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Let’s face it. We’re living in a moment of earth-shaking turmoil.
Global pandemic. Economic anxiety. Concerns for social justice being drowned out by rioters, looters and fire-bombers. Politicians opting for sound bites over honest dialogue. A “cancel culture” determined to shame and intimidate people into silence. Fragile trust everywhere.
Not a good recipe for teamwork.
If there were ever a time for collaboration, this is it. In fact, without collaboration—as my grandfather would say—our goose is cooked.
Mike Robbins has some ideas that couldn’t be more timely. He’s the author of We’re All In This Together: Creating a Team Culture of High Performance, Trust, and Belonging.
An expert in teamwork, leadership, and emotional intelligence, he draws on more than two decades of experience working with companies like Google and Microsoft, as well as his career in major league baseball.
Whether you’re telecommuting or trudging to the office, your “new normal” will likely undergo more twists and turns for the rest of your career. But one thing will never change: Working effectively with others will always be a critical part of the success formula. And that requires a constant honing of interpersonal skills.
Mike Robbins has some tips well worth remembering.
Rodger Dean Duncan: Martin Luther King Jr. often spoke of the “fierce urgency of now.” What impact do you see the COVID-19 crisis having on people’s perspectives on mutual caring and collaboration?
Mike Robbins: When Dr. King talked about the “fierce urgency of now” he was speaking about it in the context of the Civil Rights Movement—encouraging people to step up, lean in, and seize the moment, even though it was hard and scary. This pandemic has highlighted a lot of issues that exist within our country, our culture, and our world—with respect to inequality, healthcare, how we work and live, and more.
In terms of business culture and team collaboration, if we didn’t pay attention to or nurture these things before COVID-19, it has probably made things much more challenging for our team to navigate this time. Even if we did focus on them, this crisis has forced us to double down on caring and collaborating with each other. It continues to require us to be present, creative, and committed to the people around us and to the health and wellbeing of each other, our team, and our work culture.
Duncan: A lot of people talk a good game of teamwork, but then operate pretty much as “me first” solo practitioners. Why does genuine teamwork seem to be such a challenge?
Robbins: There are a lot of reasons teamwork is much easier said than done. First, we’re not really trained that well to work in teams. In school, we’re taught to focus on our own work and we’re graded as such. Even in team sports, the focus is much more on the individual, than the team. Second, most organizations recognize and reward individuals, not teams. So the incentive to be a good team player is sometimes murky. Third, with the level of opportunity and/or volatility in the job market and the economy in recent months and years, many of us focus on our own goals, ambitions, and careers much more than the success of our teams.
Duncan: Psychological safety involves a willingness to take risks. That requires interpersonal trust and mutual respect. But you say psychological safety is not quite the same as trust. How do you distinguish the two?
Robbins: Trust is a one-to-one phenomenon. You and I will either trust each other or not. That trust can be established, built, damaged, and repaired based on our actions and interactions with one another. Psychological safety is essentially group trust. It has to do with how safe (or unsafe) I feel as a member of the team. It’s less about the individuals on the team personally, and more about how we operate as a team.
When a group has psychological safety, people on the team know they won’t be shamed, ridiculed, or kicked out of the group for taking a risk, making a mistake, disagreeing, or doing something different than the rest of the group.
Duncan: What happens in teams where psychological safety is fragile or even non-existent?
Robbins: When psychological safety is fragile or missing on a team, people tend to protect themselves, withhold their thoughts, feelings, and information, and people don’t take many risks. These things cause the team to lack connection and trust, and damage the innovation, culture, and performance of the team. In other words, people walk on eggshells, hold back, and usually aren’t able to be their best.
Duncan: What kind of issues or behaviors seem to stifle psychological safety?
Robbins: There are many things that can stifle psychological safety. Some of the biggest issues and behaviors I see get in the way of psychological safety are perfectionism, self-righteousness, arrogance, negative competition, and an unwillingness to admit mistakes, to apologize, to ask for help, or acknowledge fear.
Duncan: What’s the connection between psychological safety and the willingness (and emerging skill) to engage in what you call sweaty-palmed conversations?
Robbins: When we have psychological safety on our team, we have the freedom to take risks, ask for help, admit we made a mistake, and so much more. Having this psychological safety is necessary in order to be able to talk about sensitive issues, engage in healthy conflict, and give and receive feedback effectively. These are some of the most important “sweaty-palmed conversations” we can have with our teammates. Not only are these conversations essential for trust, connection, and performance, they are predicated on the psychological safety of the group.
Duncan: What’s the key to leading with confidence and conviction without coming across as self-righteous or all-knowing?
Robbins: There is definitely a fine line between confidence and self-righteousness. The key is to focus on conviction. Conviction means I’m willing to speak up with confidence, express my views passionately, and take a position. However, in doing so, I have enough humility to realize I might be wrong or at the very least, there may be other ways to look at these same things that are different than mine. And, these other views are valid and important.
Duncan: What can leaders do to help create (and maintain) a culture of psychological safety?
Robbins: There are a few key things that leaders can do to create and maintain a culture of psychological safety.
First of all, they can understand what it is and commit themselves and their teams to creating and maintaining it.
Second, they can operate with authenticity. I define authenticity as honesty, without self-righteousness, and with vulnerability.
Third, they can admit when they mess up and make mistakes—own up to things and apologize when appropriate.
Finally, they can ask for help and encourage others in their words and deeds to do the same.
Duncan: What’s a team member’s role in creating psychological safety?
Robbins: While the leader plays a significant role in creating and maintaining psychological safety, so do the team members. All of the things that a leader can do, so can members of the team—commit to it, operate with authenticity, admit mistakes, and ask for help.
Additionally, it’s important for the team members to challenge the leader and speak up, even and especially when they are scared to do so. Leaders don’t operate in a vacuum. And, a leader is only as effective as he or she is empowered by their team to be.
Duncan: How can you tell if your team operates in an atmosphere of psychological safety?
Robbins: There are a number of things to look at and think about when assessing the psychological safety of your team.
Here are some questions you can ask. Do I feel safe to speak up and disagree with people on this team? When I make a mistake, do I trust I won’t be shamed or ridiculed? Do we talk directly to each other when issues come up (and not about each other after the fact)? Is it okay for me to dissent from the group, even if I am the only one?
Asking and answering these and other questions honestly for ourselves and, ideally, with our team, will give us a pretty clear sense of how psychologically safe the team is.
Duncan: While some people may place inordinate emphasis on the idea of inclusion and diversity in the workplace, others seem uncomfortable even talking about such topics. What have you found to be the keys to open and honest discussion of these issues, and what role can those discussions play in establishing a culture of belonging?
Robbins: First, it’s important to acknowledge that issues of diversity and inclusion run deep for many people, and often trigger strong feelings and reactions.
Second, we don’t all come to this discussion from the same place due to our identity, experience, and beliefs.
That said, when we know from research is that diverse teams perform better than teams that aren’t diverse. So while these issues touch on things that are personal, emotional, political, and more—if we just look at from a pure business and performance perspective, it is in the best interest of the team and the company to have the most diverse team possible if we can to produce the best results.
In order to be able to have more open and honest conversations about inclusion and ultimately move towards creating a culture of belonging, we have to be willing to have a lot of sweaty-palmed conversations, that can sometimes be uncomfortable, especially for certain people. However, if we have some psychological safety, it can make it a little easier for us to engage.
Operating with authenticity (honesty, without self-righteousness and with vulnerability) is also really important. And no matter how good our intentions are, especially those of us like me (white, straight, male), we are going to miss things, say the wrong thing, and make mistakes when trying to address these things.
While we want to be as mindful and aware as we possibly can, avoiding these conversations because we’re afraid of messing up doesn’t serve anyone and ultimately will ensure a lack of inclusion and belonging on the team.
Duncan: In dealing with uncomfortable topics, you advocate calling people in rather than calling them out. Please explain.
Robbins: There’s a tendency in our culture these days, especially on social media, to “call people out,” particularly when we’re talking about diversity and inclusion. While this makes sense, it usually doesn’t lead to deeper understanding, connection, and, ironically, inclusion.
Calling people out often comes from a place of self-righteousness, which almost always creates a defensive response. Calling people in comes from a place of authenticity, courage, and desire to engage, connect, and, in some cases, educate others. It’s not always easy to do, but it’s so important for us and our teams.
Duncan: You say it’s important to “bring your whole self to work.” What does that mean?
Robbins: Bringing your whole self to work is about showing up authentically and not hiding aspects of who we truly are. Obviously, this is easier for some of us to do than others, and some environments are more conducive to this than others.
Ultimately, this is about our willingness and courage to bring all of ourselves to work. When we do this, we liberate ourselves and inspire those around us to do the same.
Duncan: You cite research showing healthy conflict is essential for teams to perform at their best. Why does that seem so counter-intuitive to many people?
Robbins: Healthy conflict is important to any relationship, and especially to the culture and performance of teams. I’m not sure if it is so much counter-intuitive as much as it is scary, which is one of the many things that make it challenging. Conflict doesn’t always go well for us or feel good, which is why we avoid it. However, for us to really trust each other, work through issues, and come up with the best ideas, we have to be willing to engage in conflict with one another in a productive way.
Duncan: What do you see as the key ingredients of a sweaty-palmed conversation that produces good results for both parties?
Robbins: For sweaty-palmed conversations to produce good results for both parties, there are a few key ingredients.
First, there must be a willingness to work through the issue and resolve the conflict. If either person is unwilling to engage and/or just wants to be right, it’s not going to go well.
Second, being authentic (honest, without self-righteousness and with vulnerability) is essential.
Finally, looking for and finding common ground with each other—even and especially when you may be different and probably disagree passionately—is important. You have to remember that you’re in this argument, challenge, or conflict together. And you can get through it together as well.
Duncan: How can team members best practice the art of exchanging honest feedback?
Robbins: I think the best technique for exchanging honest feedback with our team members (and anyone) is the “start, stop, continue” technique.
This means we ask, “What can I start doing that I’m not currently doing that will make our relationship better and/or me more successful? What can I stop doing that is getting in the way of us partnering effectively and/or me being as successful as possible? And, what can I continue doing in my relationship with you and in general to have things go as well as possible with us, and for me to be the best version of myself?”
Asking and answering these three important questions with others is a great way for us to give and receive feedback.