Companies who have built great cultures are winning the battle for top talent.
A great culture is not created by luck, or wins, or an HR person. It is the cumulative, human impact of how your leaders show up everyday – and if you believe that everyone is a leader to someone, that means we all contribute to culture.
In part-two of Culture is Queen, we explore how work environments that are psychologically safe impact corporate culture.
When my son was six, I tried to convince him to play a team sport. My kid is strong, coordinated, and agile, but also a bit shy and sensitive. I explained how much fun it is to play a sport you like with a great team. He was dubious of my position and resolute in his: “No, mom.”
“What are you so worried about?” I asked.
After telling me “I don’t know,” a few times, he gave me the real reason: “I’m worried I will make a big mistake and my team will get mad at me.”
“Hey,” I said, “that’s never going to happen on a good team.” He looked at me. “That’s part of why you are on a team to begin with – to be with people who cheer you on when you score and support and encourage you when you don’t.” He looked at me like I was trying to tell him that brussel sprouts are really not that bad.
“Do you think I make mistakes playing hockey?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” he said.
“I do. I have scored on my own net before, how’s that for a big mistake?”
Then he asked if my team got mad, and in particular, my goalie. I told him that instead of blowing up at me, they helped me laugh about it, told me not to worry and to go make up for it at the other end of ice with a big shot from the blueline.
He looked at me.
“Kid, a great team will never put you down or make you feel bad about yourself when you make a mistake. When you screw-up, everyone reminds you that we’re in this together, and when you do something awesome, everyone celebrates with you.”
The technical term for the culture I was describing is team psychological safety.
Amy Edmondson, professor at Harvard Business School, is the most prominent academic researcher in this field. She explains that “team psychological safety goes beyond interpersonal trust”. She defines it as “the shared belief among team members that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.”
Having an environment that is psychologically safe is the foundation for building a great culture. Trying to build a great culture on a foundation of anxiety and apprehension is not going to work. To find out how safe your work environment really is, ask yourself these questions:
1) When it comes to your workplace, how safe do you and your co-workers feel:
- Asking for help
- Making a mistake or pointing one out
- Seeking feedback
- Admitting a lack of knowledge
- Trying something new
2) How often do you catch yourself “armouring up” before you have interactions with your co-workers?
If your workplace feels like a safe and trusting environment already, that’s great. But if it doesn’t, what are you supposed to do about it? Can you alone influence psychological safety in high-anxiety, pandemic times? You know what my answer is, right? YES you can. You matter. Character matters. Personal example matters. One person’s devotion to being their best self, matters. So, with that in mind, here are four small, but impactful steps, I invite you to consider trying:
- Model the behaviour: Ask for help more often, ask for feedback from those you trust, admit when you don’t know something without making excuses.
- Start a conversation: Ask others what they think we could stop, start or continue doing to foster a safe and trusting place to work. Keep talking about it.
- Be more curious: Don’t be part of the problem. Ask others for information rather than assuming you know their intent. “What else” is a great question you can use to deepen your understanding of a person or a situation. I am almost always surprised what I find out when I ask this one, especially when I assume the person has nothing more to say.
- Resist the urge to armour up: When you armour up against vulnerability, you invite others to do the same. And we can’t have trust without vulnerability.
In the end, my kid joined the soccer team, and then signed up for a baseball team that spring. He had great coaches, great teammates and his confidence and abilities grew in ways I had not seen before. Feeling safe allows us to take the risk of being the people we want to be. And the people we are is what drives culture.
Look for the final instalment of our three-part series Culture is Queen: Creating a Culture of Connection.
Sarah Markwick is an Associate at Granville West Group and co-creator of the podcast Don’t Be a Jerk at Work.