9th March, 2021

How Safe Do You Feel at Work with Scott Chambers

With Rachel Morris

Dr Rachel Morris

Listen to this episode

On this episode

This week, Scott Chambers joins us to talk about psychological safety in teams.

Episode transcript

Dr Rachel Morris: Have you ever worked in a team where you felt like you couldn’t speak up about anything, even if it was vitally important? And do you wish sometimes people could be a little bit less defensive and a little bit more helpful? You could be working in a team with low psychological safety.

In this episode, I’m joined by Scott Chambers, team coach and trainer and specialist in psychological safety in the workplace. We chat about the dire consequences that a lack of psychological safety can have in an organization from stress and unhappiness through to life threatening mistakes. We think about how our own reactions and defensiveness can be a major cause of the problem, and how you can increase the psychological safety in your own team, even if you’re not the leader. So, listen, if you want to find out why high psychological safety is such a huge factor in determining the performance of your team, how to change your own behaviours to really make a difference, and three simple things that leaders and individuals can do in their teams that will change the whole team dynamic for good.

Introduction: Welcome to You Are Not A Frog, life hacks for doctors and busy professionals who want to beat burnout and work happier. I’m Doctor Rachel Morris. I’m a GP turned coach, speaker and specialists in teaching resilience. And I’m interested in how we can wake up and be excited about going to work no matter what. I’ve had 20 years experience working in the NHS, both on the frontline and teaching leadership and resilience. I know what it’s like to feel overwhelmed, worried about making mistake and one crisis away from not coping.

2021 promises to be a particularly challenging year. Even before the Coronavirus crisis, we were facing unprecedented levels of burnout. We have been competitive frogs in a pan of slowly boiling water, working harder and longer. And the heat has been turned up so slowly that we hardly notice the extra-long days becoming the norm and have got used to the low-grade feelings of stress and exhaustion. Let’s face it, frogs generally only have two choices, stay in the pan and be boiled alive, or jump out of the pan and leave, but you are not a frog. And that’s where this podcast comes in. You have many more options than you think you do. It is possible to be master of your own destiny, and to craft your work in life so that you can thrive even in the most difficult of circumstances.

Through training as an executive and team coach, I discovered some hugely helpful resilience and productivity tools that transformed the way I approached my work. I’ve been teaching these principles over the last few years at the Shapes Toolkit Programme because if you’re happier at work, you will simply do a better job. In this podcast, I’ll be inviting you inside the minds of friends, colleagues, and experts—all have an interesting take on this. So that together, we can take back control to thrive, not just survive in our work and our lives and love what we do again.

For those of you listening to the podcast who need to get some continuous professional development help under your belts, did you know that we create a CPD form for every episode so that you can use it for your documentation and in your appraisal? Now, if you’re a doctor, and you’re a fan of inspiring CPD, and you’re sick of wasting a lot of time you don’t have on boring and irrelevant stuff, and you want to put those 50 hours that you have to do to good use, then why not check out our Permission to Thrive membership? This is a new venture, a joint venture between me and Caroline Walker, who’s The Joyful Doctor. And every month we’re going to be releasing a webinar fully focused on helping you thrive in work and in life. Every webinar is accompanied by an optional workbook with a reflective activity so that you can take control of your work and your life, you can increase your well-being and you can design a life that you’re going to love. You’ve got to get those hours so why not make your CPD count. Choose CPD that’s good for you. So check out the link to find out more. Thanks for listening to my shameless plug. And back to the episode.

So it’s really great to have with me on the podcast today, Scott Chambers. Now, Scott is a team coach and facilitator. He’s a specialist in psychological safety, and he really enjoys helping teams work better together. So welcome, Scott. It’s brilliant to have you with us.

Scott Chambers: Thank you very much, Rachel. I’m looking forward to our conversation.

Rachel: Yeah, well, so am I because this subject of psychological safety is one I’ve been thinking about a lot. And it seems that you can’t go anywhere without reading or hearing about psychological safety these days.

Scott: Yeah, it’s certainly become the management speak. So increasingly, when we talk to people about it, they already know that unfortunately, a lot of people don’t actually understand what it means. So, there’s a lot of amateur psychologists are using the term to describe a range of things. But yes, the great news is that people are now starting to take this seriously.

Rachel: Yeah. And I wanted to get you on the podcast because we’d had a conversation about psychological safety. And for a long time with my work with teams and things like that, I just noticed that that is the thing that is missing. And we’ve noticed that it’s missing throughout the NHS, it’s missing in other organisations particularly where they’re sort of high stress jobs and people are under a lot of pressure. But it’s so crucial for performance and it strikes me, it’s something that’s quite enigmatic, quite difficult to get hold of, and quite difficult to build for a team.

So, I thought, when I heard you talking about it, I thought, ‘Right, I need to get Scott on the podcast’ because there’s no easy answer. But it’d be really nice if there was some things we could start to take away and start to do already, they’re going to make our lives better at work. So, let’s start. Let’s start with a definition. What do we mean, when we talk about psychological safety?

Scott: Well, actually, it’s a start point. And Amy Edmondson, I will refer to her a few times, so we’ll get that out the way now.

Rachel: Yeah, tell us who she is.

Scott: She’s the author of—I guess, the definitive book in this domain—The Fearless Organization. She’s the Novartis Professor of Psychology, thank you very much, at Harvard University. And she defines it as that there’ll be no detrimental impact for anybody speaking up, either with ideas and questions, but also potentially with criticisms and observations about what’s not working well. So, it is this idea of everybody’s voice can be heard, and in speaking up, I am not in any way kind of hampered or disadvantaged.

And we all know how sometimes it doesn’t feel like that in some teams. Maybe our voice isn’t heard because there’s too many other voices in the room, too much noise, maybe there’s a strong personality. Maybe if I take it personally, if you say, ‘Well, I’m sorry, Scott, I’m not sure what that project is on time or going to’, I might start to defend it just to build a personality point of view.

So, there’s lots of things that—if you like without any necessarily malevolent intent, can get in the way of psychological safety.

Rachel: And why is it so important? What is it about?

Scott: Yeah. Well, it’s a $6 million question, literally. So there’s lots of reasons why it’s really important. I guess, let me start with the avoidance of error.

So, the problem when people don’t speak up is they can see something going wrong, they can see a mistake being made or a process not perhaps delivering appropriately for the people it’s intended to. And as the person closest to the work sees what’s going wrong, but has lost that confidence, or that belief that their observations will be taken seriously or even heard. So, they stopped saying anything. So the situation perpetuates. So mistakes are made, mistakes are made frequently, processes aren’t improved, and the organisation and the team and the people in that situation simply don’t learn. So, you get a fixed state, which isn’t improving.

So that’s probably the most important and that goes right back to Amy’s research, which was in the health service in the US, where she tripped over a fascinating statistic. So, she was looking at health outcomes, and looking at the behaviours in teams that weren’t delivering very high health outcomes. And obviously, she was expecting a certain set of behaviours to correlate to great outcomes. But there was one anomalous result. And that was that the teams that had the best outcomes in terms of recovery rates and speed of recovery and frequency of recovery were reporting more errors. And it kind of seemed, ‘How can that be right, how can the successful teams make more errors’?

So, she actually went round the research a second time because she didn’t believe the results, and the same result came up. And then she had what she described as the blinding flash of obviousness. But actually, it’s not that they’re making more mistakes, it’s that they’re reporting more mistakes. And therefore, learning from those mistakes. I mean, in the public domain, in terms of the team, and therefore they’re able to deal with them, face into them, take the corrective action. So that’s probably what fundamentally-wise, so important for teams and any organization or group or community to create that atmosphere where all voices can be heard.

Rachel: I think that’s really important, isn’t it? It’s not just in reporting areas because actually reporting an error that’s sort of like the dynamite psychological safety. Actually, if I can go and say, ‘Guys, I’ve cocked up. I’ve done this’ or whatever and report my error. But you need to be able to take a few steps back and actually start off with, ‘This is how I’m feeling today and you’re not going to be judged’. And I’m a bit upset by this, let’s forget error. Let’s just start even with vulnerability.

Scott: Yeah, just get what just how you feel? Yeah. So that’s, again, the journey. So I’ve been working in this area for just about two years now. I’ve probably been working in this area for much longer, but not called psychological safety.

But the thing I have learned more recently is that the psychological safety is a felt experience. We humans intuitively know when it’s safe, and when it’s not safe. So, you’re absolutely right. If I don’t feel safe, I guess I’m perhaps focused on the error side. But the other thing is, neither will I speak up with ideas, with creativity, volunteering my initiative, even if it’s only half thought through. But I think there’s something here that might be useful for us as a team or a group to work on. But it’s that horrible moment when you’re in a team meeting, and someone says, ‘So any questions’?

Rachel: ‘Right, let’s move on’.

Scott: That means people aren’t, you’re not hearing the voices. And yet there will be ideas, there will be questions. So, that’s a little clue to maybe something’s not quite right.

Rachel: Yeah. And what, what sort of teams have you seen where psychological safety is really low? What behaviours are you seeing? What’s it like to work in one of those teams?

Scott: Ah, gosh. Gosh, that’s a big question. So, let me—lucky me, I have been able to work in a number of —

Rachel: Yeah.

Scott: Fortunately, and I guess, as you would imagine, every situation is slightly unique. Perhaps if I think of one situation, which surprised me, I went in expecting the team to be really psychologically safe. For PhDs, working in a charity, doing some absolutely amazing, fantastic work. But they were part of the team, the rest of the organisation depended on and the rest of the organization didn’t feel they were getting what they needed. So, I ended up having a conversation and being able to—we have an instrument, developed an instrument called The Organizational Scan, which allows you to measure levels of psychological safety. And they were way, way down in the lowest quartile of scores.

And yes, they were intelligent people, they were completely committed to the objectives of the charity, they really wanted to be successful, and actually were being successful in their own domains. What I got lost is the value of this team. So, they were so committed to the overall goal, that they were missing the value of this team and the collaboration and the idea sharing and the accessing of different expertise in order to deliver that.

And in fact, all they felt, and I’ll use that word deliberately, was the lack of response, or the unavailability or the incapacity of that person to respond to the timeframe they needed, meant that we’re slowing them down. So, they just basically started to ignore each other. So, it’s not necessarily toxic behaviour, it was ignoring.

There are plenty of toxic behaviours—Amy uses this lovely expression; I happen to be a hobby sailor and she obviously is as well. So the attacking up wind against human nature. For the non-sailors listening, so if you sail and you want to sail in the direction that the wind’s coming from that’s attacking, that’s going up wind. And the way you do it is by attacking frequently used to get the wind in the sail that side and then go to that, so think of it. But it’s quite a tough set, it’s quite difficult. And so, you have to be paying attention.

So human nature, I think, our own personal egos, our own personal narratives, our own desire, perhaps to be heard, means that we don’t always listen. We don’t always welcome an opposing opinion, which may be equally valid. And so, our human nature, our tendency to want to be clever, not want to be ignorant, not want to show up as incompetent and therefore admit to mistakes or and it means that we tend to defend ourselves and then the capacity for the system, the team, to hear the bad news or to deal with the difficulties or like the absence of knowing what to do becomes harder and harder.

Rachel: And that is really fascinating because this tendency for us to defend ourselves, it’s so inbuilt. Isn’t it? I mean, I know that if someone gave me a little bit of feedback about one of the podcast episodes the other day. It was very well intentioned and I was like [grunts], and actually, it was really helpful. My immediate response is, ‘How dare you criticise something I created’? Ridiculous. It is human nature, you’re right.

Scott: It is absolutely human nature.

Rachel: So how do you get to a position where actually no one minds being criticized? How do you get to that—that’s really difficult, I would think.

Scott: Yes, I think well, difficult, if not impossible. However, you can help create the space for people to acknowledge that instinctive reaction, and indeed helped people kind of get beyond it. So, the key, the absolute key to this is the assumption of positive intent.

And so what you just said it, they gave you the feedback, and it was well intended, it’s your capacity to see that good intention that allows you to step aside from the personal kind of knee jerk, the reflex reaction. So, if I don’t believe it’s positive intent, then I have absolutely no reason not to attack them and defend myself to do whatever. If I can just intellectually separate myself and say that, ‘Gee, that person is not meaning to upset me. They’re meaning to give me helpful insight. Let me see if I can understand that. Let me inquire into that and see, seek to learn it’. So that that’s at the heart of it is the assumption of positive intention.

Rachel: Yeah, and just thinking about it, either. I can take criticism, maybe. I’ve been learning to ice skate recently, which I’ve talked about before, and I’m really bad at it. And I really want—well, I’m not doing at the moment because we’re in lockdown—but I really want the teachers to come to me and say, ‘Rachel, the reason you can’t skate backwards and turn around on one foot is because your weights in the wrong place, and you’re not doing that’. And I’ve been told that, and that is really helpful, and I’m really pleased.

So how can when it comes to something in my professional life—we can take feedback about skills and things like that, haven’t we? Like, I did it this way, don’t do it that way, do it that way. Oh, yeah, that works better. But when it’s actually—yeah, it becomes more personal, and we find it very difficult to maybe assume good intent from people. It’s that just a natural thing or is that a learned behaviour?

Scott: I think it’s a natural defensive thing. As you disappear into the amygdala triggering and the historical triggering of your defense reflex is because actually, physically, it was quite important that you have lots of adrenaline and lots of capacity to respond to a physical threat. When it’s a cognitive and emotional threat, all of that is just wasted energy and counterproductive because if you have the amygdala shutting down your prefrontal cortex, you’re not getting the oxygen you need there. So, you’re not actually being able to get that distance. So, it is doable, it does take a bit of practice.

One of my close partners, he works a lot in the realm of mindfulness. And working to help people get into that slightly different mind state. So that’s when they then enter a system. They’re coming from the right mental state in order to have that conversation. But in lots of business and high-pressure situations, obviously, it’s hard to get back there.

So the trick and what I often work with teams on is just, quite often it that that tension, and kind of high energy comes between one or two people, and the rest of the team is almost backing away from the table. When we used to sit at tables. But actually, that’s their opportunity to perhaps just take a timeout, just perhaps playback what they’re seeing. ‘So, I can see Rachel that you think it should be blue. Scott, you seem to be totally locked in and it should be red. What does anybody else think’? Defuse the situation. That gives Scott and Rachel time to regroup, hopefully, listen to a few other ideas and get out of the sword fight—the intellectual and conversational sword fight that we get ourselves hooked into.

And no matter how brilliant my arguments are for red; you will have equally brilliant arguments for blue. So, we’re never going to agree it needs the bigger group to start to intervene and help move the conversation forward.

Rachel: Yes, and it needs there not to be any sort of hierarchical imbalance where, ‘I win just because I do’.

Scott: ‘See, these are stripes’.

Rachel: Yes, exactly. See those, that means that red is important. And I’m thinking that obviously history will make a difference as well. So, if we’ve only just met and I went red and you went blue, I would go, ‘Well, let’s talk it out’. But actually, if there’s been a history of you telling me the wrong thing or trying to step on my authority or bully—yeah, then you’ll go dig in a bit more, perhaps, or give…

Scott: Well, yes, yes, you say you kind of—you’ve got fight or flight, and you really just roll over. And therefore, the arguments never heard and therefore the better decision is not made. Or just you and I are locked into a fighting partnership. And to your earlier question about toxic behaviours, that is something that happens. Teams get locked in overtime into patterns of behaviour, they’ve kind of got, it is like a dance routine.

So, we know—and I’ve actually worked with the team and in retrospect, it’s funny at the time, I wasn’t happy. But I was asked to go and work with a team in a electronics organization, and I was really pleased. It was a new client for me. Somebody I’d been talking to for a while but we haven’t done anything. ‘So, Scott, we got this real problem with this team. They seem to be unable to make decisions. And two people in particular seem to be completely locked’. I say, That’s great. Thank you very much, appreciate the opportunity to work the assignment’. ‘What made you think—yeah I was right for this’? ‘Well, actually, you’re the third person I’ve asked, they’ve killed the first two’.

Rachel: That is like the team coaching gig that nobody wants.

Scott: They chewed up and spat out, two consultants already. But helping them see how their behaviour was just a trapped pattern by literally observing the patterns of behaviour and feeding it back to them and say, ‘Look, this is what’s going on. This is what you’re doing, this what you’re doing. Everybody else, anybody else get involved in this? How do we get people, how can we change this pattern’? And it literally—once they were aware, they were able to make different sets of decisions.

And again, the positive intent was there, they both wanted the best for the organization. But they just, as you say, they’ve got so much baggage in this head banging relationship, that they were unable to step out of it. But just a little insight, a little holding the mirror up as they see themselves, they were able to move forward really quickly and independently. They didn’t need any training or counselling or anything. They just got it and they move forward.

Rachel: Yes. So, it is all about what you think the other person’s intent is towards you or what you think they think your intent is. I know that it got a bit—I was reading this book last night, The Fearless Organization, and she talks about the difference between trust and psychological safety, which I thought was really interesting thing. So now, I might get this wrong, Scott, tell me. So trust is when you assume that they have good intentions towards you. So, I trust you because I say, I trust you, Scott, that I assume that you want to come on the podcast and talk to me about this without any ulterior motives, and etc, I trust that you’ll do a good job, brilliant. But psychological safety is when I am happy that you assume that I have good intentions towards you, right?

Scott: Yes. So the distinction again, I was intrigued to learn is she’s quite black and white about it. So trust exists between two entities. So, between me and you, or you and me, or me and I know, Colgate because it’s a great toothpaste or yeah, I trust that brand, but it’s an individual relationship. Psychological safety is a systemic relationship. So, it’s we trust this system. So, I might trust you, if you’re my boss, I might trust you, and then at one to one, I might be very open and very vulnerable and speak up and know that you’ll take it seriously.

When I walk into the room or join the Zoom. I keep correcting myself. Join the zoom with all my colleagues suddenly, I’m not sure what’s going on here. ‘Why is that person saying that? Where are they coming from’? ‘Oh, they’ve got an agenda. They’re trying to getamy resources, budget time, whatever it is that the managers intention, or impress the manager with their great performance, though, that’s bigging up that performance’. So it’s the systemic peace.

And as you kindly introduce me, I’ve been coaching teams for about 10 years, and the most frustrating thing about this, the process that I’ve experienced is I typically will do one to one with all the team members just to get individual perspectives on the team dynamic. And by the end of that, I’ve got a pretty good picture of what the tension points are and how the relationship standard and what gets in the way of them being really high performing. I don’t go into a team session with them. And I say that, ‘So I think there’s an issue around this’. And everyone, I don’t what makes you laugh.

Rachel: Yeah, yeah, they were all fine.

Scott: One person asks, that’s not me, and it disappears. So the beauty of working with psychological safety and The Organizational Scan that Amy’s created is that you—so far what’s the word, you can’t see it but trust me, I’m touching words. Every time I’ve been able to facilitate a team using this, it surfaces the right issues. So, the elephant is boldly painted in the room, and we can deal with it.

And actually, just let my story earlier about those two antagonistic leaders. Once that elephant in the room, the team is very capable of sorting it out between them until it is, it never gets addressed. It just festers, it just gets in the way and kind of creates resentment. Yeah, people will talk about it as they walk out of the meeting with each other. So you are, ‘That thing that John said in the meeting, that was a load of rubbish. Wasn’t that, Rachel’? But in the meeting, we’ll just let John rub it on and say what he wants to say, and just leave it. So, again, that’s speaking up again.

Rachel: Yeah, that’s really interesting. So I mean, what can you do about it? If you’re working in a team where there isn’t psychological safety? Maybe because of the actions of one bully who’s there, or several bullies that are or? And it doesn’t need to have a need to be bullies does it? Because I’ve certainly worked with teams where people have been so passively aggressive by just not doing anything, not being accountable, not turning up to stuff and everyone’s so nice, no one will say anything to them. You just feel completely stuck. Can you solve this without a team coach?

Scott: Of course not. In fact you laugh at where—you know we just couldn’t. You did say you trusted me not to use—and here’s my sign.

Rachel: I meant that. Touché.

Scott: The answer is yes. So, yes, and—so you need to catalyse the conversation. And that’s what an external third party, what AT&T used to call an alien. Someone who’s not part of the system, who has that capacity to see the system and hold the mirror up to allow people to see for themselves. So, that’s a critical part of starting the change process.

Then the job of the facilitator or the team coach is to allow the conversation to happen. And that’s where your scenario where you may have one or two bullies or people who—let’s not even bully, but dominate the conversation and they’re full of all their opinions. That’s where the facilitator can help moderate the share of voice can draw people in who perhaps in that naturally aren’t speaking up, can help kind of get the orchestra playing in harmony rather than one part of the orchestra dominating them—the wind instruments are dominating. Not a bad metaphor, I might use that.

So that’s the rate. But I really keen to point out that this is something that you can touch in on and you can do a bit of, and then the team with a positive intent with a desire to—can genuinely move quite a long way under its own steam. It is unlocking it to allow the change to start, which is the key and then supporting the change, perhaps in nurturing it when it’s still young and it’s still a little fragile. And we’re not sure—we think we can now speak up, but we’re not sure.

But quickly, our role as team coaches is to encourage them to do it themselves. There’s no one way to be a team. Each team has to find its own way. But those are some things that if you don’t do or you’ll do wrong, are going to stop any team being effective.

Rachel: Yeah. What if you’ve got a situation right now and you can’t identify, right. ‘Actually, our team is not working, there’s not a lot of psychological safety. We haven’t got time to get in a cage’. What could someone say straight away start to help things?

Scott: Got it. So, within kind of what we teach people, there’s a whole bunch of signature practices. The shorthand to it all is for the leader to shut up and encourage other people to speak up. So I guess the answer to your question is somewhat varies depending if I’m the leader of the team. If you’re the leader of a team, and you think this isn’t kind of working in the way I’d like it to. Maybe everyone’s just being a yes man, or maybe I’m not getting the ideas or maybe I’m feeling nobody’s taking any initiative or ownership. The temptation is to kind of step in and demand all of those things. The trick is to step back and invite those things, so to kind of create the space.

And again, there’s lots of different ways of structuring that but fundamentally, your job is to ask good questions and really listen not, ‘So has anyone got any points to make? Nope. Right, then we’ll go with my plan’. That’s not listening. It’s like, ‘I’ve given you an idea about how we might progress. But before we go any further with that, I want to hear from everyone’. Everyone, what their thoughts and ideas, better ideas, or any ideas about how to improve what’s on the table.” And genuinely, genuinely, genuinely listen. And this is the heartache for most leaders, acknowledge, welcome even stupid ideas because you’re acknowledging and welcoming the idea generation rather than the content of the idea. Because if you do that, people will start to come up with better ideas. If you don’t do that, then you shut down that process immediately and you don’t get anything.

So, if you’re the leader, that’s the trick. Ask Frame the objective, what are we trying to achieve? What’s the goal? What’s the work we’re trying to achieve? And then ask good questions and really, really listen to the answer. A good way if you’re not good at listening is try and summarize back. ‘So, what you’re saying Rachel is’… yeah, because you have to listen to be able to summarize. Here’s a free giveaway tip. But really effective teams, somebody—not always the leader, but somebody summarizes every 11 to 12 minutes.

Rachel: Okay, that’s interesting. So, ‘where are we at? Okay, this is where we at, these are all the things’… I think the idea generation thing. Yeah, there’s all sorts of things you can do to there, like, actually just turn taking so that everyone can speak up and keep going around until you haven’t got anything else to say. And I was reading something recently about creativity—actually, the best ideas often come last, they don’t come first.

Scott: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah. So one of the techniques that we work with—which again, I’ll credit Nancy Klein, rather than myself or my colleagues with, is to ask them an open question, deliberately turn take and give everybody three minutes. Yeah, have a little time going on your phone or watch, or whatever works for you. And quite often, you’ll find people stop after two or two and a half. And then, ‘So, is there anything else you’d like to say on that topic’? And as you say, that’s where, that last bit when they’ve kind of stopped talking because that’s all the reflex stuff, you start to access the deeper thinking. And as you said, that’s where there’s some really, really lovely new novelty, creativity, innovation comes from. But we have no time for that, we only got 20 minutes for this meeting, we got to make a decision. Time is the biggest obstacle.

Rachel: Yeah, yes. So much and all got to be processed based and so many, particularly in healthcare, the meetings, you’ve got an agenda as long as your arm, you’ve got 10 minutes, people are late for visits anyway. And oh, gosh, it’s just really, really difficult.

But I am interested in what you can do as an individual if you’re not a leader. If you’re working in a team, I’m just thinking of—as the head of any department, your team changes all the time, right? You’ve probably got 100 different people work in your department, you have different members of the team, there’s maybe one or two toxic people around causing a bit of—well, not toxic people, but people who are behaving in ways that maybe promote a bit of a toxic culture, there might be some stuff coming down from the top, some leadership by fear, which of course never happens in the NHS, does it? What can you do as an individual to try and promote psychological safety among the rest of your team?

Scott: Well. So given the scenario you just described, the answer I’m going to give you is not a comfortable one, but the answer is to vulnerability. So if you remember the conversation we had about our reflexive defensiveness and our wishing to present and present a façade. If the power of vulnerability in terms of what we all know.

If one of your colleagues cries, your instinctive, your human instinctive is to care. And so that’s an extreme example, but a vulnerability in terms of ‘I don’t know’, or ‘I’m not comfortable’, or ‘I don’t feel as if I’m being heard’. It’s a risk, obviously, because the vulnerability is always a risk. It’s part of the definition of vulnerability. But by doing so, you potentially—again, role model a behaviour that other people. So, asking the naive question, ‘how often people see it’? “Oh, yeah. And I was wondering about that as well, or I didn’t understand that’. So that modelling vulnerability would be—and again, it’s with a health warning that these are environments that you’re talking about. But we all know that bullies are often—that they are overcompensating for a vulnerability. So, even the bully might, or may not be won’t happen instantly, but might start to learn that demonstrating that vulnerability rather than overcompensating, might start to create a space where the team can genuinely collaborate.

Rachel: Yes, and showing that vulnerability can be really powerful because another people start showing. I’m even thinking about sort of significant event meetings, actually, that no one ever admits that they’ve made something wrong, and you go to significant event meeting where you’re discussing a mistake. And then everyone starts saying, ‘Oh, yeah, well, when I did this, and I did this’. It sort of gets the ball. And we’re not wanting to just sort of talk about mistakes because you can’t learn, you can’t get better, can you? Unless you…

Scott: Within The Organizational Scan, there’s four dimensions. One of them is attitude to risk and failure. And in my limited experience of working within the NHS, which I will confess to, but that is—I think we spoke about this before the podcast, that is one of the sort of touch. But it is the only way to learn, to do things better, to do new things, do complex things, is to get on and do it. And the only way to learn is to admit to what the mistakes that are going on in those early stage, in that high complexity in order to address them, and resolve them and not make them again.

But because of the fear of being marked as a failure, marked down because you made a mistake, potentially even career limiting, that kind of the psychological, the mental model of vulnerability and admitting to mistakes is really hard to sustain. So that’s why I said, that’s why I put it with a health warning. It is the most powerful way to do it. But I do understand that it’s not always, if you haven’t got the safe space in the first place doing that, it’s like, ‘Well, not now, no. I’m walking naked into the lion’s den’. Who wants to do that?

Rachel: But it’s not impossible, is it? Because you hear stories of the military or the red arrows, they always debrief. You’re thinking of a pilot, if you make a mistake, that is a really life or death thing, just as in healthcare. But they do very detailed debriefs, don’t they?

Scott: Yeah, absolutely. And then I guess that’s once you start to get this working, you habituates. So you make that habit and a practice. And I don’t particularly like the expression, practice makes perfect, but practice makes permanent. So—and it becomes normal and we talk about our mistakes.

In Amy’s book, she talks about failure parties, and I wouldn’t use the expression, but let me let me just say, ‘F other parties, which team leaders instigate for their team, and they have a laugh, typically in a more relaxed environment, but they have a laugh about the fact that we all are who make the biggest mistake this month’. ‘It was me. Look, I did this and that didn’t work’, and all rest of it. And then all that angst, all that concern about admitting to a mistake, is just dissipated.

And again, in the book, there are some beautiful examples. Volkswagen, I think, is probably one of the most visible, organisational diesel gate failures, where nobody spoke up, nobody said that lots of people knew was going on but nobody spoke up. I worked extensively in financial services after the crash. And there was this concept of courageous integrity, ‘So, yeah, you down there, you need to be courageous’. Well, hang on. You’re not listening to me. All my courage, does it get me fired or emotional, my bonus or whatever? So, you have to take it one step at a time. But by introducing that vulnerability, you do start to change the culture and habituating that and getting people to join in, suddenly you start to get that positive energy of learning.

Rachel: Mm hmm. Yes. So true. There’s another example in the book isn’t there about Pixar. I know it’s in that book I read or somewhere else I read that after every time they’ve made a scene in a film, everyone sits down and pulls it apart, so that it can be made better.

Scott: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah. That is in the organisation. Yeah. So, for them. a creative process, it’s kind of we know—I’m working with a design team and a technology space at the moment, and it’s really interesting. I won’t name a company but they have the two levels of design review effectively. So they have a peer level design review where you all sit down and like Pixar, everybody criticizes and seeks to improve and is open to feedback, and that’s habituated and works really well. It then goes to the next level meeting whether the boss and the boss’s boss and the stakeholders in the whole organisation come and look at what’s being achieved.

And the first one is very psychologically safe, we measured it and we can see it as very psychologically safe. And guess what? The next level isn’t. So, bless them. The mission for them is to make this senior one as safe as this more junior one. And it is through that process that they’ll then be able to access the benefits of the senior one is these guys and ladies have perspective that the people who are doing the design don’t have. So it’s actually useful, but it has to be done in a constructive and psychologically safe way in order to be perceived and used and improve the product.

Rachel: Yeah, I think we definitely see that in healthcare where you actually have quite high levels of psychological safety among certain groups. Maybe certain staff members in a surgery or certain group member, and then as soon as you get to the level above when everyone hunkers down, becomes very defensive—yeah, I see that all the time.

Scott: Yeah. And again, it is often a given power from… As when you just go into that room, you suddenly feel more fearful because they are more senior, just because they are. They maybe thinking, it’s just good old friend. ‘Yeah, I just left my kids. I was doing their school homeworking tuition this morning. Here I am now in this meeting and I’m just me. But because I’m the boss of you, I have all this power, which I don’t really realize’.

So, it is a little mind game we play with ourselves. In that situation, it’s up to me, not just to be me, but to show vulnerability. So, to welcome people in. So, there are some little things that you can do, just checking in at the beginning of your meetings as human beings. And again, acknowledging and welcoming people who say, ‘Actually, I’m really tired. I’m really stressed, I got a real problem with X. Y isn’t working and maybe personal life, rather than work life’. So, you may think what’s completely irrelevant to this conversation, but just a couple of minutes check in for everyone. And we’re now human being, talking to human being, and all that status, and all those assumptions and kind of paradigms disappear. We can actually talk to each other as human beings, and that’s psychological safety.

Rachel: Yeah, that’s a really good point. And I think one forgets, the higher up you get in an organisation, you forget how it feels to be lower down. And so, I know lots of leaders who don’t feel the hierarchy. They say, ‘Well, there’s no hierarchy. We all get along really well. It’s fine’. And so they’re in a meeting, chatting, they don’t realize it that the people under them really do feel the hierarchy. And it might not be the leader’s fault, it just might be—but the leader just assumed that they don’t need to do anything extra to break that feeling. Where it’s actually maybe just a few well-timed words or a bit of self-disclosure or something like that will just break that ice and let people all know that this isn’t like that. It’s not one of those situations.

Scott: Yeah, no, no, no. Beautiful. Really, really, you’re exactly right. And interesting that there’s a distinction that I’ve been using with teams recently, is the difference between comfort and safety. And I think—and it shows up sometimes in the organisational council, the leaders are reporting high psychological safety, but they are misreading that for exactly as you described, they’re comfortable. They’re comfortable in this situation, they understand how this works. They’re in charge of this kind—no threat to them, per se. So, they’re comfortable. And they’re not thinking about safety, they’re thinking about comfort. So, I’m comfortable. And I don’t really care whether everybody else is comfortable or safe.

What you really want is a safe but uncomfortable environment. You want everybody to be safe and uncomfortable because it’s only in that discomfort do we start to trigger the necessary thinking to move forward. If everybody’s safe and comfortable, why do we bother? No effort is required. Everybody’s unsafe and uncomfortable, maybe more regularly experienced by a lot of people watching this. So, you kind of tune up the safety because there isn’t the comfort. So let’s be able to talk about it. Let’s face into the challenges with we’re dealing with and not protect our egos and our identities and allow ourselves to learn together because yeah, no matter how senior I guarantee you, you don’t have all the answers.

Rachel: 100% I love that thing about needing to be less comfortable and more safe. And in lots of GP surgeries I’ve been working with, they are unsafe, but very comfortable. And then they wonder why processes aren’t changing and they’re not getting things done and they’re not having the conversations that they need to have.

So, we’re running out of time, which is a real shame because we could talk about this for ages. If you have sort of three top tips for it for individuals who wants to increase the psychological safety in a team where they’re working, what would they be?

Scott: So as team member—so I think go back to the first conversation we had about that, but that catch yourself. When you’re getting that defensive thing. And that may be defensive, as in somebody who’s attacked you and you’re taking it personally or not attacked you, but give them some feedback and you’ve taken it personally. And so, you feel yourself leaning in to defend that. Or it may be, ‘I’m afraid to speak up because everybody else seems to know what’s going on here and I’m thinking I don’t think this is the right thing to do. But everybody seems to be going along with it. So how do I speak up’? So, catch yourself first.

Then that vulnerability—yeah, so lead with vulnerability. It’s just something, that’s a sentence that doesn’t make sense for a lot of people, to lead with vulnerability. But we’re all leaders in that situation. If you’ve got a question, if you’re unclear, then you need to lead the conversation to allow that clarity to be found for everybody, not just for you. And if it’s an innocent or naive question, it will be answered quickly and that will be great, but at least it will be answered.

And I guess the third and final one is seek positive intent. I avoided saying assume positive intent because that may lead you into a difficult situation but seek positive intent. In those situations, ‘How can I see that in some way this person is trying to be positive, is trying to move the conversation forward, trying to achieve something for our customers, clients, patients? So what is there and what is going on here that has positive intent and build on that rather than criticise what might not be so experienced so positively’.

Rachel: Yeah, I love that thing about seeking positive intent because I think that applies not just to psychological safety, but also to I think everything about how to manage people in the COVID pandemic. Because we just need to give each other extra rope. We need to assume that people aren’t trying to be annoying, they’re not cross with us. They’re probably not thinking about when we get that snappy email, it’s probably nothing to do with us. It’s probably everything to do with their own circumstances and they just didn’t mean it. And they didn’t want to upset us and people aren’t out—mostly—they’re not out to cause problems for you or be vindictive, whatever. Most people.

Scott: Yeah, no, no bigger, right. That someone said to me, there is a really long shorter fuse is that every year, it’s all a bit more frayed at the moment. And yeah, that’s showing up in every aspect of our lives and every transaction. So, I think, yeah, that’s a really good insight.

Rachel: Thank you. Well, those tips are really good, catch up getting defensive, be vulnerable and seek positive intent behind whatever anybody does to us.

Thank you, Scott. I had to get you back at some point to talk more about teams, because we’re all working in teams and when we’re in high stress jobs, the teams become high stress. And it can be that the difference between loving our work and absolutely hating our work. The team or the room can be so, so, so important. If somebody wants to contact you, find out more about your work, how could they do that?

Scott: Easiest is to email so scott.chambers@3ghr.com.

Rachel: Great. Do you have a website or anything like that?

Scott: www.3ghr.com.

Rachel: Brilliant. Brilliant. H-R dot com and find out more about that stuff. And the book we’ve been talking about is called The Fearless Organization by Amy Edmondson, it’s really good. There’s a lot of really good stuff in there. And I just encourage anybody who’s worried about this or experiencing psychological unsafety, is that a word?

Scott: Lack of psychological safety, yeah.

Rachel: Lack of psychological safety in their work, and we all do to some extent, just to read that and think actually, what small changes can I make today where I am to make this better for me? And when you make it better for you, you’re probably making it better for other people. So, really important.

So, thank you so much, Scott, and we’ll speak to you soon, hopefully.

Scott: Real pleasure. Thanks very much indeed. Appreciate the invitation. Take care, Rachel.

Rachel: Bye.

Scott: Bye.

Rachel: Thanks for listening. If you’ve enjoyed this episode, then please share it with your friends and colleagues. Please subscribe to my You Are Not A Frog email list and subscribe to the podcast. And if you have enjoyed it, then please leave me a rating wherever you listen to your podcasts. So keep well, everyone, you’re doing a great job. You got this.