Let’s do a compare & contrast of two very different leaders in two very different meetings …
In one team, the leader acts as a master facilitator creating the space for everyone’s voices to be heard and for difference of opinions to be expressed in a constructive way. He starts the meeting with a 1 – 2 minute check in – this allows people to transition from their last task and sets the tone of being present for this meeting. He quickly reviews the team agreements – this way everyone is reminded of their rules of engagement. The agreements are centered around being a team that creates space for diverse and quieter voices, and staying on track to the issue at hand. In the meeting, he allows space for the louder voices, but he does not allow them to dominate. When he notices some people haven’t expressed, he checks in with them so they know their opinions are encouraged. He is mindful of groupthink and watches for it on his team. When different opinions are offered, he encourages healthy dialogue and debate, and uses prompts like “tell me more about that perspective” and “what might we be missing” to model constructive dialogue. When people are getting off topic, he reaffirms the parameters of the current discussion and tables items that require more time. He expresses his opinion last – because he knows his team have critical insights and wants to hear them, and because he is aware that people are influenced by those in positions of power. People leave the meeting feeling seen, heard and expressed. They know how they are moving forward, even if they don’t agree on all the issues.
In another team, the leader is physically present but not connected. He is busy and has a list of items to get through. He moves through the agenda he created, pausing from time to time to ask if there are questions, comments or feedback. There are, but there is a tone and energy in the room that sends a message to people that their views are not really invited. A few times, the leader checks in with the team, with prompts like “of course our organization will be proceeding in (insert apparently obvious direction/path forward)” – this positioning does not exactly invite an opportunity for counter-opinions. When one participant does ask a question, the leader seems to perceive it as a challenge and quips “that decision is at the direction of (insert decision-making body)”. The conversation is shut down quickly. The mood amongst participants varies from fear to apathy. The leader promptly wraps up and leaves for his next meeting. The team then engages in a lengthy “meeting after the meeting” where they work together to clarify all the questions they had and to develop a plan for navigating getting their leader to understand their perspectives. Work-arounds ensue.
The difference in these two meetings is that in the first, a leader understands his responsibility to actively create psychological safety for his team and he models such in his ways of engaging. This meeting feels better to be a part of – people feel respected, they can ask the questions they need to ask, there is cognitive friction and a sense of learning and getting better from the different perspectives on the team. The team also gets to solutions faster.
In the other, the leader is not mindful of how his ways of engaging, energy and tone are creating a lack of safety in the meeting. This may or may not be intentional or even within the leader’s awareness. He is very busy after all. But the lack of safety is holding people back from expressing and from feeling engaged and like an important, contributing part of the team. If the point was top-down communication, maybe a memo would have been easier? This meeting results in wasted time and disengagement.
The magic ingredient and path forward? Leaders who create psychological safety. Easier said than done, because the primary model of leadership modelled for many years has been a top-down approach. Also, because oftentimes behaviors that are contributing to unsafety are not intentional and may even be out of our awareness. It doesn’t mean we are bad people, but as leaders, our span of influence is significant, and we have a responsibility to understand the impact we have on others, and how that creates an impact on the business.
Organizations who set psychological safety as a expectation of their leaders will see the results in their business through increased engagement, diversity of thought, innovation and profitability.
If you’d like to learn more about the magic ingredient of psychological safety, let’s connect.