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Leadership Teams Aren’t Psychologically Safe Because They Don’t Exist

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Leadership Teams Aren’t Psychologically Safe Because They Don’t Exist

Over the past few months, we’ve been speaking to some awesome enterprises when it comes to what they understand Psychological Safety to be and what they can do to get more of it to succeed. We’ve spoken to even more who get none of that and are therefore not comprised in the above term of “awesome” yet but that’s another story.

On a conceptual level, we have yet to meet anyone, irrespective of their “lane”, department, position or level who doesn’t get the basic concept. People can only be at their best if they feel safe in their team.

Everyone has been lucky enough to have been in some team where there was “magic” even if only for a while. Everyone got along, everyone did a job, there was massive respect, sufficient trust, things were talked about ad nausea, no one was afraid to say anything, no one was posturing and pretending to be what they are not and everyone felt valued and brought their A-game. That magic. Even for a while. Even against the entire enterprise. Maybe more so then.

Interestingly, the higher up we go in an organization the less of a vivid memory this team magic is.

I wrote about this before – if Psychological Safety is hard to find and foster in teams at a certain level, it is painfully absent at the very top of the organization. Never does the cliche of it being lonely at the top apply more painfully than when we look at how leaders really feel in an organization and when is the last time they even felt part of a team.

It’s a fascinating topic that we’ve been discussing and analyzing internally as we were building the Psychological Safety At The Top” workshops that People Not Tech some times offers to complement our product in many ways but the question that’s most interesting is: “Are there teams at the top?”

Do executives (of companies big and small alike in fact) feel like they are part of what would be the true meaning of a “management team” at all, or are their meetings characterized by being:

  • Increasingly rare
  • An Impression Management fest
  • A verbal reporting session
  • A masked impostor syndrome bonanza riddled with angst, fear, and clock-watching
  • Disengaged, disenfranchised, disheartened

In this boat, where meetings and communication are not welcomed occasions to brainstorm smart next steps, or truly learn and get ideas, or even really share beyond what could be read in a report and in no way are they occasions to deeply relate to each other, are leaders at nearly every level but the gap widens the higher up you go.

On a continuum from a first leadership position to the highest one, the notion of a team seems to dissipate if we understand it as a group that is to collectively do a job not posture and parade real or doctored results.

Slightly less acute at the bottom, a line manager may still feel part of the team he is heading or a PO part of the squad they are leading, but then the bigger the mass of people, the more removed from direct to-do’s, the less there is any team for the leader who looks around.

Implicitly no support, no occasion to learn, no help and no Psychological Safety.

Once we reach the very top, CxOs are the least team-ed of all of us.

Anyone who’s ever been in a boardroom can tell you there’s no camaraderie, no constructive criticism, no open ideas, no one ever admits mistakes or asks open-ended questions, no one truly cares how anyone else feels (and in fact feeling is not acceptable in the room at all), no one is ever open or silly or God forbid, wrong.

The places where the above isn’t verbatim the case, are few and far between and if that is the case, what chance in hell do we stand to transform these perfunctory mechanical meetings into meetings of the minds and hearts?

A good one in fact. Unless we are willing to rethink management and decide there’s no role for a team to exist at all at the leadership level we have to find quick ways to fix the status quo.

The good news is that fixing it may be simpler than we think. In the same vein in which, organizations managed to mistreat their people so severely that the mere act of listening to them and having them feel heard is crucial, they have mistreated their leaders to the point that the mere act of examining whether or not they are part of a team will be effective.

So if you’re a leader reading this, start by looking around you and wondering “Are we (still) a team?”. A simple litmus test that needs no clear definition. You’ll know if the answer is “yes” or “no” irrespective of what you pack in that word.

Also, if you’re someone tasked with helping a leader – a coach, an internal HR or comms person or even their direct reports or a spouse- you can help too. Ask them to pose that question and answer it as honestly as they can.

Because if they answer is “no” or even “not really” there’s no way to succeed irrespective of the size of the company, the aspiration or the goals.

These days the discourse in the “Future of work” communities is turning towards what leadership means in a world of fast-paced transformation. How should leadership change? Thankfully, terms as “relinquish control” and “servant leadership” are now accompanying discussions on Agile or Lean so there’s good hope that the message of real change is deepening.

However, if we agree that the future of leadership is one of being supportive, nurturing and fostering and of essentially working out ways to clear the path for independent, talented and Psychologically Safe teams, how are leaders to achieve that while not part of a real team themselves?

You can’t avail yourself of the new ways of work without servant leadership. You can’t be a servant leader if you’re not part of a team. You can’t be Psychologically Safe in a team that doesn’t exist.

Look around you in your next meeting. Is there one? Imagine your life depended on it – could you escape a boobie-trapped room by working together? Could you execute a heist? Could you at least behave like you were a founding team of a garage-start-up for just this year? Or even – could you fall back into each other’s arms in one of the silly 90’s “trust” exercises?

If there’s any “no” how are you to be open, empathic, efficient and psychologically safe together? And if you’re not, why are you together at all?

Related: Looking For An Easy Hack To #Agile? Try Team Gratitude And Scissors

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