How Managers Can Create Psychological Safety

One common concern managers have is when they ask their people to share their ideas and people do not speak. This situation may have its variants and typically managers ask questions like, “What do you think? or “What do you think about . . . ?” Or, “Do you have any questions?” A little more prodding from the manager may not work so the meeting or conversation ends. The manager thinks that things are clear later feels frustrated that work was not done right. She mistakenly assumed that things were clear because her people had no questions.

Why do people not freely share with their manager what they are thinking and feeling about something? A common reason is that they do not feel safe with the manager. When the manager is one who frequently shows impatience, gets angry, or worse, says nasty things that offend and hurt their people, that manager is truly an expert in creating a deep divide between her and her people. Instead of building a solid professional and collaborative relationship based on mutual trust and respect, the manager creates ever bigger and deeper gaps. Often, managers are not aware that their annoyed or ominous facial expressions, or hard tone of voice, or perhaps dismissive manner, create fear that prevents openness and taking risks with you.

Psychological Safety means that people believe and feel they can open up and engage, be honest with what they think and feel, be vulnerable with what they know or do not know, without fear of negative impact to themselves. That is, there is no fear of being judged and suffering consequences that may hurt their image, status or career. Greater Psychological Safety enables more open and candid discussions, enhances team collaboration, and enables a more high performing team.

Psychological safety is said to have been researched and written about by Edgar Schein and Warren Bennis (1960s), by William Kahn (1990), and has recently become a buzzword perhaps because of Amy Edmondson’s (2018) work. Check out her book The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth and her talks/videos.

For the many busy managers who may not be inclined to read, or if you are more of an auditory learner, here are some short videos about Psychological Safety by Amy Edmondson. For the short article, you can listen to the audio version if you prefer or if you are commuting to/from work.

In a nutshell, here are some tips to consider about what can managers think, say, and do, to create Psychological Safety:

STOP: Stop being annoyed, angry, and verbally abusive with your people. Stop thinking that they know what you know because if they do not have your knowledge, aptitudes, education, and experience, they are not as “seasoned” as you are. Stop judging them. Stop making them feel incompetent or stupid.

START: Start thinking of yourself, and behaving, as their coach and mentor, so that together, you and your team can create greater value. Start thinking of how effective your team/group will be when they feel safe to open up to share their ideas and feelings. Start practicing a few things that make people believe and feel safe to take risks with you, e.g., show that you are a vulnerable and imperfect human.

CONTINUE: Continue developing greater self-awareness on what you say/do that make people avoid being open with you vs. what you say/do that make them believe and feel it’s ok to take the risk of being mistaken, admitting lack of knowledge, looking ignorant. Continue reinforcing that you and your team are learners on the same journey with a shared vision and that you will learn and figure out the best possible approaches and solutions to achieve your team/organizational objectives. Continue building up their confidence in thinking on their own, and honing their problem-solving and critical thinking skills.

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Is Coaching the Silver Bullet for Managers to Achieve Higher Levels of Engagement and Productivity with their People?

The pandemic has made life and work tougher for mostly  everyone in many ways, and it seems that these situational difficulties have dampened employee engagement in many organizations. Jim Clifton, Chairman and CEO of Gallup, wrote that only 20% of full-time employees worldwide are engaged in their work. He goes on to observe that there is a chain reaction where low engagement results in lower individual productivity that hurts organizational productivity that negatively impacts country Gross Domestic Product (GDP). (Clifton, 2021)

This chain reaction seems credible enough especially when it happens at a critical mass. What can organizations do to increase employee engagement that is good for its employees’ well-being and performance, its customers’ happiness with its products and services, and thus, the organization’s success? Employee engagement is good for business is good for customers.

One interesting “breakthrough” insight is offered by Clifton in his blog. These conclusions deserve a closer look so that we can ask ourselves how true it is for ourselves and the people we work with. And if these are true, what are we going to do to turn things around if we find ourselves stuck with less engagement and productivity that we know we and our people are capable off?

Clifton: “Gallup has discovered — through studying what the best managers do differently — that great managing is an act of coaching, not one of directing and administrating.

One of Gallup’s most famous leadership breakthroughs, based on meta-analytics of 100 million employee interviews, is that a full 70% of the variance between highest engaged teams and persistently disengaged teams is just the manager.

There really is a silver bullet to running a culture of high performance and high development.

It’s always the manager.”

Or perhaps, you might think, that you knew this already, i.e., that the manager has a lot of influence on employee engagement and productivity.

While many organizations and HR practitioners may not agree with the bold statement to cancel all rating forms, meaning performance ratings, many may agree with this statement about how the practice of management must be changed. Reinvented.

Clifton: “We lead through a habit of having one meaningful coaching conversation per week with each team member.”

Many managers and leaders we have trained on coaching skills for the workplace typically complain that they do not have time to coach, so their default management style is the traditional “command and control” approach that they believe saves time. But does it really and what are the tradeoffs? Here is the big BUT about just telling people what to do instead of developing their thinking skills and accountability.

Managers and leaders who fail to develop their people/teams may have overlooked that they have been training their people/teams to be dependent on them for solutions to challenges and problems that they may be capable of handling at their level. How much time and productivity are lost when people/teams wait for the boss to tell them what to do? Or, habitually pass the buck to the boss instead of taking responsibility? Another impact could be the boss becoming the bottleneck.

Coaching helps develop thinking and problem-solving skills, a more proactive mindset, and accountability. It not only helps people be more productive at work, but it also helps them rediscover their purpose, their passion, and focus on what are most meaningful and important to them, thus re-energizing their commitments.

So, would you agree with the title of the article, “Gallup Finds a Silver Bullet: Coach Me Once Per Week” from Jim Clifton, The Chairman’s Blog, May 27, 2021?

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The Leader as Coach

A predictable reaction of some experienced managers and leaders when learning managerial coaching is that they worry about how their teams will see them when they adopt a coaching approach vs. a tell-them-what-do approach. Their teams have gotten used to going to the boss for the answers.

Many have gotten used to giving their teams the answer instead of helping them learn to think for themselves and come up with excellent solutions to challenges. Managers and leaders need to really know their staff/teams well. Remember, you will still need to adapt your approach depending on the your staff’s/team’s needs and readiness.

Are you unsure about how coaching your staff/team can make a difference? Reflect on your own development as a leader. How did you get to be where you are now? Did your superiors give you all the answers or did they give you more freedom to analyze and develop your own solutions?

https://hbr.org/2019/11/the-leader-as-coach/