Research shows that the number one contributor to team effectiveness is psychological safety. According to research by individuals like Amy Edmondson and the Project Aristotle study by Google, this means that it is critical to create a space where team members feel safe to take risks and be vulnerable in front of each other.
Leaders (that’s you!) are able to use skills like facilitation and coaching to help create spaces where all voices can be heard and where people feel safe to take risks without fear of retribution. With leadership and guidance, it becomes the collective work of everyone on the team to create a safe space.
While psychological safety is something that we strive for in teams, it’s not something that every team currently has. So I am often asked about what can be done in circumstances where safety is missing. My response is to encourage leaders to take the first step. What if our work as leaders is:
- To be comfortable being uncomfortable?
- To take risks in service of others?
- To say what needs to be said, even if it feels scary?
- To find our authentic voice in order to help others see what we see?
One of the most powerful things you can do for a team is to name, in a morally neutral way, what you see happening. It might be to simply say, “I’m confused about what direction we are going.” Other examples might include,
- “I notice that we have been talking about this same topic for three weeks and that we have been unable to come to a decision.”
- “That’s not a good idea.”
- “I’m not sure what you want me to do; I need help.”
- “I have things that I would like to contribute, but I wonder if they would be valuable here.”
The Speech Act of Bystand
David Kantor calls this the speech act of “bystand.” It’s a vocal action taken in a conversation to bridge competing ideas or name what’s happening. It can be a powerful speech act for creating a shift in the conversation, but it is often underutilized or inactive in team communication.
Making a bystand is not about advocating for your solution, metaphorically poking someone in the eye, making a judgmental statement, personally attacking, or telling someone what’s “wrong” with their actions. It’s simply about naming what you see or what you are experiencing in a manner that holds no judgment.
When you model the speech act of observing without judgement as a leader, you help create a safe space for your team to join you in moving the conversation forward. Though it might feel uncomfortable at first, it is your demonstration of courage than can be an important first step in cultivating a team culture where diverse voices feel heard and acknowledged.
Here are some reflection questions to help you take action to create safety:
- Have you had the impulse to say something 3 or more times? I have a general rule about looking for patterns versus reacting in the moment. So notice what’s happening and look for a pattern.
- What is your intention? Does saying something further your own agenda or is it in service to the teams’ agenda? Both may be valuable, but be clear for yourself about which it is.
- What’s at risk if you speak up? Sometimes we create fear for ourselves by making up a worse outcome than what really might happen. Be honest with yourself about the answer to this.
- What’s at risk if you remain silent? This is about looking at the bigger picture. What opportunity might you or this team be missing.
Where do you need to be courageous today? Someone has to go first. If not you, then who?