Imagine you accepted a new challenging position that created as much apprehension as it did excitement. Of course, you are aware that more and more of today’s work is powered by teams and the execution of the company’s long-term goals heavily relies on effective collaboration. As the newbie in the organization, what can you do to start off on the right foot?

Leadership Teams

Photo Credit: Otmar Brettschneider

Our brains are wired for connection, helping us create meaningful bonds and distinguish friend from foe. But how we build and manage teams can activate those brain structures for either trust and collaboration or conflict and competition. Observe the interactions and collaboration amongst team members and teams. As the new leader strive to ensure that no one is afraid of sharing ideas and asking questions. Some of the following indicators assist you in identifying a fear-based environment that can kill team performance:

  • The lack of candid and open conversation and limited discussion and feedback in meetings.
  • People feel that they cannot speak their mind. Low levels of collaboration, and increased anxiety and stress.
  • Individuals and teams are risk-averse and withhold information.
  • People look for ways to hide mistakes and failures. A reluctance to share mistakes, bad news and failures with management.
  • Blaming of others for mistakes and failures.
  • Limited commitment to action plans. People are less likely to be accountable and take responsibility.
  • People are simply checking boxes and going with the flow, lacking meaningful

Fear paralyzes teams, shuts down learning and thus, impedes or even purges team performance.

“People aren’t afraid of failure, they’re afraid of blame.” Seth Godin, author and entrepreneur

Some years ago, Google ran an extensive internal study to understand how to build effective teams. This study – referred to as ‘Project Aristotle’ – involved years of comprehensive observations of how employees at Google collaborate in group settings. Researchers found that the most important factor for good teamwork was feelings of psychological safety. In successful groups, its members feel comfortable expressing conflicting opinions and taking risks, knowing that their colleagues have their back.  Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson defines psychological safety as the “shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking” and “a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject or punish someone for speaking up.”

The human brain has developed with survival mechanisms that trigger emotional reactions to real or perceived threats, and these threats can include the impacts of the behavior of others upon us.  Leaders in particular can trigger strong reactivity in team members. The “amygdala hijack” or “flight or fight” responses that originate in the limbic system of the brain can be triggered by poorly chosen words or behaviors from others.

Certain behaviors can generate positive reactions within the social systems of the human brain that subsequently enhance engagement, whilst others can rapidly disengage people and lower morale. The social systems of the human brain seek safety, inclusion, fairness and authenticity from leaders and team members as an integral function of our survival within social networks.  Most of these processes take place sub-consciously.

Leaders who engender genuine feelings of safety, fairness, authenticity and openness actually help to trigger a chemical in the brain known as “oxytocin”.  Oxytocin is a hormone that plays an important role in social bonding. It makes people more receptive to feeling genuine trust towards a leader. The social brain therefore prioritizes leaders who are not perceived as a threat and who do not trigger feelings of injustice, anger or frustration.

Continue observing and ask yourself: Can team members take risks by sharing ideas and suggestions without feeling insecure or embarrassed? Do team members feel supported, or do they feel as if other team members try to undermine them deliberately?

Psychological safety is the key differentiator for thriving teams. It’s the difference between a team that works well together and a team that struggles to get “in sync.” Importantly, it also points to how dramatically inauthentic leadership with poor empathy, trust and communication can shut down even the best individuals and teams. Thus, demonstrate and reward behaviors that help build understanding and grow relationships. Always be respectful. Listen to the ideas, feelings, beliefs and suggestions of team members and your colleagues of the Senior Leadership Team.

If you want to maximize the potential of collaboration in your organization, or your team needs to solve complex problems with creative solutions, contact us. We are just an email or phone call away.

Lead fearlessly, Annette.