Patrycja Maksymowicz: Hi Colin, thanks for joining us.
Colin Smith: Thank you Patrycja for the opportunity, it is great to be here.
P.M.: 2020 has thrown some enormous challenges on organisations across the globe. Leadership has never been easy and leading through crisis and change takes it all to a different level. The human element of the business has been reduced to virtual calls and meetings, relying on systems and platforms.
C.S.: A simple thought is to ask, “How are you doing today?”, before you ask, “What are you doing today?”
P.M.: In what sense, from your perspective, has this changed way of communication makes it harder for leaders to steer their teams through and out of it and not break on the way?
C.S.: In the last year or so many businesses have completely changed the way they operate their business. A year ago, today’s position was seen as impossible and unacceptable, e.g. home working, and now is fast becoming the normal way of working. Some organisations have already decided to change their way of working and are moving out of cities, have more collaborative areas to work, and incorporating working from home into the mix, as an acceptable place to work.
Communications with your people has also needed to change. They are no longer in the office, and as a consequence, you are not ‘bumping’ into them over coffee or lunch or after work. The amount of non-work-related communication has dropped.
As has the way we run our meetings. Over any remote medium, we lose so much of the communication cues, because we are unable to see each person fully, and when we do look at them, we can only see their head and shoulders. In addition, it is impossible to see everyone’s face well enough, when our screen is an array of 20 or more faces and very small ones at that. The speaker is unable to get the necessary feedback to enable them to react and respond to the non-verbal communication coming at them.
At this time individuals are less reluctant to just sit back and watch someone read through a slide deck or present at them for 15-30 minutes, they want to be involved. They are starved of connection, interaction and involvement.
P.M.: How can we help them?
C.S.: Have the Author record their presentation and have everyone watch it in their own time. Use the meeting to engage with them and get their best thinking arising from what they have seen and heard from the presentations and from the thinking taking place in the meeting. Ensure that everyone has a voice and when they use it to ensure people are listening. We will all get our turn. When the group is large, use breakout rooms so that all voices get heard more deeply in the smaller groups, and then have that thinking and learning shared through chat or polls or word clouds. They are so many great ways to encourage everyone to get involved.
Unless of course, it is not a psychologically safe place to be…as we shall see.
P.M.: I once heard you say that leadership is not a role but a behaviour across the organisation.
C.S.: Leadership is an inside job. How I ‘show up’ as a leader and a human being makes all the difference. Am I approachable, how do I treat those on the front line compared to those in the C-suite, can I be relied upon, trusted (do I trust my people first), am I interested in my people? This is not to say I have to forgo my other task responsibilities but to remember I am a leader, not a manager and I am here for my leadership skills, not my management skill. So, it is much more about who I am and how I am with my people (my being), than how many and how well I complete my tasks, (my doing).
P.M.: I love what you said about being a leader and not a manager. The two are often easily confused.
How can leaders create a nourishing and safe work environment to welcome and encourage creativity, innovation and collaboration?
C.S.: A little while back Google ran a project (Project Aristotle) to identify what made a successful project. They analysed projects going back five years. The results surprised them. They expected that having smart people, a full brief or maybe a great structure would come out on top. In fact, it was Psychological Safety that emerged as the winner.
P.M.: Systems and processes need to be in place but it’s the human element that is the fuel for whatever we put in place to make it work. What exactly do we understand by Psychological Safety and how to make sure we are not missing this crucial element?
C.S.: Psychological safety refers to an individual’s perception of the consequences of taking an interpersonal risk or a belief that a team is safe for risk-taking in the face of being seen as ignorant, incompetent, negative, or disruptive. In a team with high psychological safety, teammates feel safe to take risks around their team members. They feel confident that no one on the team will embarrass or punish anyone else for admitting a mistake, asking a question, or offering a new idea.
Amy Edmondson a thought leader in this field says, “Psychological safety is the extent to which a person feels that their working environment is a place where they can take ‘interpersonal risks’ such as expressing their honest opinion by calling out things that don’t seem right and showing vulnerability by sharing their ideas.”
Brene Brown, author and TED speaker, says, “vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change”. If we feel safe to be vulnerable, we will get the best out of people in these three key areas and collaboration.
Think about things from our own perspective. Where, when and why do I feel it is safe enough for me to open up to another, (personal or work-related, it is still the same thinking), to a group or to the whole company?
Feeling safe does not all come at one time, or even over a short time. It can take weeks, months or even longer. What is said, what is done and how it is done needs to be consistent. Trust needs to get built. If the business has a high trust culture, then psychological safety will happen quicker. You can see and feel it, or rather the lack of it, across the whole organisation if you just listen and notice.
P.M.: What can we do on a daily basis to nurture it?
C.S.: Some ideas for starting
- Get to really know your team, be the first to be vulnerable
- Focus on active listening across the company
- Let them know that you ‘get’ them
- Build a tell culture, not a blame culture, i.e. working for the CAA, it is mandatory to tell
- Look inside first, and encourage others to do so as well
- Model the behaviour that you wish to see
- Discourage and call out unacceptable behaviour
- Make use of feedback and even more so appreciation
This is not therapy, ‘touchy-feely’ or soft skills. This is about being respected, valuing the difference and including everyone.
P.M.: Creating an environment when trust is present and everyone feels valued might be, in particular, harder when we have new team members, old, bigger teams shrink but also, and equally difficult, it can be more difficult for leaders taking up positions in new places. Get to know their team, build trust...
C.S.: The best, simplest and least expensive way to make every team member feel valued is to listen to them and I mean, really listen to them.
But first, you need to know the difference between hearing and listening, and there is a big difference. Hearing is passive, you don’t have to do anything, you hear everything. Hearing keeps us safe. Listening, on the other hand, is active, you have to intend to listen. You need to focus on the person speaking, maintain eye contact, remove distractions, be interested in them, and above all don’t interrupt.
I remember it as, “Hear from, listen to”.
For a leader with a new team, the culture can change in two minutes…
A Captain for a major airline achieves exactly that. At the crew briefing, he lets them all know, in no uncertain terms, that if anyone senses, hears, suspects or thinks there is something wrong that could put the safety of the plane, crew or passengers in question they should let him know. He goes on to say that it does not matter if it is a false alarm, just to let him know. At the end of the flight, he reinforces the message and singles out anyone who has come to him with a query and praises them. The message gets around that he means what he says, and that he can be trusted. To get more trust, be more trustworthy. As Onora O’Neil says in her TED talk, being competent, honest and reliable are the foundations of being trustworthy.