Established in part 1 of this Shared Leadership Series, effective 21st century leadership requires a “shared leadership” approach, where leaders leverage and operate within teams (and teams of teams) to accomplish a mission and associated tasks. The increased complexities of demands placed on leaders and our operating environments today make it infeasible to lead teams and organizations as a singular leader at the top.
In order to build successful “shared leadership” attitudes and competencies across our teams, leaders must target and build three critical tangible aspects (known as artifacts) of our teams’ cultures: building trust through psychological safety, establishing a high learning-orientation, and achieving clarity in team decision-making and “organizational justice.” These alone do not create a complete model for team development, but these three attitudes and competencies are essential foundations to make the team perform successfully, ensure member satisfaction within the team, and to better enable enduring team viability.
Build Trust Through Psychological Safety
Trust is the currency of leadership. As former Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis states in his newest book, Call Sign Chaos, “Remember: As an officer, you need to win only one battle – for the hearts of your troops. Win their hearts and they will win the fights.” The bottom line is, earning the honest and complete trust of our people is what enables leaders to achieve all three necessary outputs of team performance.
Trust is such a hard topic, though. First, it is never blindly given or granted when requested; it must be earned. Further, there is no “10-step guide to earning others’ trust” that we can simply follow to achieve trust with our people. Many leaders view trust as a bank account we have with those we lead; we invest into the account through consistent deposits of caring for and doing right by them. With sufficient funds in the account, we can make withdrawals as a leader when necessary through hard decisions or demands to accomplish a mission. However, what if trust is more fragile than that? What if trust is not as transactional? I like the analogy offered by Todd Henry in his book, Herding Tigers, where he claims that trust is a water balloon. We fill the water balloon of trust by consistently pouring into and investing in our people. Yet, a single pin (something we do to violate trust as leaders) can puncture the balloon and we lose the water. Even the smallest puncture empties the balloon. Similarly, we don’t typically lose trust in only one area; if we prove to be untrustworthy in a single situation, people tend to generalize our lack of trustworthiness to other areas as leader. We’ve lost all our leader currency. We must act as if trust must be won through every conversation, action, and decision.
I believe the essential foundation of such trust is ensuring our people feel safe on the team. The basic concept of psychological safety on a team is members’ belief that they won’t be punished when they make a mistake or take a risk. Psychological safety allows for our people to be willing to take moderate risks, speak their minds, apply elevated creativity, and stick up for what they know is true and right. The opposite of such safety on a team is team or organizational silence (people not speaking up, offering challenges or ideas, not providing feedback) and the general sense of everyone “walking on eggshells” within the team.
We must understand the difference between trust and psychological safety, however. Our people must decide to give us their trust, which is one of the most precious and scary things that we can offer another person. Leaders must earn it; we cannot demand or take it. But leaders offer psychological safety. We create the team culture, norms, attitudes, and environments to create that safety. This safety is what helps enable our people to grant us their trust.
It is essential for leaders to set a precedence and tone of psychological safety within our teams. Here are a few in-the-moment behaviors and attitudes that we can start today to begin building strong and genuine psychological safety on our teams:
- Overemphasize your listening to others with verbal and nonverbal methods (facial expressions, body language, clear confirmations, lack of interruptions, etc.).
- Overdo thank yous. They are not just about appreciation and gratitude, but reinforce strong belonging cues within the team because you are demonstrating that you notice their efforts.
- Feedback within teams is critical for performance and self-awareness, but it is a highly sensitive activity. It is hard to give and receive. But feedback does not have to be complicated. It can be as simple as, “I’m giving you these comments because I have very high expectations and I know that you can reach them.” That alone communicates that the person receiving feedback is 1) a valued member on the team, 2) this team is special and that we have high standards, and 3) I believe you can reach those standards.
- Embrace the messenger, especially ones that bring bad news or hard feedback. If you don’t embrace hard truth now, no one will bring it in the future, which is detrimental to team performance.
Psychological safety is such an important topic for teams. I encourage you to read more on this topic regarding our teams we lead. A few top recommendations include:
- The Culture Code, Daniel Coyle
- Herding Tigers: Be the Leader that Creative People Need, Todd Henry
- High-Performing Teams Need Psychological Safety. Here’s How to Create It., Harvard Business Review 2017
Establish a High Learning Orientation Within the Team
Successful teams and organizations in the 21st century are increasingly being defined by a newer key quality: adaptability. This requires collective agility and a high-learning orientation to be embedded in the team’s culture. This is challenging because learning-focused behaviors are often at odds with performance-based ones, and teams exist to perform. However, teams with a higher orientation to learning are better able to recognize changes in environments and demands, analyze them, and quickly respond to them through team adaptability and agility. To be effective, our team must clearly be committed to learning and improving.
To anchor high learning orientation to our teams’ cultures, leaders can support with some simple and immediate behaviors:
- Demonstrate and communicate your personal self-development efforts. By sharing with your people what you’re continuing to learn and read, you send a message that improving never stops, for individuals and teams. We must embody the growth mindset.
- Role-model the willingness to challenge assumptions. It’s fascinating to see how often we limit our options and methods due to self-perceived constraints. Our teammates need to learn that it is acceptable to challenge long-standing assumptions through leaders setting that example. Be willing to question “why we do this in this particular way.” If nothing else, it requires your people to explain conditions to ensure clarity on the reasoning behind a particular decision, process, etc.
- The two above points combine to argue that leaders must demonstrate two important qualities in harmony: pure humility and extreme curiosity. Humility makes the curiosity genuine and curiosity turns the humility into a competitive advantage. To create adaptability and cooperation among our teams, we rely on these two important leader qualities: warmth, which is achieved through psychological safety and humility, and relentless curiosity.
- Always be assessing. Leaders must view all aspects of team process and performance through a lens of deliberate assessment with a bias for improvement. Moreover, teams must formalize how they assess everything they do and achieve through a common mechanism. For example, the US Army popularized the “After Action Review” to deliberately assess how a unit performed during a training event. It focuses on what happened, why, and what can be done better next time and how. Key to successful assessment is assigning responsibility to people or groups within the team to action the identified improvements moving forward. Without responsibility, these identified needs are merely ideas that will never materialize.
- Create safe and interactive spaces or events. I am a personal fan of “collective reflection” activities where leaders get their people in a room to collaborate and reflect on how the team or organization is doing in certain areas. An easy start is to make small groups list out what is working and not working on the team. Create long and expansive lists in both categories, vote on the top answers in each, then explore how to capitalize on the “working” and apply to the “not working.” This fosters safety (leaders welcoming feedback from their people) and enables creative and innovative thinking.
Decision-Making and Organizational Justice
Some of the most influential aspects on all three outputs of team performance, yet so often (unintentionally) ignored by leaders, are member perceptions on equity and justice within the team and understanding the “why” behind decisions. When our people better understand what is going on, why, and context surrounding the circumstances, it positively impacts their motivation, commitment and buy-in to the team, performance, satisfaction, and team viability.
But leaders tend to either be too busy, aloof to, or lack the candor to explain why or attend to team justice and equity perceptions at important friction points. This creates a concerning transparency vs. trust dichotomy. If our people demand increased transparency from leaders, its because they lack trust in us. But if our people trust us leaders, then they don’t necessarily demand for transparency. For us leaders to establish trust with our people, we must first be transparent. Our consistency over time will reduce the need for transparency within the team’s leaders and increase trust throughout.
This concept of organizational justice can be easily understood as our peoples’ perceptions of fairness within the team. It can be broken down to three primary dimensions:
- Distributive: who gets what.
- Procedural: how such allocations are decided.
- Interactional: how people are treated in the process.
These dimensions of justice can apply to a variety of important team dynamics like allocation of resources and tasks / responsibilities, compensation, evaluations, discipline and punishment, and more. I’m sure we can all look to a time in our experiences where the leader and organization was silent on a decision like one referenced above that led to ambiguity and uncertainty on the team, ultimately generating drama, reduced cohesion, and reduced performance.
It is important for leaders to consistently consider and attend to team justice perceptions in all areas. One thing that makes it challenging is when leaders don’t even recognize the impacts of certain decisions and how they may lead to perceived injustices. Leaders must create routine and quality feedback loops to gain awareness of those threats. Some possible mechanisms can include:
- Leadership by wandering around (LBWA). By deliberately trying to spend (un)focused time with your people, you create rich sources of insight from across different levels of the team as well as create opportunities to share your thoughts to others in more personal and intimate exchanges.
- Overcommunicate context. Many leaders fail to sufficiently message context because they believe by stating it once, they have informed their team(s) on the justification. One single leader comment, speech, or email will never be sufficient to communicate important context on decisions around the dimensions of justice. Leaders must communicate the why of their decisions multiple times, over multiple platforms. This includes sharing it in a meeting (or lecture/speech), over an email/emails, during personal LBWA conversations, and do all of that multiple times.
- Communicate perspective. We leaders must consistently and clearly inform our people on who they are, what they do, and why they do it is important.
Attention to Other Important Team Dynamics!
Beyond these three critical team culture artifacts, leaders must pay close attention to other important team dynamic factors like team cohesion, power and authority versus influence, and more. We will explore these other team dynamics in the next part (#3) of this Shared Leadership Series.
Lead well, friends.
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