Psychological safety is increasingly seen as a key factor in maximizing the performance of teams: When employees feel psychologically safe, they are more capable of taking risks, communicating candidly, and thinking creatively. Drawing on the lessons Paul Santagata, Head of Industry at Google, learned during the tech giant’s two-year study on team performance, Laura Delizonna looked at some ways managers can foster psychological safety at the Harvard Business Review last week:
1. Approach conflict as a collaborator, not an adversary. We humans hate losing even more than we love winning. A perceived loss triggers attempts to reestablish fairness through competition, criticism, or disengagement, which is a form of workplace-learned helplessness. Santagata knows that true success is a win-win outcome, so when conflicts come up, he avoids triggering a fight-or-flight reaction by asking, “How could we achieve a mutually desirable outcome?”
2. Speak human to human. Underlying every team’s who-did-what confrontation are universal needs such as respect, competence, social status, and autonomy. Recognizing these deeper needs naturally elicits trust and promotes positive language and behaviors. Santagata reminded his team that even in the most contentious negotiations, the other party is just like them and aims to walk away happy. …
3. Anticipate reactions and plan countermoves. “Thinking through in advance how your audience will react to your messaging helps ensure your content will be heard, versus your audience hearing an attack on their identity or ego,” explains Santagata.
Psychological safety is a topic of particular interest to diversity and inclusion professionals, as its benefits are especially important in building and managing diverse teams. In our latest research at CEB, now Gartner, we discuss why creating these spaces and having these conversations can be so hard:
One of the central debates in performance management is whether it is worthwhile for organizations to invest in improving the work of low-performing employees, or whether it makes more sense to focus on high performers and high-potentials. Recently, some major companies have started exploring ways to help low performers remedy the quality of their work, such as Amazon’s “Pivot” training program, launched in January, which provides coaching to employees on the company’s performance improvement plan. At HRE Online, Mark McGraw explores the pros and cons of coaching strategies like Pivot:
“Part of the reason that Amazon or any company might adopt this type of program for low performers is to send a message,” says [Daniel] Stewart, president of Stewart Leadership, a Portland, Ore.-headquartered talent management and leadership development consultancy. “And I have to admit, my gut reaction is that the message they want to send is not necessarily geared toward the employees in the program. They might want to let ‘the street,’ shareholders, know that they value the people who work for them.” …
“The organization is saying, ‘We hired you, therefore we believe you have something to offer,’ ” says Stewart. “That’s a meaningful thing to say, because, if Amazon or anyone else wants to hire someone, they want that person to succeed. So why not invest, as appropriate, in making sure they’re leveraging that person’s ability and potential in the right way?”
Other experts, however, believe that stronger employees should be the main targets of development programs:
At the Harvard Business Review, Kellogg School of Management professors Sally Blount and Shana Carroll describe two key conversations leaders need to have with their employees before implementing a change agenda: namely, identifying the sources of resistance to change and then persuading the resistors. When it comes to identifying the resistors, they point to three common reasons why people resist:
Even if you’ve done your homework and have engaged a broad range of stakeholders in determining the new direction for your organization, team, or project, there are undoubtedly going to be people who disagree on substantive grounds. … A second universal source of resistance is the human need for respect, which frequently heightens during periods of change. This is especially true of employees who have been with an organization for a long time or have held a good deal of influence at some point in the past (and believe they still do). …
Another reason people might resist is simply because they are feeling rushed. They don’t have enough time to digest the new direction or cope with the situation emotionally.
Alex Fradera at the British Psychological Society’s Research Digest flags a new study looking at the impact of cooperative workplaces on high-performing employees, which found that “in more cooperative climates, hotshots are actually more likely to get a raw deal”:
Elizabeth Campbell and her colleagues surveyed 350 hair stylists, mainly women, working within a chain of Taiwanese salons. The researchers were interested in how the most successful stylists were treated by their peers: they identified hotshots by asking managers for performance ratings, and then they surveyed all the staff to find out the benefits and threats they saw in each other, and how much criticism and support they received. They also asked stylists about their salon’s working climate by asking them how much they agreed with statements like “there is a high level of cooperation between stylists”. …
The researchers found that hotshots experienced more negative treatment in the form of belittling and criticism when they were surrounded by co-workers who felt threatened. In contrast, hotshots received more help and support if their colleagues saw them as a benefit. The typical high performer had a mixed bag: compared to the typical stylist, they were criticised more, but also received more support. But that support was lacking within salons with more cooperative climates.
This is not the first study to suggest that cooperative workplaces can have a negative impact on standout employees. Last year, management scholars Rob Cross, Reb Rebele, and Adam Grant found that high-performing, highly networked employees tend to get overwhelmed with demands for collaboration, which can ultimately hurt their performance by spreading them too thin.
At the Harvard Business Review, Lewis Garrad and Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic argue in the affirmative, positing that very high levels of engagement can actually hurt organizations by making it more difficult for them to break away from the status quo when necessary:
When it comes to engagement, it is possible that proud and motivated workers resist new ways of doing things because change seems counterintuitive, or even heretic, to them. In line, research shows that people who are optimistic about their performance stop trying to get better whereas frustrated and dissatisfied people tend to find creative breakthroughs when incentivized and supported in the right way. Thus the danger for leaders is that an engaged workforce becomes complacent or arrogant if it isn’t self-critical enough. Unsurprisingly, the last 30 years have been littered with companies that were deeply proud of what they were doing but not dissatisfied or paranoid enough to stay ahead of the competition — Nokia, Kodak and Yahoo! are just a few examples. Needless to say, progress is generally driven by people who reject the status quo and are dissatisfied enough to seek to change it.
The authors also warn that highly-engaged employees can be subject to burnout and work-life balance problems, and that a culture of engagement gives an unfair edge to employees with optimistic and extroverted personality types, while undervaluing the input of negative thinkers whose pessimism can often be helpful: