DVM, BCC, PCC
Go With the Flow co-columnist Dr. Jeff Thoren is the founder of Gifted Leaders and an expert coach specializing in leadership and team development. He is one of only five veterinarians in the world to hold a credential from the International Coaching Federation.Read Articles Written by Jeff Thoren
Go With the Flow co-columnist Trey Cutler has a law practice focused exclusively on veterinary transactions and veterinary business law matters.Read Articles Written by Trey Cutler
Our last two columns explored the importance of “playing to your strengths” and “following your bliss” as paths toward experiencing what it’s like to show up and operate at your very best. This time, we offer a foundational condition that must be present for you to pursue one or both of those strategies in your work or life. Consider these four scenarios.
- A veterinary technician doing evening treatments in a busy 24-hour practice notices that a particular patient’s drug dosage seems high. For a moment, she considers calling the attending veterinarian’s cellphone to double-check. However, she quickly recalls how put off he was by her “intrusion” the last time she called and how she felt judged for questioning his directive.
- A new associate veterinarian is eager to share her ideas for leveraging the technician team to improve patient flow and serve clients more efficiently. Unfortunately, she finds that her suggestions are frequently discounted or met with statements like, “We tried that before, and it didn’t work.” Over time, she decides it’s not worth saying anything.
- A midlevel manager works for a veterinary pharmaceutical company that recently launched a revolutionary product that is a huge hit in the marketplace. A year later, after upper management increased the sales expectations significantly because of the wildly successful rollout, field sales reps struggled to meet their arbitrarily assigned goals. Some were placed on performance improvement plans, and stress levels skyrocketed. The manager and other midlevel colleagues aren’t willing to “speak truth to power” for fear of harming their careers.
- A midlevel employee in a corporate veterinary company sees someone hired as an interim controller with the understanding that the person will be told immediately if the permanent position is out of reach. Company executives decide to terminate the interim controller but won’t say anything until the permanent hire can be brought on board. When the interim controller asks the midlevel employee about the open position many weeks later, the employee tells the truth but is criticized by superiors for being “too honest.”
Do any of those scenarios sound familiar? Can you identify with any of the characters? What do you think might be missing in each case?
While a variety of elements could be missing, perhaps the most crucial from our perspective is psychological safety.
Dr. Amy Edmondson, a renowned expert on the subject at Harvard Business School, defines it this way: “Psychological safety is a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes.” It’s a belief shared by team members that others on the team (or the team leader) will not embarrass, reject or punish you for speaking up.
In today’s business climate (one characterized by uncertainty and complexity), everyone needs to feel comfortable offering ideas, asking naïve questions and disagreeing with the way things are done so that opportunities to learn and innovate are created.
In the absence of psychological safety, you’re left with various forms of fear:
- Fear of looking ignorant or incompetent.
- Fear of not being seen as a team player.
- Fear of rejection or judgment.
The list goes on. As you undoubtedly know from experience, fear is the enemy of flourishing and flow.
What Psychological Safety Looks Like
In his recent book “Think Again,” Wharton School Professor Dr. Adam Grant contrasted psychological safety. When you have it, you:
- See mistakes as opportunities to learn.
- Are willing to take risks and fail.
- Speak your mind in meetings.
- Openly share your struggles.
- Trust in your teammates and supervisors.
- Stick your neck out.
When you don’t have it, you:
- See mistakes as threats to your career.
- Are unwilling to rock the boat.
- Keep your ideas to yourself.
- Tout only your strengths.
- Fear your teammates and supervisors.
- Fear having your head chopped off.
Dr. Grant believes that psychological safety is the foundation for a learning culture. She is careful to point out that psychological safety “is not a matter of relaxing standards, making people feel comfortable, being nice and agreeable, or giving unconditional praise. It’s fostering a climate of respect, trust and openness in which people can raise concerns and suggestions without fear of reprisal.”
People must be allowed to voice half-finished thoughts, ask questions out of left field and brainstorm out loud to create a culture that truly innovates. Psychological safety means that you embrace conflict and convene potentially difficult conversations knowing that your team has your back and you have your teammates’.
Two Important Aspects
In 2012, Google embarked on an initiative to study hundreds of its teams and figure out why some stumbled while others soared. What distinguished the good teams from the dysfunctional groups was how teammates treated one another. The right norms could raise a group’s collective intelligence, whereas the wrong norms could hobble the team, even if all the members were exceptionally talented.
The good teams shared two general behaviors:
- Team members spoke in roughly the same proportion, meaning there was “equality in distribution of conversational turn-taking.” On some teams, everyone spoke during each task; on others, leadership shifted among teammates from assignment to assignment. By the end of the day, everyone had spoken roughly the same amount.
- All had high social sensitivity. The team members were skilled at intuiting how others felt based on their tone of voice, expressions and other nonverbal cues. People on more successful teams seemed to know when someone felt upset or left out, and they were comfortable sharing personal stories and emotions. The team members felt free to share their doubts and fears and talk about things that were personally challenging, messy or sad. They weren’t focused solely on efficiency.
Assessing Your Team’s Culture
In addition to evaluating your team’s capacity for conversational turn-taking and social sensitivity, here are additional questions to assess your current level of psychological safety based on Dr. Timothy Clark’s book “The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety”:
- How safe do you feel to be yourself?
- How accepted are you for who you are, including your unique attributes and defining characteristics?
- How safe do you feel about participating in an ongoing learning process by asking questions, giving and receiving feedback, experimenting, and making mistakes?
- How safe do you feel to use your skills and abilities to make a meaningful contribution?
- How safe do you feel to speak up and challenge the status quo when you think there’s an opportunity to change or improve?
Move from Fear to Flourishing and Flow
If you’re in a leadership position, you play a critical role in setting an example and facilitating a psychologically safe learning culture. However, regardless of your role, you can help build psychological safety at work and beyond. The Center for Creative Leadership offers these tips:
- Ask colleagues powerful, open-ended questions and then listen actively and intently to understand feelings, values and facts.
- Agree to share failures, recognizing that mistakes are an opportunity to learn and grow.
- Use candor when expressing appreciation or disappointment.
- Ask for help, and freely give help when asked.
- Embrace expertise among many rather than a “single hero” mentality.
- Encourage and express gratitude, which reinforces your team members’ sense of self.
Most importantly, positive interactions and conversations between individuals are built on trust. So, give your team members the benefit of the doubt when they take a risk, ask for help or admit a mistake. In turn, trust that they will do the same for you.
Is psychological safety the missing ingredient in your workplace or life? If so, what will you commit to doing to enhance psychological safety and support flourishing and flow?
- “Building a Psychologically Safe Workplace” TED Talk, Dr. Amy Edmondson, bit.ly/2IK1QVH
- “Don’t Just Talk About Psychological Safety, Measure It,” Megan Trotter and Jamie Irving, bit.ly/3jsGxau
- “The Five Keys to a Successful Team,” Julia Rozovsky, bit.ly/3vfQWeT
- “Install a Psychological Safety Net,” Josh Vaisman, bit.ly/Safety-TVB