How to Create a Culture of Safe Accountability

Author Date March 20, 2020 Read 5 min
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In today’s world, it’s important to create a culture that is psychologically safe, a culture where people feel safe speaking up with questions, thoughts, ideas, mistakes, and concerns. When this is lacking, you run the risk of not innovating, not retaining employees, and potentially missing something game changing.

As a leader, you need your teams to speak up and to feel safe enough to be willing to ask tough questions, offer ideas, express concerns, and share with their teams. Without this, your teams may not innovate as effectively as they would otherwise, and you may encounter preventable business failures that could have been avoided had voices been heard early and often.

When people do not share their suggestions for improvement or their wild ideas for new features, then the team, the project, and the company lose out.

To make it safe for people to speak up, try the following ideas:

1.     Don’t mistake silence for agreement.
It’s natural to assume the room — especially in virtual meetings — has reached a consensus when you don’t hear any dissention, but this can be deceiving. Allow time and space for people to absorb the decisions being made and organize their thoughts. Encourage discussion by asking questions.

2.     Recognize that new initiatives come with uncertainties and risk.
It’s important to publicly acknowledge feelings of uncertainty at a leadership level so the team feels supported and safe navigating through any turbulent or unsettling times. Emphasizing these complexities is like giving permission to the team to feel uneasy, but at the same time lets them know their feelings are valid and supported. Identify any risks and productively discuss them as a group.

3.     Constantly ask focused, open-ended questions to encourage discussion.
For example, ask your team, “What do I not know?” or “Who has a different point of view?” instead of “Seems like we are on the right track, don’t you think?” Try not to ask leading questions that contain the answer you want to hear (e.g., “We’re on track, right?”).

Do anything you can to welcome voice and input. By building an environment that is psychologically safe and holding teams accountable to perform at a high level, you are dramatically increasing your chances for success. Getting individuals to perform at a high level means they must be very motivated and very engaged with clear understanding of the goal they are trying to achieve. This is where true collaboration and innovation happens.

One key trait of high-performing teams is that people feel they are a part of something larger than themselves that matters at a higher level. This is motivating and emboldens them to try new things and take new risks. Every person on the team must know that the work they are doing, no matter their role, is part of something meaningful to the team, to the company, to society.

As a leader, it is your job is to connect the individual to the larger sense of purpose. This can require some creative thinking, but it is worth giving each individual team member a connection of their work to a larger goal. Making this connection can help instill a sense of pride in the individual that what they are doing is making a difference and has a clear purpose.

The job of leaders is to harness the potential to achieve great things, but that can only be done if others are willing to follow.

To get teams to follow, there are three key things to help facilitate that relationship:

1.     Be vulnerable first.
If you want others to share ideas, talk about mistakes, or bring up tough subjects, you’ve got to be willing to go first. Model this behavior and your team will follow.

2.     Recognize all the things that you don’t know.
To encourage collaboration, approach the team with questions like “I don’t know, what do you see?” or “What do you think?” Open the discussion with these questions and then be silent while the discussion evolves.

3.     Own your mistakes.
When you make a mistake, acknowledge it, own it, and learn from it publicly. When a leader is not afraid to outwardly admit failure, a feeling of psychological safety is created, and unconscious permission has been given to the team to do the same. If a member of your team makes a mistake, be gracious with your reaction. Try not to respond with anger or disappointment. Doing so may dampen that team member’s feelings of safety and they may feel less open to come forward in the future. Instead, respond to failures with empathy, understanding, and curiosity.

Another thing leaders can do to create psychological safety is to allow for space and time to reflect and learn. Carving out time each week to learn and share is critical. When time in projects is short, retrospective-type meetings are often the first to be skipped. I believe this is short-sided. It’s a leader’s job to identify a time when people can come together to take stock of the current situation in a thoughtful, disciplined way.

Giving the team time to discuss things that went well, things that need improvement, and the opportunity to recognize team members’ hard work helps to facilitate a safe space and creates a bonding environment.

Becoming proficient at moderating a retrospective meeting is a valuable skill every leader should strive to master. Provide a time to have constructive discussion where issues are addressed directly, and conversations are productive. Take inventory of meetings on your calendar, and ensure they are safe spaces for creating and innovating.

Some red flags for meetings include those with too many items on the agenda and meetings where the same people do most of the speaking. If you see these patterns in your meetings, reassess how you can step back to encourage safe discussion and innovation by all involved.

The job of a manager is not to have the right answers, it’s to ask the right questions. — Peter Druker

This piece of advice has never been more relevant than it is today. Be thoughtful about your questions and challenge your teams to reflect on their previous weeks to look for ways to improve. Ask a question like, “Did everything go as well as you’d hoped?” Sometimes, just sparking a small thought in someone’s mind can grow into an invaluable insight.

Good questions focus on what matters, invite careful thought, and give people room to respond. Make sure you ask something that is sufficiently focused and adequately open-ended as to promote healthy discussion.

Leaders create a culture of psychological safety by instilling a higher sense of purpose in what teams are doing, reinforcing and creating an environment where participation is fostered, and responding efficiently and thoughtfully to the teams’ engagement. In turn, highly effective teams are created, and excellent work is produced.

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