amy Edmonson coined the term to describe what great teams do in this space (and that differentiates them from less effective teams ). Psychologically safe teams intentionally create the space, time, and willingness to discuss the undiscussable: mistakes and failures. In taking the focus from outcome to process, processes (shockingly!) get better, errors are reduced, outcomes improve AND team member morale improves. Dr Edmondson placed the responsibility for this shift directly on the shoulders of leadership. She suggests three ways that leaders can promote more psychological safety.
1. Framework as learning, not execution. In other words, value the process over the product. I see such synergy between the mindset shift required for psychological safety and what we need in more emotionally open workplaces. In both cases, it seems easier and more sensible to stay on the side of that which is more easily observed or measured and is more pleasant/less uncomfortable. But in both cases, this shuts down so much of what is truly valuable in a cultural context. When we only talk about success, we leave failure and learning in the dark. When we focus only on what we think, we ignore and lose the power of intuition and devalue mental health. The final paradox in both cases? Performance suffers.
2. Model curiosity. Ask questions. Curiosity is a huge lever for moving back the curtain on that (mistakes or emotions) which is unknown or ignored. By being curious, we are not pre-judging something as good or bad, just wondering about it. By so doing, leaders make it safer for everyone to do this. In being curious about the status quo, we encourage new thinking and different perspectives.
3. Acknowledge your own fallibility. Dr. Edmonson suggested that leaders get comfortable with this idea in the sense of being willing to admit what they don’t know and being willing to ask for help and input from others. I can also see value in also getting comfortable with sharing your own emotional experience. No one, not even leaders, escapes the ups and downs of emotional experience, or the sleepless night. Being able to share when you are perhaps not at your best is a powerful way to open the door for others to do so.
In high-performance cultures that value thinking over feeling or output over process, the very idea of leaders sharing their emotional fallibility can seem akin to admitting incompetence. So what can make the difference between admitting “I don’t know” or “I’m struggling and could use a hand” versus “I’m clueless!” or “I shouldn't even be here?”
Effective leaders who model their fallibility and vulnerability for the betterment of their team cultures do so from a foundational position of both character and competence. Steven Covey talks about these qualities as being essential for trust to develop, which is unsurprisingly a key ingredient underpinning psychological safety. Let’s unpack this.
Your character counts. By that, I mean, your personal “brand” reputation. How people around you see you. Do you have integrity? Do you do what you say you are going to do? Do you care about others and do you show it in ways they appreciate? Are you honest? More importantly than what you think, would others describe you that way? One of my husband’s favourite quotes that resonates here: people don’t remember what you said, but how you made them feel.” When coaches and leaders display good character, they project a way of being that is predictable and resonates with others. In contrast, imagine the scenario where a leader is inconsistent and dishonest. Their brand has been tarnished. In this context, authenticity can fall flat. No one cares to know that the bad actor is having a bad day.
By the same token, competence also matters. Authentic leadership rests on a base of competence, that at some level you know what you are doing and behave accordingly. Incompetent leaders propagate less stable cultures. It is hard to see a way forward if people—staff or athletes—are wondering if leadership knows what it is doing. Trust is again undermined. Layer onto that an admission that you are not doing well, or don’t know what you are doing. In this scenario, such admissions can add, and not in a good way, to a sense of destabilisation for the team.
Consider the inverse, where a leader has demonstrated both character and competence. Steven Covey would say that with both in hand, the speed of trust increases. These qualities also link to more stable and psychologically safe cultures that can not only tolerate but thrive in the face of authentic admissions of fallibility. And when leaders who have demonstrated their character and competence can also be vulnerable in this way, they pave the way for others. Given the pandemic slog we are all in right now, I can’t think of a time when authentic leadership and sharing would be more critical. Consider what you can bring to the table.
Thanks for following along, and as always, I’d love to know what you think.
In case you missed my main message :), I believe that high performance shouldn't hurt people. I provide individual and group coaching on how to achieve the performance goals you want without hurting yourself or your people in the process. In ways that are healthier, happier, and more sustainable. If you want more information or have questions, you can reach me at email@example.com