An important aspect of being a great leader is knowing when and how to create what Ken Perlman refers to as “psychological safety.”
“Pioneered by Amy Edmondson at Harvard University, psychological safety is a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes,” said Perlman, managing director at CultureSync and a professor at the University of Southern California (USC). “It’s essential to high performance.”
During a recent Guild 21 podcast sponsored by VeriFacts, Perlman shared tips on how to be a great leader and foster an environment of psychological safety.
“As a leader, it’s your job to make it safe for other people to contribute ideas, ask questions and challenge how things are,” said Perlman. “If they don’t feel safe, they are going to hold back.”
Many of his favorite techniques are based on his 30 years of business experience. He often shares them in the course he teaches at USC related to organizational design and creating high-performing teams. He said they are easy to put into practice and can achieve immediate results.
Perlman began his Guild 21 discussion talking about what it takes to create an environment where people feel comfortable speaking up and sharing what they believe. A large part of this centers on the “rules of engagement.”
“Whenever you are part of a team or in a group, there are rules of engagement, whether they are written or discussed,” he explained. “Sometimes they are unwritten, and we call them ‘culture,’ and other times they are written, and we call them guidelines.”
He suggested implementing the “Family Feud” rule. Similar to the popular game show, Perlman said the Family Feud rule is when every answer an employee shares is honored and respected.
“It’s a way of creating an environment that is a lot less risky for someone to speak up,” said Perlman.
He also shared information about a research study conducted by Google that was undertaken to learn about their employees and what makes them successful.
The study was explained in an in-depth New York Times article written by Charles Duhigg: “What Google Learned From Its Quest to Build the Perfect Team.” According to the article, in 2012 Google studied hundreds of its company’s teams to find out why some were successful and others weren’t.
“We had lots of data, but there was nothing showing that a mix of specific personality types or skills or backgrounds made any difference. The ‘who’ part of the equation didn’t seem to matter,” Abeer Dubey, a manager in Google’s People Analytics division, was quoted as saying in the article.
“There was no direct correlation between who they put on a project and whether or not that project would be successful,” said Perlman. “What they learned was that it wasn’t ‘who’; it was ‘how.’”
Summarizing the study, Perlman said Google found five key elements that separated high-performing teams from lower-performing teams. This included:
• Impact: Team members needed to feel their work really mattered and would create change.
• Meaning: The work was personally important to the employees and their development.
• Structure & Clarity: Employees had a clear idea of their roles and how they were connected to their coworkers to contribute to the greater good.
• Dependability: Team members could be trusted to accomplish their tasks on time and meet the company's high standard of excellence.
• Psychological Safety: Team members felt it was safe to take risks and be vulnerable in front of one another.
Perlman said teams that fostered an environment where employees could contribute openly were higher-performing. More recently, a Wall Street Journal article described research showing that “companies that scored in the top quartile on [management asking for ideas from employees and encouraging employees to try new approaches], [experienced] on average more than five times the revenue growth of companies in the bottom quartile.”
“Teams where someone made a mistake and they were punished disproportionally saw lower performance because people were holding back,” he said. “They weren't sharing the wild idea; they weren’t disagreeing, and you saw a lot more group think and regression to the average opposed to striking out to do something bold and different.”
As a result, Perlman encourages leaders to give some leeway to their teams.
“You’re asking your employees to do something differently,” he said. “If it was easy and/or safe, they would have already done it. If it’s more complicated or risky, they might have some questions.”
When looking at the same situation from an employee’s point of view, Perlman’s advice to those who feel they aren’t in a safe environment with their superiors is to start small.
“Simply recognize the answer you want to give and the answer you think is the right answer,” he suggested.
Then he said to offer both: the safe answer and the one that might be different than the way things have been done.
“That way, you’re being respectful and acknowledging that you know the answer that is going to end up being the right one, but saying, ‘I think we could do better,’” he said.
When talking about exceptional leadership traits, Perlman used the example of “Pep” Guardiola, considered one of soccer’s best players and coaches and the current manager of Manchester City. Perlman shared some of the methods Guardiola used to enable him to achieve excellent results.
This included being clear on the team’s goals, deconstructing complexity for them to make the goals simple to understand and enabling excellence by setting and modeling the standards.
Perlman also brought up the various types of conflict that can arise and are important to be aware of:
1) When goal incompatibility exists
2) Differentiation among team members (for example, language, experience or expertise)
3) Task interdependence when people are required to work together
4) Limited resources, which can lead to restraints.
His advice is to do something that he called Flip The Script (FTS).
“For people who work together regularly, as someone starts talking we tend to think we know where they are going and we can finish their sentence,” said Perlman. “We actually stop listening and we wait for them to stop talking so we can argue, contradict or correct them.”
Instead, Perlman said to stop thinking and just listen.
“If you think you know what they are going to say, don’t play that tape that is in your head; listen to the words coming out,” he said.
Not only will this help an individual understand what they are going to say, but it will also minimize the risk of missing what they are talking about.
If this can be accomplished, Perlman said the conversation becomes much different and usually is more effective.
Wrapping up his presentation, Perlman highly encouraged everyone to connect with his or her most influential leader---let the person who had a significant influence on you personally and/or professionally know why they were influential and thank them.
“If you have a chance to do it, make the phone call, shoot them an email or put up a Facebook post. Reconnect with them in some way,” said Perlman. “I’ve yet to be surprised or disappointed by their response.”
For more information, email Ken Perlman: email@example.com.