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You should want your team to feel safe. Mostly, not entirely.
You should want your team to feel safe. Mostly, not entirely.

I think about how my team might be feeling all the time. Some might think that’s because I’m empathetic by nature, but that’s not always the case when I’m focused on work. I have another important reason. When a team experiences psychological safety (free from worry about emotional harm), they are probably also more focused and productive. How do I know that? Because I’ve been an observer of work dynamics all my life and I’ve noticed that when we are self-forgetting, we can accomplish huge amounts of work. Conversely, when we’re caught up in hurt feelings about something, we rapidly become less productive. 

Ego-fear trumps focus every time. 

Whenever we feel triggered by loss of approval, power, freedom, or status, something happens. Our lizard-brain kicks in and tells us we’re in the danger-zone. And the thing is, this fear hijacks any plans we have about being productive until it’s resolved. We zero in on it, and maybe even obsess about it until we feel okay about things again and the fear can dissolve. 

Things that trigger this reaction.

Talk about cost-cutting. (What if I lose my job. What if they cut my budget….)

Talk about reorgs. (What if my status is affected. What if my title changes…)

Being ghosted or left out. (Have I made a misstep? Why is no one talking to me?)

Being constrained by rules. (One person messes up, now everyone gets punished…)

Arbitrary changes with no communication.. (Behaviors are shifting because of some hidden agenda…)

And many more….

The art of leadership is to balance safety & stability with enough tension to keep it interesting. Without tension, we’d all underperform, but don’t let the tension become chronic stress. 

Resolving stress is easier than you think. 

As a leader, the key is to communicate as clearly as you can, tune in to moods and attitudes on your team. Notice when people become reluctant to speak up. Ask people to state the obvious. If they seem bored, give them a challenge. If they seem stressed, give them a break. Notice if they seem happy and productive or quiet and tense. Notice if they appear distracted or focused.

Most importantly, act on it as soon as you can. Chances are its communication that will resolve it quickly. What they want most is acceptance. They want to be heard. To be given a strong voice at the table. To be able to influence you. They want to be respected for their expertise and for you to be humble as you ask their opinion. Let them lead their function and win some arguments with their peers and with you. Leaders are not the functional experts, we are the relationship builders. 

Then everyone can get back to being happy and productive. When we feel valued, accepted and heard, we can soar to great heights.