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The One Thing Your Team Needs to Perform Best

Updated: Mar 3, 2022

How would you describe the propensity, or natural tendency, your team has to learn?

This means to not only seek information, ask questions, and listen (obvious learning behaviors) but also to invite disagreement, request feedback, report the mistakes of others, challenge each other’s ideas and display a willingness to be challenged.

If you responded by saying “it depends”, then you’re not alone. Most teams engage in the learning behaviors that feel the most comfortable at a given time. For instance, with some situations and people it might be comfortable to ask a lot of questions and with others, less so. The same applies to disagreement and feedback.

Unfortunately, comfort is not a predictor of team success. Neither is harmony, friendliness, age, expertise, or diversity of background.

The greatest predictor of team success is psychological safety, and it requires the leader and the team to have a learning mindset.

Psychological safety is not that feeling you get in your therapist’s office. Amy Edmondson, Harvard University researcher and author, describes it as a sense of confidence that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking. This looks like asking for help, admitting uncertainty, disagreeing, and reporting errors or mistakes.

What Edmondson’s research has shown is “…team psychological safety affects learning behavior, which in turn affects team performance.” (Edmondson, 1999)

It’s a challenging concept to employ. It is one that take diligence and humility. But if you and your team want to make the greatest impact and deliver the best results to your patients, customers, and clients, then psychological safety needs to be a priority.

Learn from Failure

When something goes wrong, a psychologically safe team avoids blame. Instead, taking risks and the potential to make mistakes are recognized, expected, and encouraged. Even when life is at stake.

In hospitals, psychologically safe teams report more errors, correct mistakes faster, and thus provide better patient care. “In healthcare teams, the presence of psychological safety is critical to delivering safe care.” (O’Donovan, et. al, 2020) The same results are found in other industries with equally high safety standards, like transportation and construction.

Many organizations and teams work diligently to reduce the stigma of failure. Ely Lily, a pharmaceutical company, “…has held “failure parties” to honor intelligent, high-quality scientific experiments that fail to achieve the desired results.” The celebration sends a message that it is ok to fail. It is not something shameful or something to hide, rather it deserves the same attention as success.

Some teams reframe failure by making the word fail an acronym: From All I Learn. If mistakes and errors are viewed as learning opportunities, team members are less likely to cover them up and more likely to explore the root cause of the issue. When root causes are determined, new procedures and processes are defined as the team engages in further analysis and communication. These are the learning behaviors needed for optimal performance.

The Leader’s Role

The nearest leader, manager, or supervisor has the most direct impact on whether a team embraces a learning mindset. Leaders who speak condescendingly, micro-manage, believe their expertise is superior, or even gossip and tease others create fear within the team.

Fear is what stifles clarity of thought, critical analysis, and openness of communication. Behaviors required for a learning mindset.

Moreover, it is well established that hierarchy impacts whether an employee speaks up. Nembhard and Edmondson write in the Journal of Organizational Behavior that people lower in an organizational hierarchy are:

  • Less likely to check with others if uncertain

  • More fearful that mistakes will be held against them

  • Less certain others will value their skills

This means leaders (and anyone of greater tenure and seniority) must make an overt effort to include and engage others with less tenure and seniority to speak up and thus, feel psychologically safe.

This is more than a leader simply stating, “I have an open-door policy, stop by any time.” Instead, that leader is tireless at checking in with their team. They conduct individual check-ins with each employee to engage in dialogue, ask for feedback, and listen to concerns or new ideas.

  1. In her book “Teaming: How Organizations Learn, Innovate, and Compete in the Knowledge Economy”, Edmonson advises leaders do the following “…to develop a high-performance, psychologically safe environment.”

  2. Be accessible – Available for dialogue, personally involved

  3. Acknowledge the limits of their current knowledge – A genuine display of humility encourage others to do the same.

  4. Be willing display fallibility – Acknowledgement of their own ability to make a mistake.

  5. Invite participation – Demonstrate a value for other’s input.

  6. Highlight failure as learning opportunity – Embrace error, and deal with it productively.

  7. Use direct language – Blunt, respectful discussion enables learning.

  8. Set boundaries – People feel more psychologically safe when expectations are clear, instead of vague or unpredictable.

  9. Hold people accountable for transgressions – When boundaries are set and then are crossed, leaders must be fair and consistent.

The Role of Humility

Establishing psychological safety is not an easy endeavor. It requires consistent discussion of the topic, frequent feedback on progress, and humility demonstrated by the leader which in turn encourages others on the team to display it as well.

This modest view of one’s importance, or humility, is often misunderstood. It isn’t to be meek, uncertain, or insecure. Rather it is for a leader to step back from believing they have the answers and viewing all members of the team as equal thought partners. Humility levels the playing field.

Brene Brown said it best, “True humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less.”

Indeed, though it is sometimes hard to put humility into practice. It can feel like a vague ideal.

Which is why adopting a learning mindset is key. It is relatively easy to step into the shoes of a learner, we’ve all been there. Asking questions, being curious, refraining from judgement, and unpacking errors to understand what went wrong are far more tangible and familiar behaviors.

As a leader, embracing psychological safety is the permission many need to let go, acknowledge they don’t have to have all the answers, and empower others. It is when leaders do this, their best results will emerge.

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Until next time!

Amy Drader is a management consultant and credentialed coach with over 20 years’ experience in HR and operations. She knows first-hand the joys and challenges of leading people and is dedicated to helping managers and teams advance their performance. She is the owner of Growth Partners Consulting, a boutique leadership and team development consulting firm that provides customized training and coaching.

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