In one of my earlier articles, I had proposed the use of behavioral nudges to help improve project governance. After reading an HBR article this week in which the authors provided a number of suggestions on how to sustain newly adopted behaviors in the context of the imminent return to in-person office work, I thought that a nudge-based approach might also help with increasing psychological safety.
On the surface, this might seem like a bad idea. After all, if your prevailing culture is toxic, drastic actions might need to be taken to see meaningful improvements. There could be a few "bad apples" at all levels of the organization structure who won't change and may need to be shown the door. There would also be some benefit in providing education to all staff on the importance of psychological safety and what they can personally do to build it.
But once the dust has settled on these overt tactics, different approaches are needed to sustain the desired types of behavior.
At the risk of necro-quoting, following Gretzky's “I skate to where the puck is going” approach will work well when hiring if we bring on new staff who are committed to creating safe environments, but what about our existing staff?
Hallway posters are not the solution. "Loose lips sink ships" might have worked during past war times, but we are playing the long game when we want to build psychological safety. And with the strong likelihood that flex-place arrangements will persist well beyond the end of the pandemic, such visual cues won't translate well to the virtual world.
Rewarding or recognizing behaviors which promote safety helps, but if not designed properly, such carrots could generate unwanted consequences and won't generally contribute to long-term sustainability
But if we think of Daniel Kahneman's System 1 and 2 model from Thinking, Fast and Slow, a well-designed nudge could shift the cognitive System 2 process required to behave in a different, safer manner to the lower effort, default-driven lazy System 1.
One example of such a nudge might be an add-in for e-mail, persistent chat and instant messaging tools which would analyze content as you type it and offer suggestions on different wording. Such an assistant should be more like the intelligent suggestion capabilities offered in e-mail platforms such as Gmail rather than the reviled Microsoft Clippy assistant which plagued MS Office 2000 users.
Another nudge could be an assistant which would analyze received text content to proactively alert you that it might contain bad news so that you can be better prepared to respond to it.
And yet another would be to use virtual backgrounds in video conferences with key messages highlighted so that while we are speaking with someone, the importance of safety remains front and center.
If developing sustainable psychological safety is a journey, it might keep rolling with a few nudges.
An HBR article piqued my interest: “Your Board Needs a People Committee”. In it, the authors provide services which a talent-focus on the part of a subset of the board could bring to helping the leadership teams they support in attracting, retaining and developing their #1 asset. The authors assert that the typical annual reviews of people data conducted by most boards are insufficient as these only provide lagging evidence of where corrective change might be needed.
I realized the same benefits could arise if boards took an active interest in how companies are going about increasing their business agility.
A year ago, I had written an article covering the benefits of a top-down and bottom-up approach to improving organizational agility as in many companies middle management is where transformative change goes to die. A top-down approach is likely to be side-stepped or given lip service by middle managers and might be actively resisted by teams. A bottom-up approach might work for individual teams but to get commitment from the delivery and control partners which make up value streams, top-down support is essential.
But the fly in this particular ointment is that senior leaders rarely stay put.
It is not uncommon for a senior executive to change portfolios every two years, especially if they are being groomed for a C-level position. I’ve seen more than my fair share of transformations which were cancelled or rebooted prematurely because the original sponsoring executives had moved on and their replacements either felt that the changes were no longer a priority or they had a different vision for the desired end state.
We know that the road to increased business agility is a long and arduous one for large companies. The likelihood that the primary executive sponsor or key members of the steering committee will remain the same over the journey is quite low. Given this, wouldn’t it make sense to actively engage the board to guide (and in some cases drive) aspects of the transformation?
Beyond the issue of executive attrition, there are a couple of other reasons why this is worth considering:
Of course, to make this work, the board and the executive team will need to develop rules of engagement and some definition of roles and responsibilities to reduce the likelihood of board members overstepping their boundaries.
So if you are leading a business agility transformation and have got buy-in from your senior leadership team, your selling work is not done. Take it to the board!
HBR published an article this week titled Managing your WFH paranoia. In the article, the author focuses on the impacts of the “out of sight, out of mind” concerns which many workers have developed over the course of the past year resulting from COVID-19 pandemic work restrictions. Such fears could include a sense of persecution, feelings of abandonment or being disrespected.
She also provides a number of tips on how team members can avoid or overcome these concerns including:
Such tactics are helpful, but always remember that it takes two to tango. While we want our team members to be as self-managing as possible, what we do as leaders will go a long way towards helping them do so.
So what can you do as a team lead to help your team members avoid such fears?
Tune up your team’s working agreements
Assuming your team members have already developed a set of ground rules for how they will interact with one another, it might be a good time to refresh these rules. Facilitate a candid conversation with your team about fears of isolation and encourage them to identify additional rules for how to go about surfacing such fears. Explore what behaviors should be reinforced or avoided to reduce the likelihood of such fears festering. Don’t hesitate to lead by example. Give them instances of when you might have felt these same concerns and how you dealt with them.
Be (more) responsive
You might feel that you are an excellent communicator, but are you testing this assumption regularly? Could you do more to provide feedback in a clear, timely manner? Is the way in which you respond (or not) sending the wrong messages? Ask your team members, either in a group or one-on-one, if they can think of a recent specific scenario where their your remote interactions with them made them feel more concerned than if you had been working with them in person.
Check in regularly
While I’m sure you are using regular informal surveys or other techniques to see how your team is feeling, you might wish to add some questions specifically related to how your team members are feeling. As as example, you might ask them to grade their level of comfort or confidence on a sliding scale.
Be aware of their commitments
Make sure that there is transparency around who has committed to what. Encourage your team members to work a sustainable pace and to come to you if they are not confident in pushing back when someone asks them to take on more work than they feel comfortable juggling.
Provide support resources
If you have the ability, set up some virtual workshops or lunch-n-learns on how to manage stress and fear of failure concerns when working remotely. Encourage your team members to identify a “buddy” within their team with whom they can have candid, safe two-way conversations about this topic. Locate suitable online videos related to the subject and view and discuss them together during team meetings.
Remote work is here to stay.
If team leaders and team members work together to tackle the concerns that come with this way of working, their efforts will be like a bright sunshine burning off the fog of fear.
Having the courage to speak up within a team without fear of social repercussion is a symptom of a higher level of psychological safety. Depending on the context of the complaint it might, in fact, be evidence of Challenger Safety which is the top level of Dr. Timothy R. Clark’s 4 Stages of Psychological Safety model, and is a prerequisite for unleashing the creativity of a team.
Sounds good, right?
But what should we do when one person’s raising of concerns becomes chronic? Left unchecked, such behavior could alienate the individual from the rest of the team as others within the team might not want to have someone bringing them down. If allowed to fester, the individual’s contributions will be criticized or rejected based on how they are perceived by others in the team. Even worse, their regular ranting could become contagious and infect other team members which will bring down the team’s overall morale and productivity.
It would be tempting to jump in and confront the team member, but before directly intervening, seek first to better understand what is going on. Consider their most recent set of complaints and ask yourself the following questions.
Once you have gathered this information, look at it objectively, and if you find yourself unable to do so, invite a trusted peer, in confidence, to review the evidence and provide their opinion.
Is your team member a chronic complainer or are they a cursed Cassandra? There are many examples of those unfortunate few who tried to make the many sit up and pay attention only to be persecuted for their efforts and do YOU want to be on the wrong side of history?
Intervene too soon and you will send the message to the individual and the rest of the team that you can’t handle the truth. The next time they feel concerned about something, they will stay silent as they no longer feel safe.
But once you are convinced that intervention is needed, don’t delay. Manfred F. R. Kets de Vries wrote an article for HBR providing guidance on how to do so once you know it is warranted.
Work with a diverse group of people long enough and someone is guaranteed to complain. This is natural human behavior and we want to encourage the healthy expression of concerns, especially if addressing these concerns directly could help to create a better outcome for our customers, our company or society in general.
Whether your team follows a specific framework or has taken a mix-and-match approach with its practices, a tenet of agile is the use of short feedback loops to support inspection and adaptation.
Whether your team sets a regular cadence for external product reviews or they are conducted on a just-in-time basis, it is important to get actionable feedback. But conducting a review is not just a matter of bringing people together.
While there are probably more than just these ways of messing up reviews, here are seven which I’ve witnessed.
Well-run reviews are a key ingredient of building the right product for our customers, so avoiding these seven sins will go a long way to getting real value out of these critical events.