Psychological safety is paramount to creating fearless organizations of the future. We know that, today, it is the fulcrum for high-performing teams. While its importance is clear, practicing it is the biggest challenge for leaders.
I was coaching a technology leader, who brought an “evergreen” story telling challenge to be addressed in our coaching conversation. I sought his permission to reflect on a recent situation he was part of, and practice storytelling with me. He smiled at once, as he had one situation ready to discuss and use to practice storytelling.
His team oversaw network infrastructure, and they had scheduled a planned maintenance activity on a Sunday evening, across the organization. At 10.30 pm, he receives a call about the complete failure of the network across the organization. This issue was resolved after 17 hours of non-stop teamwork.
Our conversation progressed, and I asked him about his first reaction to the situation. And he said, it was that of anger. He believed that his anger was valid as he was really upset. He was not informed about the situation earlier and was roped in multiple hours after the incident.
We explored the possibilities for stories here.
- How would the second level report (who handled the maintenance) and my coachee’s direct report (who managed the second level report) feel and narrate this story?
- How can my coachee use storytelling in his monthly senior leadership team meeting and share this issue?
And my coachee tried narrating stories using the above scenarios. And was not successful to narrate a compelling business story. A business story has facts and emotions built into it. While he narrated the facts, he missed out the emotions and the journey with it.
Now these are what I call excellent ‘Coaching Moments’.
My coaching questions to him that aided his reflection were,
- What was the first thing you did once your anger settled down?
- How did you acknowledge and thank your team at the end of the 17-hour non-stop work mania?
- What were the positive strokes that were exchanged during this hectic period?
- How did you celebrate with your team after resolving the challenge?
- How did you close the loop with the direct report and his team member, in private?
- How did you display vulnerability and humanize the whole escalation?
These questions got him to think, and he displayed vulnerability during our conversation.
Well, in short, he had simply thanked his team and life was back to business as usual.
First, he realized that this could be a big reason for his inability to build a story from this incident. There were many facts at play and all the necessary emotions were kept undercovers.
Second, he said, he was curious to explore psychological safety from my sixth question. He felt that it could be a key for his team to bond better and help in his story telling in the future.
Let us take a pause here from my coaching conversation and understand the foundations for psychological safety:
- Compassionate Inquiry – The ability of leaders to understand issues and provide direction using compassion and curiosity as their lens. Most leaders tend to reprimand and become authoritative, leading team members to get into a shell.
- Empathetic Unbiased Communication – The ability of leaders to become kind and inclusive, during tough times, provides the safety net for their teams to look up with confidence and understand that their own ability to learn from mistakes and practice resilience with grace and dignity.
- Partnership in Feedforward – The ability of leaders to set guidelines and direction as a partner, brings greater buy-in from team members, and neutralizes issues. When a leader embraces a partnership mindset, he or she can seek feedback on their actions, from team members. This creates a “valued enough” mindset and creates greater commitment and trust in teams.
- Practice Unconditional Positive Regard – The ability of the leader to practice the Rogerian approach of Unconditional Positive Regard with his team members earns them greater respect and likeability from their team. The leader should have the ability to keep judgement at bay and believe that each person in their team has immense potential. This helps teams to give their best to their leader and align with the larger vision.
Now, going back to my coaching conversation, the leader understood the power and possibilities that arise from a team that felt psychologically safe.
Now he knew that for his team members to narrate the story and present their leader in an inspirational manner, they needed the following:
- Positive strokes of encouragement, acknowledgement, and appreciation from his side.
- Partnering with them and getting into their shoes, rather than looking at issues from a unidimensional lens – a lens that pleases him and what he wants.
- Seek feedback and advice from the team, while he provides them with feedback and direction – they can certainly feel valued and respected while they become ready to act on his guidance.
- At any given opportunity he needs to humanize the team culture and make every team member feel valued and motivated.
At the end of our one-hour coaching conversation, he was more confident in his ability to practice business storytelling and most importantly the access to create a high performing team through psychological safety. Best wishes to team managers in their pursuit of leading teams into the future.