The importance of trust in organisations and developing trusting leadership

by Graham Field

When we ask organisations about the challenges they face, one recurring theme is trust – how organisations gain, and can easily lose, the trust of their people, and from a leadership perspective, the importance of developing trust.

Trust has been seen as important as far back as Aristotle, who noted that trust (or ethos as he called it) was built upon three perceived factors: intelligence, character and goodwill. These factors were also commented on in a dissertation by Dr Duane Tway (A Construct of Trust – 1993) who similarly suggested that trust was a construct of three parts: the capacity for trusting, the perception of competence and the perception of intentions.

What makes trust important in running a 21st century business?

If you, like many of the HR community we collaborate with, have wondered whether trust is alive and well in your organisation, first of all take a step back and consider how important a role trust should be playing.

As an example, let’s look at the current UK climate of trust with regards our own country’s’ leaders – the politicians.

Like leaders anywhere, this group of people should be role models for ‘the way we do things around here’, but in the back of many people’s minds there has always been a question of how much these leaders are there for their people, or how much they are in it for themselves. ‘Catching them in’ and spotting when they are fulfilling their leadership potential often goes unnoticed, but ‘catching them out’ is quickly picked up, reported and commented on. And in one fell swoop trust gets damaged, role models are lost and leadership is no longer respected.

How many times does this happen in organisations?

If trust is so easy to damage, what makes it important for us in running modern businesses? We believe, as have many others before us, that trust is the bedrock for any organisation structure. It’s part of what makes your business what it is and forms the basis for organisational culture.

As such, trust is important for:

  • Building high performing teams – trust needs to exist for true co-operation and developing great teamwork amongst team members
  • Developing strong relationships – the kind where we can depend on our people doing things reliably and in a timely fashion
  • Effective communication – people need to believe what they hear and read within organisations; the absence of trust generally means communication could be seen as little more than ‘propaganda’
  • Creativity and risk taking – people need to believe that they have the freedom to be creative and take risk in order to seize opportunities
  • Embedding change and managing change effectively – in a trusting environment people will believe that change is ‘for the best’ and will support it accordingly

How can we build trust?

We can still use Aristotle’s three factors as a guide:

  1. Intelligence: In today’s organisations we can translate intelligence for knowledge and skills – how skilled are your supervisors, managers and leaders? And possibly more importantly, how is their skill perceived by their people? This aspect of trust is the easiest to develop, and for us is part of strengthening your teams. What might a skills audit of your leaders highlight as development needs, which could be impacting on how people trust them?
  2. Character: Reliability and honesty are key components here.  Recruitment interviews, references and ongoing performance reviews ascertain the character of the people leading our organisations, but the true test of reliability and honesty will come from an ‘all staff’ approach. When was the last time you fully reviewed your leaders adopting a 360 degree approach – and if you haven’t so far, what could be the benefits of doing this?
  3. Goodwill: The intentions of leaders, as perceived by their people. Unfortunately there’s no easy approach for this – goodwill develops over time, but if intelligence and character are supportive of trust, goodwill will follow. How do leaders develop, and maintain, goodwill in your organisation?

More recently, the arena of trust seems to have been dominated by Stephen M R Covey and his book, The Speed of Trust. A valuable addition to any library, this book clearly highlights ‘five waves of trust’ and thirteen ‘trust behaviours’.

What can we learn from ‘The Speed of Trust’?

Many of the above ideas are echoed in Covey’s work. He emphasises the importance of trust as an aspect of leadership (even going so far as to say inspiring trust is the ‘number one job of any leader’) and suggests that trust is part competence and part character.

Building on this is the suggestion that trust affects the speed of activity and cost within an organisation: where trust is prevalent speed goes up and cost goes down (and vice versa) and that when trust is built between individuals, it builds across a team/department/organisation.

Within all of this, there are ‘five waves’ of trust:

  1. Self-trust – with the underlying principle of credibility. This can be developed through personal integrity, intent, capabilities and results.
  2. Relationship-trust – with thirteen underlying behaviours covering how we speak honestly, demonstrate respect, create transparency, right any wrongs, show loyalty, deliver results, continuously improve, confront reality, clarify expectations, practise accountability, listen before speaking, keep to our commitments and extend trust to others who have earned it and are still earning it.
  3. Organisational-trust – that is aligned trust inside your organisation, This is part of your company culture and Covey believes it is established through systems and structures which support the culture you want to have.
  4. Market-trust – trust generated by reputation. We all know the importance of our external reputation and how this affects our overall performance, but the implication here is that the way we treat external contacts, whether customers or suppliers, is vital.
  5. Societal-trust – trust generated by contribution, often referred to as corporate social responsibility. Rather than a box-ticking exercise of having a charity of the year or doing a day’s work in a community garden, this is about making a genuine positive contribution to your community in the long term.

What loses trust – and how do we restore it?

Trust, once built, can be lost. Common causes of lost trust are:

  • Internally – miscommunication, withholding information, acting against agreed values, mis-handling change, being self-serving and ‘looking after number one’.
  • Externally – poor service, not doing what you say you will do, squeezing suppliers in times when record profits are being made and damaging local communities and/or the environment.

However, even lost trust can be regained if we act quickly to restore that which we have lost, exceed expectations in correcting our mistakes, be honest about why things have gone wrong and not only repair the damage now, but ensure it will never happen again and accept full responsibility.

Finally remember that trust is a relationship built over a period of time, as author Marsha Sinetar said: “Trust is not a matter of technique, but of character; we are trusted because of our way of being, not because of our polished exterior or our expertly crafted communications.”

Why do some people want change to be gift wrapped?

If you have experienced change in the workplace, you have probably met some people who will only get on board when all the Is have been dotted and the Ts crossed.

In this podcast, Richard and Paul explore why this happens, and if you find yourself or those around you in this situation, how you can deal with it.

 

There are some people who only want to engage with any change at the last possible moment. It is like they only get involved when someone else has gift-wrapped the change plan, so they don’t have to take any ownership moving forward.

As frustrating as this can be for a leader, it can help to understand why it happens – which can then give you the tools to tackle it and get people to engage.

Refusal to get on board with change is often related to our natural avoidance of uncertainty. As humans, we like to know exactly what lies ahead and will avoid engaging with something which contains elements of doubt.

It’s simply not possible to create a gift-wrapped change that will suit everyone. People create a story in their own heads to fill in the gaps and uncertainties so, in a large group, everyone may have a different expectation of the change which often doesn’t match up with what is really happening.

Uncertainty usually results in an emotional reaction, as we discussed in our previous podcast. When our expectations of certainty clash with the reality that change means uncertainty, our natural instinct is to see it as a threat.

As leaders, we need to look at ways to tackle that emotional reaction and get people to respond more rationally.

Richard and Paul revisit the ICE strategy: giving Information to reassure people about what we know and being honest about what we don’t; presenting Choices to help people gain more control over what lies ahead, which drives the shift from emotional to rational; and helping people to Engage so they become part of the decisions and solutions needed to shape the change.

By using this approach, you can encourage people to let go of their need for gift-wrapped change and to accept uncertainty as a natural part of the process of change.

How to be an influential leader: Choosing the best strategy for getting to ‘yes’

by Graham Field

 

In our working lives, most of us have come across someone who seems to be able to lead people easily.

Others want to follow them, and even when they don’t, the leader seems able to negotiate an effective agreement without too much trouble.

Two of the most common questions we are asked are: “How do I become an influential leader?” and “How do I increase my powers of negotiation?”

It is worth noting from the outset that true negotiation or influencing is not about manipulation. If manipulation is unethical and, potentially, bullying people into doing the things we want them to, negotiation and influencing is helping people get to the same place as us through motivating them to action, engaging their emotions and ensuring a real ‘win-win’ is achieved.

The Leader as Negotiator

Understanding the basics of negotiation is essential for any leader. Whatever stage you’re at as a leader, the following process will help you in any situation where you find negotiation being key.

  1. Understanding ‘us’: The foundation for any negotiation is the ability for each party to understand the other. This seems such a simple statement to make, but think back to the negotiations you’ve seen where not enough has been found out about who’s being negotiated with, their values and their drivers. The leader as effective negotiator will always understand their counterpart, and will have answered the question “what information do I need about the other person to help make this a success?”
  2. Understanding ‘what’: The basis of this stage is clear objectives: answering the questions “what do I want from this?” and “what do I have to get to meet my needs?” could reveal two separate objectives, but the leader understands why both are important. To ensure the ‘win-win agreement’ is reached, the same level of clarity is needed on both sides.
  3. Let’s negotiate: At this stage, the leader will be creating the right environment for success, establishing rapport and drawing out the relevant information from both sides. Now the influential leader will start to come to the fore. The main question to be answered at this stage is “how can I ensure that we both get what we want from this?”
  4. Let’s disagree: Disagreement is a present in nearly all negotiations, and at this stage the role is likely to complete the switch from negotiator to influential leader. Preferences for dealing with conflict will come into play and at this stage the move from ‘wants’ to ‘needs’ is most likely to take place. If it no longer looks like what is wanted is achievable, the answer to “what do I now need to get from this negotiation?” becomes the prime concern.
  5. Let’s compromise (or I walk away): The leader as effective negotiator knows that this point may come – the time when compromise (giving something up in return for something) is needed or, if not forthcoming, this is the walk-away point. The most basic question here is “what am I willing to give up in return for what I need?”
  6. Getting the win-win agreement: This is the reason for the negotiation – the stage where both parties get what they want, or at least part of it. Having reached this stage, the most obvious answer is “what do we do now?” and from, this formal arrangements and agreements are created.

 

The Influential Leader

Much has been written about powers of persuasion and influencing, more often than not in the context of selling. However, all leaders need to be able to develop themselves in this way – a requirement commonly missed if you’re not a ‘sales leader’. For instance, shaping the organisational structure and getting the buy-in of others, helping others to understand their role and how it supports your vision, getting support for innovative leaps – each and every one an opportunity to make the most of your influencing skill.

One of the greatest texts we’ve come across for understanding how influencing works is ‘Influence – Science and Practice’ by Robert Cialdini, and this research backed book highlights six clear influencing strategies that anyone can develop – and we’ve all seen them in action on a daily basis.

Here are six simple thoughts on how to develop yourself as an influential leader.

  1. Reciprocation: people repay others who have done something for them – often with something of seemingly greater value. It’s a technique we see all the time: the next time you get given a ‘free book’ or a charity sends you an envelope with a ‘free pen’ be aware that the element of reciprocation is being put in to play here. The influential leader freely gives to others, commonly things of low personal value but of high value to others, and so reciprocation is born. Ask yourself “what could I give to others that costs me little/nothing but will have high value/impact for them?”
  2. Commitment & Consistency: here the influential leader is aware that getting an ‘agreement in principle’ or a public commitment makes it easier for the person to follow through when called on at a later date. The power of getting ‘agreements in principle’ is often undervalued – getting a ‘yes’ at an early stage ensures support when it’s really needed so ask “how could I create more ‘yeses’ to increase the commitment of others?”
  3. Social Proof: where you have gained the support of a number of people, their peers and colleagues are likely to follow suit just because they have seen others say yes. Every time you buy something, or do something, because a colleague/friend/family member has done it, you’re following social proof. Creating advocates for you ensures that others will come on board, so ask yourself “who would be my best advocates and how could they help me with others?”
  4. Liking: does what it says on the tin! This is all about people buying people. Think about those around you who do things for people just because they were asked by someone they like and ask yourself “what are my most likeable qualities?” or “how do I develop more likeable qualities?” We all have them; sometimes it helps to make sure we keep working at them!
  5. Authority: there are times when we all accept the words of others simply because they are giving us information from their specialist field. The influential leader understands this and knows the expertise they can trade on. This is not simply telling someone to do something because you’re the boss; it’s explaining something that you have a greater understanding of because of your background and training. So consider “what gives me authority?” and make the most of this where appropriate.
  6. Scarcity: We see this one all the time: ‘Sale must end Monday’, ‘Last few available’. Whenever something appears to be limited, the scarcity principle kicks in. The influential leader knows this, understands the scarce resource that they bring with them and makes sure this principle is applied where necessary – because people want that ‘limited offer’. Understand “what do I have that is a rare commodity?” and think about how this could help your influencing style.

By following the negotiation process above, and developing your powers of persuasion you will be well on your way to becoming an influential leader – and to ensuring that win-win is around every corner.

Why Do Some People Find It Easier To Play The Victim Card Than To Get On Board With Change?

Facing change can lead to some people playing the victim – refusing to engage, pointing out the problems in the plans, and not joining in with the rest of the team.

In our latest podcast, Rob and Paul discuss why change can often bring out victim behaviour – and what managers can do to tackle that response.

 

Playing the victim is the path of least resistance: you get attention for being the victim without having to do anything, and it doesn’t hold the associated risks of failure if you try something new.

Sometimes, victims seek out fellow victims to support their view and reinforce their position. They will collude to come up with reasons why the change is negative or won’t work.

In a situation where there are several victims, the group will often begin to dwindle as individuals get on board with change, and those remaining begin to wonder if they are in the wrong. One person is often the most dedicated victim and can be so negative that it puts others off agreeing with them even if they were feeling slightly negative.

Yet many victims don’t realise they’re doing it until they have done the same thing several times, or perhaps hear it coming from someone else. So often, victim behaviour needs to be challenged by an external factor.

How can you as a manager help these people?

Behaviour and language are key: you help people to understand the consequences of them continuing with their current pattern. Ask them how long they want to continue as they are and what they think is likely to happen as a result. For many people, this is all that’s needed for them to realise what they are doing and move on.

Ask questions of the victim to find out if they are deeply held beliefs or they’re just releasing frustration. If they fundamentally believe that things won’t work out, you have a bigger issue to address.

Tackle this behaviour by being consistent. Offer help to everyone involved in the change so they can move through the stages required as easily as possible. Make it clear that this support is on offer to the victim as well, showing that while they choose not to take part, they are refusing the help that everyone else is receiving.

The victim will either join in when they are ready, or they will eventually decide they are not going to engage at all and will remove themselves from that situation.

Are the best intentions of leaders accidentally stressing out the people they lead?

The ability for anyone to keep going in stressful times – that pool of energy that we have inside us that helps us to cope – has several names.

We might call it grit, resilience or hardiness, and it has been investigated by psychologists looking to understand why some people can cope better than others.

One of the most surprising things is that this capability is not fixed: it is something we learn and can be built up. Think of it like a large tank, like a water cooler or coffee urn.  As things happen, we open the tap, and some of our resilience drains away, enabling us to cope with ebbs and flows of life.  With practice and experience, we can learn to quickly fill up our tank, and even upgrade the tank size, making ourselves more resilient.

Research in the early 80s into hardiness identified the traits that help us top up the tank.  Salvatore Maddi and Deborah Khoshaba identified three underlying beliefs or attributes that come together to create the pool of coping behaviours required. They called them the three Cs:

  • Commitment – This is all about being aligned to a purpose, having a belief in what you are doing
  • Control – a belief that you can influence your surroundings, make a difference to how events transpire
  • Challenge – that the struggles and pressures allow you to grow. This is as much from the bad things that happen as the good.

Increasing focus

This is where I think the problem lies. If you look at how leaders manage through times of change or when the ‘chips are down’, they become laser-like in their focus on what they want and how they can get it. That is normal. It is actually what negative emotions like fear and worry are designed to do: they reduce attention and focus it on the problem at hand.  Really useful when the problem was getting away from something that might eat you!

However, in modern working life, this focus can cause them to do three things:

  • They focus on the ‘what’. What needs to be done, what they want, what they want others to do. This focus on the ‘what’ drowns out the ‘why’, removing the connections that help people maintain or rebuild purpose through the difficult times.
  • They take control. It is just easier for everyone concerned if a small group make all the key decisions; everything will get done faster.  This is inevitable and probably the right thing to do for some key decisions, but it is never true for all decisions.
  • They only focus on the next problem. The conversation goes from one problem to the next, without ever taking stock of what has been done so far.  It starts to feel like that whatever is done will not be good enough, no learning, no gratitude.

Building resilience

So, if you want to be a leader that builds resilience and not be a walking cause of stress then think about how you might be able to consistently stimulate the three Cs.

  • Connecting people to the ‘why’. Partly this is about starting every ‘what’ conversation with reminders of the ‘why’.  However, to be successful at this you will have to help people make the connections between their role and the higher purpose of the team or organisation.  Some people do this naturally for themselves, but you should not leave it to chance.
  • Create opportunities for people to take back some control. You don’t need to make all the decisions, so focus on the ones you need to make and give up the rest.  If you need to, create choices for people so that they have a sense that they have a say in how this affects them, even if that means they get there in a less efficient way.
  • Stop and reflect. Remind the people around you how far you have come so far, and what that says about their skills and abilities.  This might be building in time for formalised structured reviews, but it can be as easy as asking a question that creates a moment of reflection.  Reminding people to think about their growth and learning will help them to build their resilience.

Just in case you think that the people around you just need to ‘man up’, then a word of caution.  If you allow their resilience to drain away, they will burn out.  This means that you need to pick up more of the responsibility, so you may be putting your own wellbeing on the line as well – unless you are lucky enough to have someone helping you recharge.

Why do some people take organisational change personally?

Dealing with any kind of change can bring out an emotional response in people – and when we get emotional, things get personal.

In this podcast, Rob and Paul discuss why some people take organisational change personally, and how thinking of ‘ice’ – Information, Choice and Engagement – will help managers thaw any frosty relationships with their people.

An emotional response to change is natural. It usually starts with shock and uncertainty before moving on to denial and feeling threatened. We only see the bad things and what’s being taken away from us.

These feelings can grow into resistance if left unaddressed and if we don’t feel that we have a choice in the process of change. If people feel they have no idea what’s going on, that uncertainty can very easily turn to an introspective feeling of unfairness, helplessness, despondency and loss of control. This often leads to people being negative, resisting change and sabotaging the process.

As a manager, it’s vital to lead your people successfully through change. Thinking of ‘ICE’ could help: Information, Choice and Engagement. Giving people information in answer to their questions about change will help to ease their uncertainty. But, because people who are feeling emotional won’t immediately process the information they’re given, it needs to be provided consistently and repetitively. Also think about who provides the information, whether that’s you as a manager or someone else.

Move as much choice back to your people, to give them control over details that affect them. For a start, give them a choice about whether they even want to be involved and, if so, to what degree.

Engage people as they go on the journey of change. There are thousands of things, from small details to larger activities, that need to happen for organisational change to take place, so engage people in what’s relevant and meaningful to them.

Why do some people think that managers are keeping secrets?

When senior managers drive change, they can get stuck between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, they may not be able to share certain, sensitive information. But if they don’t give their workforce enough details about what’s happening, people will become dissatisfied, suspicious and unproductive.

In this podcast, Rob and Ricky discuss how and why this happens, and the impact that a growing perception that senior managers are keeping secrets can have on an organisation.

In the absence of any clarity or information about change in the workplace, people start to fill in the blanks. Sometimes, it’s with information that may be true – but more often than not, it’s massively assumptive and untrue.

There are many reasons why senior managers do not share information with their people. Some information is confidential or sensitive, or may be withheld because of the perceived reaction it would cause. Sometimes, managers are trying to protect their people.

During times of change, there will be people who embrace it and are proactive about asking questions. They’re a breeze to manage. But there will be others who start to fill in the blanks and – worse still – go recruiting others who are easily influenced by their opinions. Why do they do it? Because they are looking for meaning and certainty when they have a lack of information. They want that classic ‘comfort blanket’. This links to our previous podcast about why people look for evidence that supports their point of view.

Everyone is making assumptions: Employees are filling in gaps with information they don’t know to be true, and managers are deciding what information they think is relevant to their people.

So how does this impact the workforce? Effects can range from falling engagement levels and rising dissatisfaction to people asking difficult questions and spreading false information. Some employees will cause a fuss while others may withdraw into themselves. All of this can lead to a drop in productivity and efficiency.

What can senior managers do about it? It’s crucial to keep people informed and engaged, to tell them what’s going on and why. And involve people in the journey, especially the most cynical or critical ones!

Unconscious bias: The Starbucks dilemma

So Starbucks in America is closing all its stores for the day to undertake training on unconscious bias, following on from an incident in one of its stores.

Now, I am not going to comment or go into the incident itself – there are plenty of others doing that just fine.  I am more interested in the role of unconscious bias in all this.

Unconscious bias refers to a bias in our decision making that is happening outside of our awareness.  These biases are mostly helpful, but they can backfire on us, causing us to make inappropriate or just bad choices – such as the one that leads to Starbucks closing 8000 stores!

What is unconscious bias?

When people talk about unconscious bias they are actually talking about a whole range of different cognitive biases (and there are a lot), and specifically about the ones that lead to poor decisions.  These could be biases we have around issues such as age, race, gender, sexuality or disability, but they can also just as easily be biases in the workplace around seniority, education or even the roles that we do.

These biases have been learned by each of us over time, based on our experiences and environments, and act as cognitive shortcuts, helping us to make decisions. They are formed in our heads as part of the process of us working out who we are.

We create our own identity by becoming part of a groups. I am not talking about joining the local whatever club, but rather the way we identify ourselves as being like other people in an informal grouping. To define the group, some people need to be in it (in-group) and so some people need to be outside it (out-group).

We slowly learn to appreciate all the good things that being in the group offers, while at the same time noticing all the reasons why we would not want to be in the out-group, ensuring that we have made the right choice.  Each and every one of us is in lots of groups, and it is the mix of the groups that goes to the core of who we are.  This all happens outside of conscious awareness, so when this small and subtle biases kick in, generally we have absolutely no idea.

The psychologist Jonathon Haidt uses the wonderful metaphor for the mind of an ‘unconscious’ elephant with a ‘conscious’ rider. The rider is trying its best to influence and nudge the elephant into doing the right thing, but really the elephant is in control, making decisions that the rider then needs to explain away. Because these decisions happen outside of awareness, often the rider does not even know they have happened, so will act as if this a rational, thought-through decision, when it may not be.

By now, you are probably thinking, “So what? This does not affect me,” – but the thing is, it affects all of us, all the time.

Unconscious bias and diversity

Let me give you an example: if you are recruiting, unconscious biases will play out in who you pick. Clearly, if one person can do the job and the other does not have the skills, you will make a rational choice, but when all other things are equal, then the decision is made by the ‘elephant’.

Over time these biases mean that we end up making the same decisions over and over again. This is one of the main reasons why many organisations struggle with diversity in their senior ranks.

The best teams and organisations require diverse thinking and decision making.  We need leaders and managers who are making decisions not biased by their past, but made rationally about the organisation’s future. This is only possible when we acknowledge that everyone has unconscious bias, and without being aware of it, we can all make decisions that might not be in our, or our organisation’s, best interest.

Understanding the effects of unconscious bias does not stop it, but allows us to check our decisions, make allowances for the biases that we all have, and make better decisions. Starbucks thinks this is worth taking a day… Do you?

 

By the way, if you want to find out more about the unconscious biases you may hold, psychologist have developed a test. It is called an implicit association test, and it mixes up our views on different areas of bias, with language associated with good and bad. 

By mixing up these different categories and then measuring the difference in how quickly we can respond these tests identify areas of automatic associations between mental representations.  Or put it more simply, the test pokes below the conscious layer and gives us a glimpse of what we really think. 

You can find these tests online, such as the set produced by the team at Project Implicit.

Why do some managers allow people to opt out of change?

Change can mean upheaval for everyone in a team. But why is it that, while some people engage and do their best, other people simply opt out and carry on as if nothing has happened?

In our latest podcast, Richard and Ricky discuss the reasons why these situations arise – and what can be done to tackle them.

There are several reasons why a manager would allow certain team members to opt out of change. It could be that the manager doesn’t have the skills to challenge the behaviour of the team members resisting change, or that the manager views this team member as a crucial player in the team and tackling them could reduce their productivity or even make them leave.

Whatever the reason, Richard and Ricky say allowing some people to get away with this creates a two-tier system, where some team members are allowed to do things in a way that other team members are not able to get away with.

So how do you tackle it?

Richard and Ricky discuss how to engage with resistant team members and get them to want to be part of the solution. Giving them some responsibility that will mean they have to behave in the right way and show those behaviours to others can be crucial, as Ricky describes through one of his own experiences.

They talk about sitting down with the person and talking through the reasons for the change, as well as their concerns. By unpicking their thinking and talking about the impact of their behaviour on the team, you can better understand their thought process and help them to see that they do need to engage with the plans.

If you can’t engage with them and they won’t change despite your efforts, you need to be clear about what that means – is this the right role for them? Even the highest achievers need to be team players, otherwise the benefit of their achievements can be undermined by the negative impact of their attitude.

Psychological Safety and Routine Thinking

In Transformation with a Capital T (McKinsey & Co) the article begins with the statement: “Companies must be prepared to tear themselves away from routine thinking and behaviour.”

This is a provocative way to open an article, but it’s an idea I can’t help agreeing with. What we like to ask is how and why. But first let’s focus on what:

What is routine thinking?
Routine thinking is based on regular procedures and is often set within the parameters of expected norms. There is a safety in routine thinking: if something has worked in the past, allow it to work in the future too.

The problem here comes in the question of progression. What can be enhanced when we are confined to our way, or our organisation’s way, of thinking.

How do we tear ourselves away from routine thinking?

Now it’s all too easy to create debate. Poke a few holes in a theory and see if it is robust enough to pad out the gaps. If we want to move away from routine thinking, what would be the exact opposite of the routine; how feasible would that be to do?

To carry out this line of questioning through each procedure you have would be impossibly long-winded and ultimately demotivating for your team. So, instead of interrogating a new way of thinking at a process-level, the mindset has to be adopted at an organizational, or team, level. If you are to unlock new thinking and new behaviours in your people, you need to create an environment in which your people can thrive and truly think and behave differently.

Why should we do this?

Simple answer: for efficiency and effectiveness.

Detailed answer: In their Case Study, Project Aristotle, Google sought the perfect formula for creating effective teams. Routine thinking might suggest that effective teams are the result of effective management and leadership. But the results of Project Aristotle showed something else. In their research, over 180 teams were studied but no patterns emerged. They extended their research to review the traditions, behavioural standards and unwritten rules that govern how the team functions.

As no two teams appeared alike, Project Aristotle uncovered that a team’s norms are unique to that particular team.  Something has been established within a team to make it different from themselves. I believe the key to norms is through an emotional connection, and this is echoed in Project Aristotle’s findings that psychological safety is an essential component of an effective team. Teams were found to perform well when certain conditions exist; interpersonal trust, mutual respect and comfortable being themselves.

Key evidence is in the way they allowed others to fail safely, there was respect for divergent opinions, there was freedom to question the choices of others in a supportive way, and they never undermined the trust. This meant that they could do away with routine thinking and rely on the trust of their colleagues.

My primary takeaway from the Google research is the need for psychological safety. Charles Duhigg explores this further in his enlightening book Smart Faster Better.

Can this be more than Silicon-Valley Fantasy?

When I reflect on my own experience, I have only ever felt psychological safety twice in my 30-year career, and they happened simultaneously.

I was part of two teams. I had my own team and was a member of a senior team.  We outperformed all expectations this particular year.  Morale within my team was immense and that gave us a feeling of safety to encourage our colleagues to continue outperforming expectations.. We were unaware, however, of the merger talks happening at the same time.  After the merger was announced, I spoke to a board member about the decision. They spoke ruefully of our success, that “if we knew then how you were going to perform this year, we would never have agreed to merge”.

The psychological safety felt quickly turned illusory, and I wonder now how I would’ve felt if that year we plodded along in our routine thinking; would we have been more accepting of the merger? Was the news devastating in contrast to the high team spirit?

As leaders, there is an interesting choice

…do you:

  • Break the mould and create an environment where people can take a chance, fail safely, learn then grow on the back of it?
  • Accept the safety in routine thinking, play it safe but miss out on potential innovation?

Do you know leaders who sit somewhere between the two? Those who say that they are up for the challenge but revert to type at the first signs of trouble?

It is difficult to embed a different way of thinking to your working life. But to establish an environment of psychological safety offers Googleable advantage.

I accept this is simplistic but business today runs at such a pace. You only have to look at the media to see failure in businesses, large and small. Leaders make commitments to stakeholders on best information available that means results are then demanded. We look to blame others for failures which are then punished and, worse, the opportunity to learn is missed. When you add to this personal agenda and vested interest is it any wonder that performance and people suffer? However well intentioned leaders might be, when it all hits the fan, they revert to type to get stuff done. It is this behaviour that undermines psychological safety and essentially leads to any business running with the handbreak on. People hold back.

When faced with the pressures of today, it takes a brave (or clever) leader to tear themselves away from routine thinking and behaviour.

If you’d like to explore psychological safety in your organisation let’s have a conversation. Email me at ricky.muddimer@thinkingfocus.com and we’ll arrange a time to chat.