Your Challenge Isn’t High Performance, It’s Culture Design

By Gabriel Wilson & Lauren Tenney orginally published in Ten Directions

Thanks to Google’s recent analysis of high-performing teams, the popular press on leadership and innovation is abuzz with an interest in “psychological safety.”

According to Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson, psychological safety (her term) is present when members of a team or group believe that they will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes.

Google’s research found that psychological safety is key (maybe the key) to high performance, matching Edmonson’s findings that it drives an organization or team’s ability to learn and innovate—particularly for people working in fields that are rapidly changing, uncertain, and ambiguous. (In other words, all of us.)

“Psychological safety” can sound clinical to some—in our work, we understand it as a description of a generative and safe group culture. Therefore, if you wish to improve performance, start with culture design. By designing a more accepting, tolerant, adaptive, flexible culture, you will increase safety, support, and influence the performance indicators you care about.

In order to help clarify what you can do to positively influence the culture you’re in, let’s take a closer look at the building blocks of a psychologically safe culture.

First, who is responsible for culture design?

It’s tempting to point fingers upward. If leaders aren’t setting cultural norms, who is? While we agree that leadership behaviors can exert a downward influence on how company culture comes into being and evolves, we don’t believe that culture is purely leader-driven.

We prefer to see culture creation as an inside-out and “bottom-up” process.

From this view, each of us is creating culture every day. Through our attitudes and interpersonal behavior, we originate culture that affect how others relate with us. In other words, we manifest our personal relationship norms. My personal norms communicate my degree of openness to you—which shapes how safe you will feel to speak up, ask questions, take risks, and make mistakes with me. Once we’re in a team environment, our personal norms interact with others’, with power dynamics, with values, etc., and over time, our group culture emerges.

From this vantage point, psychological safety is an emergent quality of culture that is hugely influenced by each individual’s norms for relating to others. When your everyday interpersonal behaviors communicate openness, adaptability and curiosity, you are contributing directly to the degree of psychological safety your group culture has.

A psychologically safe culture doesn’t start and end with leadership, because each person’s actions accrue towards creating it. And it’s not a goal (paradoxically), because once you achieve it, you can’t stop and go back to business as usual. We must continuously cultivate it moment-to-moment.

What Behaviors Create Psychological Safety?

There are some fundamental (yet sophisticated) relational skills that, when practiced time and again in everyday moments, go a long way towards creating psychologically safe cultures. Over years of working in the thick of complex group dynamics, we’ve distilled our own short list of skills* that we view as the “high yoga” of influence and impact. When practiced consciously, these skills can lay down important relational patterns for psychologically safe cultures to form and take hold.

  • Being for each other
  • Listening well—without an agenda, for everything
  • Talking straight
  • Bringing curiosity
  • Offering praise
  • Being transparent—especially about what you don’t know
  • Asking for support, and offering it
  • Asking for challenge, and offering it

At first glance, it’s tempting to skim that list and think “Sure, I do that. Or at least I know how to.” Maybe that’s true, but in our experience most of us are amateurs (especially when the heat is turned up) and only very few us are true masters. No matter who you are, chances are there’s a huge upside to deepening and refining your relational skills.

Here are some specific suggestions for how you can practice with a few from our list above.

Listening well

Many of us have already heard how we’re supposed to listen: without interrupting, while making “mm-hmm” sounds, putting an empathetic expression on our face, and responding with sentences that begin with “I hear that…”

The basics of good reflective listening are widely known—and, really worth practicing. (If you’re not sure what they are, brush up here and here.)

However, there’s more.

Truly excellent listening asks a lot more of us than merely “getting it right” on the outside. In order to listen well, we have to actually let go of ourselves—drop self referential activity and intentionally let go of judgments, disagreements, and trains of thought sparked by our speaker. Listening is a lot like meditation—it’s a continuous practice of returning with a fresh and open attention to the person in front of you. Doing this allows you to enter your speaker’s worldview, enabling you to be open to points of view and experiences you may not have had or agree with.

We also expand what we listen for. Not only are we listening to the content of what is said, we are also receiving subtle, non-verbal emotional information.

Does the person you’re focusing on feel tense, or anxious to you? Is there an emotion in their eyes, or in their laugh? What subtle qualities and feelings do you sense aren’t being spoken?

So much of what we communicate is non-verbal, so really powerful listening is attending to what is unsaid as much, if not more, than what is said.

Finally, the full fruition of listening well is that your partner feels accurately understood and seen. This requires you to clearly, succinctly, and sincerely reflect back what they shared, both on the level of content and of emotion. This always involves checking your perceptions with the other person. Asking, “Is that right? Did I understand?” gives them the experience that you are committed to not distort what they are communicating, and that their perspective will be received by you with curiosity and without judgement.

Listening, when practiced consciously in this way, creates a rhythm, like the space between two notes in a song. It is in this space of openness, curiosity, and understanding that psychological safety is born and nurtured.

Talking straight

Many people buy into the misconception that being direct is somehow “less nice” or “the impolite thing to do.” But more often than not, being IN-direct keeps us from dealing with challenges and opportunities in the here and now by obscuring or abstracting the real issues.

Often, cultures in which talking straight is not the norm display certain symptoms that exert a drag on energy and efficiency. These include talking poorly about others behind their backs (gossip), avoiding feedback, superficial praise, over-reliance on rule and authority, and a decrease in personal and collective learning.

In groups where talking straight doesn’t seem acceptable, what is communicated is that there is something more important than being direct. That “something” could be the maintenance of our positive self image or group image. Either way, there’s a sense that something’s at stake personally or interpersonally for being more direct in an indirect culture.

Even in groups where talking straight is valued, doing so can still bring up anxiety. With practice however, direct communication frees up the energy we spend tip-toeing around things and curating a positive self-image for others, and redirects it towards dealing with the challenges and metabolizing them for personal and collective learning.

Here are some suggestions for becoming more comfortable with talking straight:

  • Be clear about your purpose. Are you making a request? Offering feedback? Negotiating? Clarify what you want to express, learn, and gain from the conversation. Write it down, and use it to guide how you respond in the moment.
  • Engage your body and breath if you’re feeling tense, anxious, or on the spot. The truth is, we are very sensitive and will pick up on anxiety in each other’s voices, which will prime us defensively simply because we are “getting a hit” of anxiety subtly through the communication. The most effective way to regulate anxiety is through suspending inner dialogue and settling into your body and breath.
  • Role playing or writing down your thoughts before the conversation allows you to rehearse what you are saying, trim it down, and ensure your communication is having the intended effect you want.
  • Making eye contact communicates a strong embodied presence and makes contact with the person you’re speaking with.

Creating a Psychologically Safe Culture Takes Grit and Courage

One of the biggest challenges facing you if you want to influence culture is behaving differently even if others around you aren’t. Psychologically safe culture doesn’t happen if it’s contingent on how others show up—that’s a conditioned commitment that usually only reinforces the status quo. For psychological safety to take root we must claim responsibility for generating it ourselves.

Standing up and engaging differently, even if you’re the only one doing so, takes courage and tolerance. You might find that it takes a while for others to start offering you the openness that you’re offering them—which is why your commitment and determination are essential.

Psychologically safe cultures are dynamic and alive. They happen because of the moment-to-moment activity between people, which over time becomes self-reinforcing. Instead of a practice or an effort, it becomes a way of being.

We hope your efforts bring greater mutual understanding, learning, and growth to the people and cultures you care about.