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Posted on October 16, 2019 at 2:33 pm

Provide Psychological Safety: How Humble Leaders Facilitate Bottom-Up Communication

Provide Psychological Safety: How Humble Leaders Facilitate Bottom-Up Communication

Communicating well when things go south is one of the most powerful ways to provide the psychological safety for your people to speak up and to foster upstream communication.

But don’t take it from me. Google applied the same analytical rigor they apply to their core business when they analyzed what makes a great team. Some of you might be familiar with the research Google named “Project Aristotle” which has been covered in places like Harvard Business Review and The New York Times.

In a five-year study across 180 of their global teams, Google researchers found that psychological safety — an environment in which team members feel safe speaking up, taking risk, and being vulnerable — was far and away the most important dynamic that set highly productive teams apart from the rest: more important than individual skill set, team size and tenure. 

In short: It matters more how a team works together than who is on the team.

As a leader, you are by definition the generalist and rely on your people to pro-actively communicate with you. This is more true today than ever! 

As leaders in today’s world, we are facing an “Inversion of Expertise,” meaning that our people will always know more than we ever will about their specific discipline. 

It is therefore imperative that we provide the psychological safety for them to feel comfortable speaking up and coming to you with challenges and problems. I want to stress, however, that psychological safety does not imply an absence of pressure or hard problems. It also does not imply cozy situations in which co-workers are necessarily close friends. 

Dale Carnegie liked to tell the story of Bob Hoover, a famous test pilot and frequent performer at air shows. 

Hoover was returning to his home in Los Angeles from an air show in San Diego. Suddenly, both engines stopped in mid-flight. Using his skills and some deft maneuvering, he managed to land the plane, but it was badly damaged. Thankfully, neither Hoover nor the two passengers flying with him were hurt.

Hoover’s first act after the emergency landing was to inspect the airplane’s fuel. Just as he suspected, the WWII propeller plane he had been flying had been fueled with jet fuel rather than gasoline.

Upon returning to the airport, he asked to see the mechanic who had serviced his airplane. The young man was sick with the agony of his mistake. Tears streamed down his face as Hoover approached. He had just caused the loss of a very expensive plane and could have caused the loss of three lives as well.

No one would’ve blamed Hoover for ripping into the mechanic for his carelessness. But Hoover didn’t scold the mechanic; he didn’t even criticize him. Instead, he put his arm around the man’s shoulder and said, “To show you I’m sure that you’ll never do this again, I want you to service my F-51 tomorrow.”

By choosing this calm, trusting, empathetic, yet very to-the-point way to communicate with the mechanic about the mistake, Hoover provided psychological safety. He made it safe for the mechanic to own his mistake and make good on it. 

Providing psychological safety is key for the upstream communication you so clearly rely on as a leader! As Colin Powel said: “The day your soldier stops bringing you his problems is the day you stopped leading.”

Your take-away:

  • On a scale from 1-10: How psychologically safe do your people feel to speak up?
  • How confident are you that your people feel comfortable enough to bring you their problems?
  • Commit to one concrete action to improve psychological safety in your team.