First steps towards a high performing organisation

Picture this: while doing an upgrade you accidentally deleted the database. The one all your customers use. You think to yourself “Oops, how can I get away with this?”. Then you realize that you don’t have to worry. The team has your back. They’ll help you get the database restored and get the service back up and running. And then together you’ll figure out how to prevent this from happening again.

Does this sound like a plausible scenario? Would you expect it to go this way?

If you were working in a high performing organisation, this is how we think the above scenario could go. People are not afraid to speak up for fear of consequences. This feeling of colleagues having your back is called psychological safety and is a key ingredient for a high performing organisation.

Feeling safe

Psychological what?

Psychological safety!

In her book “The fearless organization”, Amy Edmondson describes it as “a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes”.

According to Heidi Helfand and Joshua Kerievsky, “psychological safety exists when you are not afraid to be yourself, take risks, make mistakes, raise problems, ask questions, disagree”.

If your environment doesn’t feel safe, speaking up about a mistake is a risk: it could mean you lose credibility or even get fired. If you feel that might happen, you may decide not to share your mistake. If your organization doesn’t feel psychologically safe, what would happen if you accidentally deleted the database? You would probably cover up as best as you can and hope nobody finds out. That means the team loses an opportunity to learn: next time somebody else might make the same mistake again.

If you are in a psychologically safe environment, you can be yourself. The benefit of that is, you don’t have to expend energy to hide parts of your identity that might not be acceptable. Instead you can use all that energy for creative problem solving. This allows the team to fully benefit from the diversity of its members.

How do you know?

In our opinion, spotting an unsafe environment is easier than the other way around. Below are some tell-tale signs and examples.

Silent frustrations, unvoiced disagreement: during a meeting, a dominant person in the team gives his opinion before anyone else can speak up. Other team members agree with him, but their body language shows that they have a different opinion. It seems they just don’t feel safe to speak up against the dominant person.

Micromanaging: when the team lead gives you an assignment, she doesn’t just explain what outcome she is looking for, she also tells you how to do the work and how long she thinks it should take you. She’ll check in on you three times a day and give you advice even if you don’t need any. It seems she lacks trust in your ability.

Micromanaging?

Beating about the bush: during a workshop the facilitator tries to avoid a manager’s influence by directly asking participants to give their opinion. They avoid answering the question by mumbling, passing on to somebody else, or giving several very different answers. You may be able to see that they are closely watching the manager to seek approval. It seems they are scared to say “the wrong thing”.

Pleasing the metrics. Looking at the department’s metrics, all teams continuously show a green status: everything is under control. Still, teams regularly miss commitments. It seems that they don’t dare to admit things are going badly .

First steps

First steps towards high performance

It’s really worthwhile to create a psychologically safe environment: it is a key ingredient of a high performing organisation. So if you notice one or more of the above tell-tale signs, what can you do about it?

Don’t judge. If you hear or see something and you notice yourself forming a judgement, try to set that aside. Assume the other person has good intentions. For example, if a team reports a mistake, praise them for their courage. And if you feel you’re being micromanaged, don’t label the manager as irritating. A better tactic is to be curious.

Be curious. Ask questions from a place of curiosity to explore what the other person’s intentions are. Don’t ask questions with an answer in mind, because that closes off new discoveries and better understanding.

Take the time. Exploring intentions will most likely take time but it’s worth it. So if you can’t spend that time, agree to follow up. Don’t rush the conversation or keep staring at your watch.

If you like to find out more or want to practice these skills in a safe environment, come to one of our workshops.

Co-written with Linda van Sinten

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To get the best out of your team or organization you need to show up for crucial conversations with your colleagues and clients.

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Robert van Lieshout

Robert van Lieshout

Father, learner, coach & agilist. I'm passionate about nature and helping people become their best selves.

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