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(1) Edmondson, Amy C. et al Psychological Safety: The History, Renaissance, and Future of an Interpersonal Construct Annu. Rev. Organ. Psychol. Organ. Behav. 1: 23 – 43, 2014
(2) Perlow, Leslie et al Is Silence Killing Your Company? Harvard Business Review May 2003
(3) Raemer, Daniel B. et al Improving Anesthesiologists’ Ability to Speak Up in the Operating Room Acad Med. 91:530– 539, 2016
(4) Salazar, Marco J. Barzallo et al Influence of Surgeon Behavior On Trainee Willingness to Speak Up: A Randomized Controlled Trial J Am Coll Surg 219:1001-1009, 2014
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In this article you will learn what psychological safety is and why it is simple, important, and fragile.
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1. Beer, Michael High Commitment, High Performance Jossey-Bass 2009
2. Conner, Daryl R. Managing at the Speed of Change Villard Books 1992
3. Crosby, Robert P. Solving the Cross-Work Puzzle VIVO! Publishing 2010
4. Scherr, Allen L. and Jensen, Michael C. A New Model of Leadership Harvard NOM Research Paper No. 06-10, Barbados Group Working Paper No. 06-02, 2007
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In this article you will learn about black holes and how to prevent them from endangering change initiatives.
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Additional Information and Resources
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This article will provide a brief introduction to the Leadership Fractal and how this concept can provide an efficient and effective way to shape culture in the flow of daily work.
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Brief overview and list of references for “Beware of the Potential Harms of Trust”
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In this article you will learn about the potential harms of trust and five safeguards or ground rules to prevent them. How we define trust is the important issue.
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Imagine someone has video-recorded you during every minute of your work the last week and you are now watching it. What are the odds that you will wince in some parts because of mistakes in the way you behaved or communicated?
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A Four-Step practice--Guiding Questions
1. Ellis, Albert The Road to Tolerance Prometheus Books 2004
2. Kahneman, Daniel Thinking Fast and Slow Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2011
Reference List on Reactivity
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In this article you will learn about a four-step practice for a major leadership challenge—seeing our own contribution to problems. I discovered this challenge in my first leadership position supervising a staff of doctors and nurses at a hospital.
A common concern of even very successful leaders I work with is lack of sufficient confidence about giving and receiving feedback in the midst of day-to-day work.
This is not surprising because feedback is inherently uncomfortable and risky. But, providing timely, effective feedback is essential if we are after the highest team capacity for transformation. Confidence in taking this on is enhanced by working with the following five barriers.
1. Lack of a motivating, compassionate purpose for feedback.
To counter discomfort, it helps to have a motivating, compassionate purpose. For example: “Feedback is not about correcting bad behavior. Under stress, everyone will, at times, act in ways counter to norms. The purpose of feedback is to help everyone be at their best.”
2. Lack of sharing and assuring mutual understanding of different perceptions.
Relational problems usually set off the nearly automatic tendency to leap from limited data to strong but often flawed conclusions. Effective, respectful feedback depends on stepping back from such certainty. Instead of just “giving feedback,” the initial aim should be to stay open and elicit and assure mutual understanding of each person’s view even if in disagreement.
3. Lack of exchange of information specific enough to enable problem solving .
Feedback is too often given in global generalizations. Then, the chances are high for provoking defensiveness and not getting to specific information which enables problem solving. For example, a client of mine was told by a colleague: “You are a very negative person.”
Resisting her impulse to react, my client asked for a specific example and was told: “When I asked you for help yesterday, you said ‘No’ and walked away.” Such “negativity” had not happened before. My client apologized and they agreed not to use quick hallway conversations to ask for help.
4. Lack of shared norms for feedback.
Shared norms promote helpful feedback. Examples are: (a) Avoid global generalizations; (b) Use "I" statements and offer feedback as perceptions, not as The Truth; (c) Give descriptions of words and behaviors from specific work situations; and (d) Seek each person’s perception.
5. Lack of sufficient leadership engagement in giving and receiving feedback.
A key objective is to develop feedback-rich team interactions. To do so, leaders have to model giving and receiving feedback--especially receiving it. Do you often ask how others have experienced interactions with you? All leaders make mistakes at times. Do you acknowledge them?
Effective, timely feedback is not easy. It requires reformulating what feedback is all about. It reqiures universal respect and compassion. It requires constant practice. Working with the five barriers increases confidence and helps to embed feedback in daily leadership practice.
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Success sometimes depends on where you look.
Results from my survey of 420 healthcare leaders published in the Physician Leadership Journal in March 2016 suggest that relational barriers to improvement are very common but are all too frequently overlooked or inadequately addressed.
(If you wish to read the article, contact me and I will send you a copy.)
Since publication, a follow-up survey of 293 additional healthcare leaders adds to the story.
New data suggests an opportunity for action.
80% of the leaders in the new survey reported their organizations specify norms and values to guide behavior and communication. But, it appears that the norms and values are not used as often as needed--such as to give feedback to address problematic communication getting in the way of collaboration. In these situations, only 10% of the leaders indicated feedback happens very frequently and only 30% of the leaders indicated it happens even half of the time it is needed.
One likely cause is that giving and receiving feedback is quite uncomfortable—even for people with advanced communication skills. It is very easy for anyone, at times, to not take action.
Also, it is quite easy to fall into thinking of norms as correcting “bad” behavior which further inhibits feedback. Stress and complexity will cause everyone at times to act in ways inconsistent with team norms. Feedback is not about scolding bad behavior but giving necessary reminders to help everyone more consistently act at their highest level of relational skills.
How do you move beyond the discomfort of feedback?
You can’t--feedback just is uncomfortable.
But you can decrease discomfort by steady practice. This takes courage, determination, and hard work. You could act now by creating or revisiting norms with teams and protecting time in meetings to review what is and is not working.
Or, more simply, you could start by reading about relational issues (see references below) and reflecting about what you believe makes for good work relationships--i.e. get clear on your own norms. Practice watching for inevitable times you do not act consistently with your own norms. Test giving and receiving feedback with trusted colleagues.
If you find yourself not moving forward, consider getting consultation and coaching. Our task is to keep relational issues from becoming hidden in plain view. Achieving the highest quality of teamwork and the best results are at stake.
Resources for team norms and feedback.
One of the worst teams I’ve been part of was comprised of experts on facilitating teams.
Our meetings were chaotic and unproductive as some experts got into intense debates without really listening to each other while some fell into silence.
I am embarrassed to say I participated in the mess. When we finally stopped to actually apply our team expertise to ourselves, we transformed and had great results. We did not eliminate all problems but we managed them much better.
What helped most in turning this team of experts around?
It became clear to us that we had overlooked defining and using team norms. Norms are ground rules or guidelines for how members communicate and behave with each other—like really listening to each other, exploring ideas instead of debating them, giving feedback without blaming, assuring everyone’s involvement, and being clear about how decisions will be made.
Even if, like my experts, team members bring a lot of prior experience with norms, every team has to create them yet again. Norms gain their power through development in conversation.
Why are team guidelines about communication and behavior so important?
Team which do not define and use norms are at higher risk for falling into mediocre performance or failure. In a study of 120 senior leadership teams, only 21% were high performing and the factor most strongly associated with high performance was clarity and use of norms—not brilliance in things like strategy, quality, or efficiency. (1)
Defining and using norms leads to better communication, problem solving, and conflict resolution all of which lead to both better results and higher quality work relationships. The latter enhances sustainability and team resilience.
Why is it so easy to overlook establishing adequate team norms?
For example, compare “We need to feel safe.” to “When someone offers an idea we will always check understanding to make sure they feel heard.” Or, “When we give feedback we will avoid negative labels and be specific about the situation and behaviors we have observed. We will own observations as perceptions and not The Truth and check out each other’s perceptions.”
Feedback is facilitated by making explicitly clear that it is not about “bad behavior.” Getting off track from norms can happen to anyone at any time no matter how long a team has worked together. Feedback is about helping people be at their best. Leaders can help greatly by modeling feedback including inviting it about themselves.
Transform team problems into learning and creativity.
Strong evidence links quality of team experience to better results, resilience, and sustainability. Norms are the rudder to maintain the desired team experience. I am humbled by how easy it is, even for experts, to neglect norms. By remembering this aspect of our humanness, I am better at helping myself and others transform team problems into learning and creativity.
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1. Wageman, Ruth et al Senior Leadership Teams Harvard Business Review Press 2008.
Respect is not a passive state of being--it requires ongoing attention, intention and action. And, it is essential for outcomes.
As John Kotter notes "You have a better chance of winning over the other party if you truly hear them out and consider their needs as well as your own. The success of this principle is rooted in respect." (Harvard Business Review Blog, January 5, 2011)
In one of the most extensively studied models of transformational leadership, "individual consideration"-- when employees feel leaders are truly concerned about them, that their well being is important, that they are involved in two way exchanges of ideas--is a factor that, alone, leads to improved outcomes and employee satisfaction. (Bass et al, Transformational Leadership: Second Edition, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc., 2006)
Respect cannot be considered a one-time action. In organizational life, the decks are stacked against sustaining an environment of respect no matter the level of skill and good intentions of leaders. At times, in everyone, the constant stress and complexity of business environments provoke innately human and automatic habits of mind that lead to rejecting what is uncomfortable or unfamiliar, and becoming fixated on one's own ideas as certainties. (William Isaacs Dialogue, 1999)
When these habits start to take over, people will tend to fall into debates over who is right as opposed to mutual exploration of ideas. Then, an environment of respect starts to deteriorate.
An ongoing practice of respect is required to counteract these tendencies. Some of the elements that are part of such a practice:
(a) Suspend certainty and become curious about what others think, feel, and believe and why.
(b) Shift from a communication pattern of debate (right vs.wrong) to one of mutual exploration
of ideas even if in disagreement.
(c) Constantly use active listening to assure others feel understood even if what they are saying
runs counter to one's own beliefs--use paraphrasing and "teach back" to check understanding.
(d) Make a staunch commitment to seeing others as worthy of being engaged in partnership.
(e) Offer absolute acceptance of legitimacy of concerns even if in disagreement--e.g. ""I see why
this matters to you." or "I can see where you are coming from." or "I can see how you came to
(f) Develop an ever deepening understanding of what language and action is experienced by
others as respectful vs. disrespectful.
(g) Stand firm on and communicate one's own perspectives but in a way that allows different
beliefs and does not provoke defensiveness or withdrawal--e.g. "This is the way I see it." as
as opposed to "This is the way it is."
A mind set that helps to sustain respect is to always treat people as teachers--"what is it that they have to teach you that you did not know?" (Isaacs, 1999)
(1) Check your theory of motivation. "Having trouble motivating others?" is a trick question. You can't motivate others--at least if you want intrinsic motivation (defined as when people are fully willing and embrace a change out of interest and commitment).
Adults make their own choices. Trying to coax or arm-twist is likely to cause them to withdraw or just comply which leads to poor outcomes in complex tasks. Intrinsic motivation arises through partnership and collaboration. People have to "talk their way" toward taking on a change. The leader's task is to create the environment for collaborative relationships which can support robust conversations about change.
(2) Check your state of reactivity. If you are impatient or frustrated, you are likely to be in a reactive state and at risk for coaxing and arm-twisting. Find a way to get curious about others--use the five factors listed below to guide your questions. Find your way to trusting and respecting different decision-making processes.
(3) Check the context and state of relationships. For example, if you have previously fallen into pressuring others to change, it will take time to build trust as you shift to a collaborative approach. What other factors in the environment are influencing consideration of a particular change?
(4) Ask others questions to explore five factors for engagement with intrinsic motivation.
When considering a change, motivation does not usually happen overnight. Even with the most charismatic, inspirational speech, you are lucky if you inspire no more than about 20% of people to action. Most people need ongoing conversations, individual consideration, and collaboration to take new directions.
"The single most important skill to have in working through any problem is the ability to give constructive feedback. Why? Because most often problems are expressed as criticism of someone's actions." (1)
The stakes for feedback are higher on teams because "learning what several people expect of you is far more difficult than learning what one other person expects and needs." (2) In effective teams, everyone helps each other to perform his/her role to meet expected outcomes--in Schein's words, "perpetual helping." But, feedback is the key mechanism for this helping. It is a means of constant course correction.
Because of the nature of personal exposure with feedback, the environment of trust on teams is essential. As Schein states, "What we think of as respect or trust is basically the feeling that you will not be humiliated or embarrassed even if your behavior deviates from the norm and is viewed as unhelpful. Instead you get task relevant information that allows you to figure out how to become more helpful in the effort to achieve goals." (2)
Helpful feedback is an art and skill which only develops with intentional practice. Practice gradually normalizes the discomfort of feedback.(3) Over time, a feedback-rich culture can make feedback less a source of anticipated discomfort and more a source of desired learning.
Key components of productive feedback include (from references 1 and 2):
(a) prior setting of team norms and work process specifications
(b) specific, concrete, behavioral descriptions related to achieving goals (not good vs. bad)
(c) avoidance of labels, generalizations, and characterizations (e.g. "You are lazy.")
(d) using "I" statements and owning feedback as perceptions as opposed to "Truth"
(e) asking for the other person's perception in response
(f) stating genuine positive regard along with the feedback wherever appropriate
(1) Schein, Edgar Helping: How to Offer, Give, and Receive Help Berrewtt-Koehler Publishers,Inc., 2009
(2) Scholtes, Peter R. et al The Team Handbook, Third Edition Oriel Incorporated, 2003
(3) Brown, Brene Daring Greatly Gotham Books, 2012
“Research confirms that organizations with a strong corporate culture based on a foundation of shared values outperformed other firms by a huge margin.” (Kouzes and Posner, The Leadership Challenge, 4th Edition, 2007)
Paradoxically values do not become shared except through day-to-day acknowledgement of their on-target expression AND learning from incidents of imperfection (i.e. when actions are counter to espoused values).
Even the most skilled and committed leaders and staff will at times make mistakes relative to values. "In spite of your best intentions, you are going to get into hassles, annoy each other, and step on each other’s toes. It is an inevitable feature of work life, even in high-morale, high-performing organizations." (Kegan and Lahey How We Talk Can Change the Way We Work, 2001)
Ongoing discovery and dialogue about the day-to-day expression of values is essential. Without this, people will be more likely to remain silent or, behind the scenes, make negative judgments and complaints which just further undermine values.
A learning environment needs to be created about values. Two ways to accelerate learning:
(1) Via interpersonal feedback--For example, leaders with authority in organizations have a very powerful mpact by asking for feedback about their own actions in private and public meetings--e.g. "How are my statements and actions impacting you? Am I acting consistent with our values?"
(2) Via team check-ins and feedback--Acknowledging and learning from episodes of imperfection can be celebrated. "If people are willing to engage their own 'violations' in a spirit of personal learning (as opposed to remorse or Mao-era confession) others in the group usualy find they can also make a space that goes beyond recrimination." (Kegan and Lahey, 2001)
This kind of vulnerability is not easy. In fact, Kouzes and Posner report that of the 30 items on their leadership inventory, the lowest observed behavior of leaders is asking for feedback. (Kouzes and Posner, 2007) But, with practice, feedback about the expression of values can be done with art and skill. The benefits for everyone far outweigh the risks of personal embarrassment.
In complex systems, issues that look like problems to solve through "either/or" arguments are often really polarities in disguise. Polarities are issues for which there are "two or more interdependent right answers." (1)
Both sides of a polarity need to be explored and managed well if solutions are to be sustainable. Unbalanced solutions overemphasizing one side of a polarity will lead to swings back and forth between opposing strategies over time. (1)
Wicked questions (2,3) can be used to facilitate movement from "either/or" arguments into "both/and" dialogue. They are designed to help teams jointly address the upsides and downsides of each part of the polarity equally, without judgment or blame.
Examples of wicked questions (from Ref. 3 below): "What opposing-yet-complementary strategies do we use simultaneously in order to be successful?;" "How is it that we have ____ and we have _____simultaneously?;" "How does each side of this polarity have benefits?;" "In what ways does each side of this polarity lead to liabilities?" It helps to offer up front education about polarities and to provide facilitation to help move from debate to mutual exploration.
For example, an argument framing a problem as whether to use directive vs. participatory decision making styles could be re-framed by asking "In what ways do we need both? What are the benefits and risks of each approach?" The aim is to create solutions which maximize benefits and minimize risks of each side of the polarity. (1) For example, benefits of a directive style include more timely and efficient decisions. The risks can be squelching of individual initiative and less motivation. A participatory style might mitigate these downsides but, if overused, could lead to its own problems--such as decisions getting mired down in group process.
Examples of other polarities include: top-down control vs. bottom-up individual/team freedom and initiative; stability vs. change; centralized vs. decentralized planning and implementation; and equality vs. hierarchy. There is evidence that companies which are visionary, successful, and enduring are able to embrace polarities, especially about top-down control vs. freedom and initiative. (4)
(1) Barry Johnson Polarity Management:
identifying and managing unsolvable
(2) Brenda Zimmerman et al Edgeware:
insights from complexity science, 1998
(3) Henri Lipmanowicz and Keith McCandless
Liberating Structures: simple rules to
unleash a culture of innovation, 2013
(4) Jim Collins and Jerry I. Porras Built to Last:
successful habits of visionary companies, 2004
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