Your team has secrets.
And, those secrets are keeping them - and you - from being their best.
The thing is, they aren't keeping secrets because they're bad. They keep these secrets because you haven't made it safe for them to share.
I talk a lot about psychological safety. It’s a cultural phenomenon specific to teams in which every member feels safe to express a natural and necessary amount of candor.
Research fairly conclusively shows that candor is a necessary condition for optimal team performance. Without psychological safety teams absolutely will not reach their full potential.
In fact, in team environment with poor psychological safety, people actively withdraw. Engagement plummets. Folks are present for “just the paycheck”. Mistakes and errors increase and turnover soars.
Here’s the rub. Psychological safety is not the natural state for most teams. And, it’s not something that happens by accident.
Positive Leaders cultivate and nurture it. In fact, studies suggest the leader is the most responsible for the presence (or absence) of psychological safety in the team.
If you’re not routinely and intentionally building and bolstering psychological safety in your team, it simply isn’t happening.
Without it, there are secrets.
In the absence of psychological safety, team members don’t ask for the help they need to learn, grow, and improve their skills. They won’t call out and coach each other’s shortcomings or tell you where you’re falling short as a leader.
They also withhold perspective, creative ideas, and opportunities for the team and organization to innovate.
And, they are less likely to speak up when they feel overwhelmed, burning out, or struggling with compassion fatigue.
Feel like your team is “just skating by”? It’s likely they don’t feel safe to do anything beyond that.
The good news is you can change it. Psychological safety can be built in any team, at any time.
But I won’t lie to you. It takes work, dedication, and time. It’s not easy. That’s why so much of the consulting we do through Flourish involves guiding veterinary hospitals in building a sustainable culture of psychological safety.
He told a story apropos to this article.
Leading a team at a large organization he wanted to put his Positive Leadership education to use. Building a positive, productive culture where everyone felt they could bring and be their best at work was deeply important to him.
One tool he put to use involved asking his team to send him a Friday email every two weeks and answer 3 questions:
How are you doing, overall, on a scale of 1-10?
What’s gone well or what are you proud of from the past 2 weeks?
What’s one thing you wish could be better?
The third question, in particular, speaks to psychological safety. If people feel unsafe, they simply won’t give you anything of value in response to such a questions. It feels to risky.
After a few cycles, Nico sat down with her and encouraged her to open up on her response to the third question. “I genuinely want to be the best leader I can be for you and your feedback is really important. And I promise, I won’t be upset and I’ll do what I can to be better, or help you be better.”
She thanked him and seemed to understand.
But in the next Friday email, for the third question, she once again said, “No wish this week. Everything’s fine.”
After a few more cycles like this he approached her again and did his best to assure her that he wanted – and needed – her to respond honestly and openly to the ask for one thing she wished could be improved.
Finally, after a few of these conversation, she sent him a Friday email with a wish!
“You know, Nico, I could really use a new pencil.”
She was dipping her toe into the psychological safety water to see how it would feel. Would it be too cold? Or would his response warm her?
He brought her a new pencil and thanked her for her honesty and openness.
Over time, she began sharing more wishes, slowly increasing in depth and seriousness. Finally, after a year or two, she truly opened up to him.
In a prior job she had quickly learned you do not speak up to those in power. If you share a mistake or shortcoming, ask for help, or dare point out a problem, you’ll be punished in some way.
It was a psychologically un-safe environment and the scars it left stuck with her into her new workplace. It took multiple months of dedicated, routine, and intentional Positive Leadership before she could show the scars and move past them.
After 2 years of this, Dr. Rose stopped asking for the Friday emails. They were no longer necessary. The team had coalesced around a shared norm of candor and drive and they were performing in ways that didn’t seem possible before.
But it didn’t happen by accident. And it didn’t happen overnight.
Are you intentionally and routinely cultivating psychological safety in your team? Are you dedicated to doing so for the long haul?
If not, you’ve got team members keeping secrets. And those secrets are placing a ceiling on what your hospital can accomplish.
Break the ceiling and make it safe to soar.