Is Your Team Comfortable Speaking Up?

Updated: Nov 14, 2018

What’s your worst workplace fear? You may have heard the famous Jerry Seinfeld line based on the staggering statistic that public speaking is most people’s number one fear.

“Death is number two. Does that sound right? This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.”

So we know what a lot of us don’t want to do in the office, but what do we really desire during our office hours (and no, we’re not talking about clocking off for that holiday in Bermuda)? Perhaps unsurprisingly, we want a space where we can feel safe speaking up and taking action, where we don’t feel reigned in by fear of repercussion.

That’s according to Google’s expansive investigation into the ingredients for a highly effective team, Project Aristotle. It ranks ‘psychological safety’ as the most important factor in effective team building. How do we achieve such a thing, you may ask. Below are three questions you can tick off to see if you’re creating an environment that sparks your team’s creativity.

Do You Accept Mistakes?

Many of our fears are simply irrational. Seinfeld’s example, fear of public speaking, triggers that dreaded fight or flight response. And yet, it never goes as badly as we fear. If you want to avoid your team having the office equivalent of stage fright, you need to actively encourage team members to admit to their errors.

Mistakes are inevitable and we learn from them. Not driving this message home to your team, according to Project Aristotle, leads to a lack of risk taking which completely stifles a team’s creativity. At its worst, it can also lead to a breakdown in communication and a huge waste of company time and money, as shown in the video below.

"Feel free to tell her yourself."  What happens when a team is scared of making mistakes?

A useful rule of thumb is to take note of how many people on your team come to you to admit a mistake every week. Only one or two? Keep the champagne on ice. It’s likely that several others are being brushed under the carpet.

Have You Created A Learning Environment?

So how do we encourage a team to be honest about those inevitable mistakes and learn from them? As simple as it seems, we relay the message to them. Managers don’t purposefully set out to create lousy atmospheres, but they often unwittingly do just that through their actions.

Here’s a great example, courtesy of Amy Edmondson, Professor of Leadership and Management at Harvard Business School. During a Ted Talk on psychological safety, Edmondson recounted several typical workplace situations. One of these had a nurse on the night shift notice that the dosage for a patient’s medication seems a little too high. As Edmondson says, “fleetingly, she considers calling the doctor at home to check the order.” And, “just as fleetingly, she recalls his disparaging comments about her abilities last time she called him at home. All but certain the dose is in fact fine.” She administers the med without checking.

The emphasis in Edmondson’s situations is on the fleeting thoughts that potentially lead to costly mistakes. An off the cuff comment given without a second thought can have a lasting negative impact.

So being purposeful with our language is important in creating a learning environment. We can also encourage employees to learn something new every day, or as QVC’s CEO does, encourage new executives to do nothing but learn for the first six months. Or how about setting aside an hour every week to talk to the most junior employee about what they’re learning? They may be shy to begin with, but will eventually learn to speak up and be honest, upping the ante for the rest of the team.

Is The Team Aiming For Excellence?

At the risk of sounding like a sap, it’s really about the team. Terms like psychological safety may conjure up collective memories of the ham-fisted implementation of pedantic new work norms. But having a team of people that are comfortable speaking up simply benefits everyone. It doesn’t need to come at the cost of drive and ambition.

A team that has one or two team members who think they are shit hot, usually has several others who are being put down. What we want is a whole team that, in admitting their fallibility to one another, can help each other strive for excellence. That’s what we’re aiming for at Circles, to create teams that are honest and channel their strengths collectively to help each other overcome the obstacles that are holding them back.

It’s a necessary step. As Edmondson urges, "we need people to bring their absolute full selves to the challenging jobs ahead.” One of the most striking findings from Project Aristotle’s data is the fact that “who is on a team matters less than how the team members interact, structure their work, and view their contributions.” It’s a huge testament to the power and generosity of teams who are comfortable when it comes to speaking up.

#teamwork #productivity

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