Black Holes--an invisible danger to change initiatives
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Neglecting or delegating these responsibilities is like pulling the plug on the best results, spread, and sustainability.
Video (4 min. 30 sec.)
For more about leadership power failures see
Black Holes--an invisible danger to change initiatives
(text of video)
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To assure success with improvement initiatives, leaders must take on two key actions themselves if they want to sustain the necessary alignment.
Neglecting or delegating these responsibilities is like pulling the plug on the best results, spread, and sustainability.
Institute for Healthcare Improvement Blog Post. Access at
How to Use Supervision to Create Psychological Safety
This blog post shares survey results which indicate that conversations between leaders and their direct reports too often do not address concerns and challenges.
This is in stark contrast to research which shows that addressing what is important to each person and his/her pain points significantly improves performance, learning, and innovation. The article defines action steps supervisors can take to promote a psychologically safe work environment which enhances speaking up about concerns.
Video (3 min. 20 sec.)
(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.
Not only are there hundreds of thousands of books on leadership and associated topics but they offer a bewildering variety of frameworks, models, and terminologies.
On the one hand, this is a very good thing. Having served as a leader for many years, I have been deeply appreciative of many great approaches.
But, as a leader, I usually faced a huge number of issues every day. It was hard to recall more than a few strategies in the moment.
So, all through my career I have sought one short list of strategies for easy reference that would be powerful in problem-solving across many types of situations.
Could it be possible to create such a list? Find out more in the Resource Guide for In-the-Moment Leadership Strategies available for subscribers only. Click on the button below to subscribe for free monthly articles and obtain a link to the Guide as well as other resources.
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The worst mistakes I made over 24 years as an organizational leader were how I told things to people.
I know excellent leadership depends on great listening—I was a natural with that. Each moment of listening is a step forward in building commitment.
But, early in my career, my way of telling too often led to pushback or withdrawal into silence—it was like three steps backwards with commitment.
A recipe for people not really listening
At that time, I was driven by a need for success which led to a need to convince people of my ideas. So, I worked hard to present ideas in a powerful and inspirational way, minimizing weaknesses and flaws. I was well-prepared and could quickly counter any perceived limitations or risks.
The trouble was that people almost always had concerns—few organizational actions are risk-free. Too often, my quick retorts made them feel not listened to. This would provoke debate we could not resolve well or silent discontent which slowed or blocked the actions I wanted.
A paradox of skillful telling
As I sought research and advice about telling, I discovered that even the most inspirational speech is lucky if it gets even 20% of people on board! (1) The large majority of people have to talk their way toward commitment over multiple conversations.
Paradoxically, people are more likely to pull together around an idea if they are able to freely express and explore concerns. Also, people need to be able to talk things over to figure out how an idea connects to what is important to them.
I even had to face the humbling reality that my best ideas had holes and flaws. In complex systems, no one person has the full picture and everyone has a perspective to learn from. It was very hard, but I gradually learned to link success with actually seeking out negative reactions.
A method for skillful telling
To tell effectively I first prepare myself by remembering “My best ideas are just theories to be tested and improved upon.” Then I proceed with a cycle of Ask-Tell-Ask (2):
Several cycles of Ask-Tell-Ask get a lot out on the table. People are more likely to feel taken seriously. Concerns can get then converted into issues for problem solving and action.
Risks and traps in active telling
I call this approach active telling because, like active listening, it is two-way—the goal is to assure mutual understanding and exploration of ideas even if there is disagreement.
I have experienced first-hand several risks and traps. Watch out for the inevitable lure back into convincing others. Also, I have learned to be careful that helping others feel heard does not lead to premature abandonment or revision of my ideas. The reverse can happen--dealing with negativity can easily pull us all, at times, into getting more rigid and discounting feedback.
Human affairs are never perfect. There is no guarantee these methods mean people will really listen to you. But, the chances for getting to true commitment are much higher.
(1) Baker, Neil The Impact of a Visionary Speech.
(2) Adapted from multiple sources including Miller, William R., Rollnick, Stephen Motivational Interviewing The Guilford Press 2012. See the tool on active telling for full list of references.
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.
Tool to guide creation of team norms
In-the-Moment Reminder for Team Norms--available for subscribers only. To subscribe for free monthly articles and tools, click on Subscribe.
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
Research in positive psychology suggests that "how you celebrate is more predictive of strong relations than how you fight." (Martin E.P.Seligman Flourish, 2011)
Capitalizing on positive actions, experiences, and events to improve satisfaction, well-being and quality of relationships involves offering detailed, nuanced responses rather than the more common brief exclamation. Here are two types of situations and the recommended approach.
(1) When someone does something you appreciate, offer positive regard. (termed "ongoing regard" in Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey How The Way We Talk Can Change The Way We Work, 2001)
More powerful positive effect is achieved by offering behaviorally specific information rather than a brief, general response--e.g. "I really appreciate the way you took the time before our meeting to summarize the key supporting data. That really facilitated our decision making." This is in contrast to the relatively common "You did a great job!"
The detail in the first response is likely to feel more thoughtful and genuine than the more vague and global "great job." Also, starting with "I" rather than "You" makes it feel more like the speaker is offering potentially valuable information from experience for the receiver to consider rather than conferring some form of judgment. The latter can subtly diminish any intended positive effect.
(2) When someone reports experiencing a positive event, respond in an active-constructive way. Such responses have been linked by research to increased well-being and relationship benefits such as increased commitment and trust. (Shelley T. Gable et al in Advances in Experimental Psychology Vol. 42, 195-257, 2010)
As with positive regard, benefits are achieved by going beyond the more usual brief exclamation (e.g. "That's great. Congratulations.") and asking questions about the event, seeking additional details, elaborating on the possible implications and benefits for the discloser, and commenting on why the event is meaningful to the discloser in particular. Such responses are also more powerful when accompanied by conveying emotions of interest, happiness, or pride. (Gable et al, 2010)
One method of group decision making I have observed, not uncommonly, is for someone to vigorously put forth a proposed decision and look around the room.
A few people remain silent and still, a few nod their heads, and maybe one or two exclaim “Yes.” Then the person who wants the decision announces: "We have a consensus!" (After all, "everyone agreed--no one stated any objections.")
Poor implementation and outcomes in such situations are quite likely. High quality consensus requires that each person give explicit indication of being able both to live with the decision and to fully commit to successful implementation—even if not fully satisfied. This occurs only with balanced, fair, and rational discussion in which everyone participates and everyone feels heard. (Chris Mcgoff The Primes, 2012 and Peter Scholtes et al The Team Handbook, 1989)
Poor quality consensus decisions result from lack of a shared definition of consensus, lack of a systematic and clear way for each person to indicate if they are in consensus, and arguments and debates as opposed to assuring all opinions are fully heard. Also, use of traditional definitions like "no one voices objections," "everyone agrees with everything," "everyone is fully satisfied," or "majority rules" are not effective and perhaps even destructive to the best efforts. (McGoff, 2012)
Groups have used a wide variety of methods for each person to specifically indicate if they are in consensus: An example is to use a scale of 1 - 5 with "5" meaning a high level of enthusiasm and "1" meaning no enthusiasm. A cut-off is defined (e.g at a rating of '1" or "2" even from just one person) which means insufficient enthusiasm to commit to implementation. The effort to come to a decision would then stop and dialogue would be restarted. This might lead to revision of the proposed decision or a shift in enthusiasm due to deeper exploration of issues. This iterative process increases the odds of a creative decision and shared motivation for implementation.
High quality consensus decision making is not easy. It requires high quality dialogue so that decisions reflect the thinking of all group members. The skills for moving back and forth between checking for consensus and dialogue require a good deal of intentional practice over time.
"Personal vision, by itself, is not the key to releasing the energy of the creative process. The key is 'creative tension,' the tension between vision and reality.
The most effective people are those who can 'hold' their vision while remaining committed to seeing reality clearly." (Peter Senge Fifth Discipline, 2006)
As Senge describes, committing to a vision for the future inevitably evokes uncomfortable feelings like sadness, discouragement, hopelessness or worry because we recognize the gap between what we desire and reality. It is our ability to learn to allow and manage this discomfort which determines our ability to manifest our vision. In this way, creativity brings the promise of joys and victories but anxieties and tension as well.
If we are unwilling to live with this tension, "we allow our goals to erode." The tendency is to lower our vision or misinterpret reality as closer to our vision than it really is.
"Your ability to accept things as they are (as opposed to how you would like them to be) is how you gain credibility as a leader. Proof that you understand the current reality lies in your capacity to say 'this is how things are now' and for others to respond 'Yeah, that's how the situation looks to me as well.' It's something most leaders either fail to do authentically or altogether. Demonstrating a deep comprehension of the world as it is creates the foundation for everything that follows." (Chris McGoff The Primes: How Any Group Can Solve Any Problem, 2012)
"In order to create you must invite anxieties into your life and live anxiously. It is our job to exclaim 'Both creating and not creating make me anxious and I choose the anxiety of creating.'" (Eric Maisel Fearless Creating, 1995)
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