More than metrics, kick-off meetings or the promise of year-end bonuses, team performance is driven by culture. One sign of a toxic culture is high turnover, something supportive and empathetic leaders work to avoid. While some industries have higher attrition rates than others, a toxic corporate culture is 10 times more significant than compensation in predicting voluntary departures.
In contrast, a hallmark of work environments people want to inhabit is psychological safety, which encourages initiative taking and innovative thinking. It’s up to leadership to create psychologically safe workplaces for their teams. Here are a few ways to do it and why it matters.
Encourage Diverse Perspectives
It’s not always bad for everyone on a team to agree—it’s called consensus. But when it arises out of fear, the result is groupthink. When groupthink occurs, expressed loyalty to the group or boss outweighs the best choices. The dangers of groupthink include making unethical decisions and having one person dictate the team’s direction. History shows that groupthink has been linked to disastrous outcomes such as the space shuttle Challenger accident.
If you’re not sure whether groupthink is happening within your team, look for the telltale signs. Are people radio silent when asked for their opinions? Is there a general feeling of apathy or complacency? It may be because team members don’t believe leadership values their perspectives, a reasonable conclusion when diverse opinions are actively shot down or passively ignored.
According to advisory firm McChrystal Group, only 37% of leaders encourage their teammates to voice alternate or opposing points of view. While not asking for others’ perspectives doesn’t constitute resistance to diverse ideas, it does discourage their expression. A psychologically safe environment is one where employees can openly disagree with leadership without fearing they’ll get penalized for using their voice.
When you ask for diverse opinions and empower your team members to express them, you ensure the best ideas bubble to the surface. You reinforce healthy debate by promoting group discussion about the merits of each concept. Instead of putting your stamp on every initiative, demonstrate a willingness to listen to—and act on—team members’ contributions.
Make Room for Mistakes
In fear-based work environments, employees are afraid to make mistakes. It’s not the usual trepidation of slipping up and having an uncomfortable conversation at quarterly review time. Instead, it’s a fear that leads to hiding serious problems through questionable behaviors.
Say your company only evaluates sales teams based on closed sales. On top of this, there’s constant pressure from leadership to beat the numbers by achieving continuous growth. While expansion goals are admirable, what if the company is already the top dog in an oversaturated market? Surpassing last year’s numbers may be unrealistic, causing employees to find “creative” ways to mask underperformance.
Furthermore, expecting perfection from your team can discourage the kind of risk taking that leads to innovation. Employees may experience stunted professional growth because they’re not in an environment where they can safely fail. Perfectionism can also lead to micromanagement, another factor that impedes psychological safety. When teams are micromanaged, they hold back, waiting for the boss to tell them what to do.
You can help your team without resorting to micromanagement if you time your offers of assistance right. Rather than swooping to prevent an error, which conveys a lack of trust, allow team members to proceed and experience any difficulties firsthand. By remaining available but not imposing yourself, you enable your subordinates to ask for assistance when they’re ready to receive it.
Set Clear Expectations
Have you ever worked hard on a project only to be told by the higher-ups that you went in the wrong direction? You had to start over because the work you did doesn’t come close to matching the new road map. You probably felt defeated or even got angry, wondering why leadership didn’t outline their expectations more clearly beforehand.
Now imagine this scenario happening repeatedly on every project your team works on. They’d have to develop some thick skin and a nonchalant attitude to keep themselves in the game. But underneath it all, team members would lose confidence in their abilities to perform—or your ability to manage. They’d no longer feel safe taking initiative and would run every move by you first. Perhaps they’d notice problems and just wait for the chips to fall where they would.
Teams without clear performance expectations soon realize they’ll miss the mark anyway. Consequently, they conclude that there’s no percentage in putting forth top-notch effort. To avoid that fate, create psychological safety for your team by defining expectations clearly from the outset.
If there will be wiggle room in a project’s scope and outline, it’s OK to state that at the beginning. But asking your team to produce work and then completely changing the parameters afterward will demotivate them. In contrast, giving them clear expectations will encourage them to approach their work with confidence rather than doing only the bare minimum.
Creating Psychological Safety
Leaders are responsible for making their teams feel safe when they express themselves at work. This includes voicing concerns and suggesting ideas for overcoming challenges.
Absent psychological safety, employees become anxious and motivated by negative consequences rather than positive possibilities. Team performance suffers as initiative and talent walk out the door. That’s why creating psychological safety is one of the most critical things managers can do to help their teams reach their potential.
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