Editor’s Note: Grace Ueng is CEO of Savvy Growth, a leadership coaching and management consultancy founded in 2003. Her great passion to help leaders and the companies they run achieve their fullest potential combined with her empathy and ability to help executives figure out their “why” is what clients value most. Grace writes a regular column for WRAL TechWire to help readers become happier and therefore, better leaders.
“You always give people the benefit of the doubt!”
A coaching client recently shared issues he was having with one of his direct reports. When I asked him a question to perhaps see the situation from that person’s perspective, he immediately said, “You always give people the benefit of the doubt.” I left that session not sure about his comment, other than he didn’t think that was necessarily a good thing. It sounded like he thought I was too easy on his people.
As I shared in Back in the Classroom at Harvard Business School, I was energized by having a front row seat in the classroom of Professor Amy Edmonson, guru on human behavior and author of The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation and Growth.
How to create a fearless organization?
Professor Edmonson’s powerful research proves that teams that have psychological safety are those that have the best outcomes. Her lecture and presentation of materials impressed me so much that I wanted to learn more, so I pored myself into her book.
I synthesize her work into my top three findings in the hopes that you will examine just how fearless your organization is today and how you can make it even more so tomorrow.
The relationship between Trust and Psychological Safety
The importance of both
1. Benefit of the Doubt & Trust
“When you give someone the benefit of the doubt, they then trust you. When you are in a psychologically safe environment, others give you the benefit of the doubt.”
That brought me back to my client’s comment that he thought I always give people the benefit of the doubt. I realized that what I originally took as a criticism is actually a good thing. I should have realized that I am the opposite of being too easy. I almost always hold people to very high standards.
Consulting clients have said that I have an almost “magical” ability to get people to open up and share in my discovery process, when I speak to their customers and lost deals. I bring out “a-has” on why they win or lose to competitors that they had previously had no knowledge. Rather than possessing magical abilties, I simply create a space that is safe for them to open up and share these insights.
Releasing the brakes
Psychological safety is not a perk or a nice to have. It is an essential in creating the passionate employee engagement that leads to the desire to build and innovate, which in turn is essential to be a leader in today’s marketplace. While this safety is not the gas that fills the tank, it releases the brakes to help innovation to take hold and then accelerate.
Learning Environment & DEI
Supporting an organization that promotes learning is critical to the scenario of having employees just showing up and doing their jobs. Supporting this requires an environment of listening. Professional development as part of a person’s lifelong learning, is often a key attribute of workplace satisfaction.
Psychological safety is essential for any DEI strategy, particularly one that values diversity of thought. A workplace that is truly characterized by inclusion and belonging is by definition a psychologically safe workplace.
Safety: Psychological & Physical
Whether it be innovation, quality, or patient safety, issues and opportunities are best uncovered and brainstormed when team members feel safe to speak their mind without fear of being stigmatized or having their career mobility threatened. In healthcare settings, more errors are reported and therefore safety protected in psychologically safe environments. The more highly complex and interdependent an organization, the more important this is.
Edmonson shared how cancer research teams where psychological safety did not exist, employed workarounds versus figuring out the root cause so that the issue doesn’t happen in the first place. Edmonson states that nowhere is employee engagement more important than with frontline healthcare workers where differences in speaking up or not can lead to life or death.
2. Why using your voice is so uncommon
One of the CEOs we work with often tells her frontline and managers to use their voice. And with years of repetition and making sure she is accessible, she has heard from many. Unfortunately, in most companies, this is rare. When they hear encouragement to use their voice, many employees have no idea how. And it is often most difficult not with someone many levels ahead of you, but with your own manager.
The asymmetry of voice and silence
Edmonson discusses at great length how it is much easier not to use your voice. Using your voice is effortful and risky now, with benefits that are realized in the far away future if at all. Silence offers self-protection benefits. Holding back bad news and great ideas, that one is not yet confident is great, is easier and safer. Teams will only use their voice if an environment of psychological safety truly exists. Not speaking up is often simpler than sorry.
Most people go through an automatic calculus in their decision of “should I speak up?” No one was ever fired for silence. The instinct to play it safe is powerful. We can be completely confident we will be safe if we remain silent. Another one of the implicit theories of voice is related to fear of insulting someone higher in the organization. By suggesting change, you might be calling the boss’s baby ugly and they could get defensive. In the end, in being silent, you are depriving customers of many good ideas and your company the opportunity to create impactful change.
3. What is your team’s psychological safety rating? What simple phrases can you add to your weekly meetings to improve?
How does your team rate? 7 statements to ask each member of your team to rate their level of agreement/disagreement.
– If you create a mistake on this team, it is often held against you.
– Members of this team are able to bring up problems and tough issues.
– People on this team sometimes reject others for being different.
– It is safe to take a risk on this team.
– It is difficult to ask other members of this team for help.
– No one on this team would deliberately act in a way that undermines my efforts.
– Working with members of this team, my unique skills and talents are well utilized.
Powerful & vulnerable phrases
- I don’t know.
- I need help!
- I made a mistake.
- I’m sorry.
You may need to take interpersonal risk to lower your team’s interpersonal risk. When a boss appears to know everything, no one wants to take situational risk. Adopting a humble mindset is realism that gets the most out of your team. Confidence and humility are not opposites. Confidence when warranted is preferable to false modesty. Humility is not false modesty, rather it is the recognition that you don’t have all the answers or have a crystal ball. When leaders express situational humility, teams adopt more learning behavior.
Admit your errors and shortcomings
When Anne Mulcahy was named CEO of Xerox, the company was facing going out of business. She quickly became known as the master of “I don’t know” and led Xerox out of bankruptcy and orchestrated a remarkable turnaround.
Express interest and availability.
– What can I do to help?
– What are you up against?
– What are your concerns?
In the moment, be vulnerable, interested, and available. Your attempts may be ignored or rebuffed. But it is a risk worth taking.
You must also be in the room.
American billionaire investor, Ray Dalio, founder of the world’s largest hedge fund, Bridgewater Associates, is known for his “gospel of radical transparency.”
He began a unique company culture that operated under a rule that you could not talk about others unless they were also in the room, so they could learn from what is being said. Those that talked about colleagues behind their back were referred to as “slimy weasels”!
Bridgewater even has a transparency library where videos of every executive meeting are kept so that anyone in the company can see how issues and policies are discussed.
The courage of speaking up and taking the risk must be followed with a word of thanks rather than immediately disagreeing. Give that feedback only after pausing and saying thanks.
Try that this week; you may be pleasantly surprised with the results.
About Grace Ueng
Grace is CEO of Savvy Growth, a leadership coaching and management consultancy founded in 2003. Her great passion to help leaders and the companies they run achieve their fullest potential combined with her empathy and ability to help leaders figure out their “why” are what clients value most.
Grace’s core offerings are one on one coaching for CEOs and their leadership teams, facilitating workshops on Personal Branding and Speaking Success and conducting strategic reviews for companies at a critical juncture. A TED speaker, she is hired to give motivational keynotes and lead Happiness Works™ programs for companies and campuses.
A marketing strategist, Grace held leadership roles at five high growth technology ventures that successfully exited through acquisition or IPO. She started her career at Bain & Company and then worked in brand management at Clorox and General Mills. She is a graduate of MIT and Harvard Business School and holds a positive coaching certification from the Whole Being Institute.
Grace and her partner, Rich Chleboski, a cleantech veteran, develop and implement strategies to support the growth of impact focused companies and then coach their leaders in carrying out their strategic plans. Their expertise spans all phases of the business from evaluation through growth and liquidity.