Tell me. Do you shy away from difficult conversations? If someone in your team says something stupid, do you roll your eyes?
Be honest! Can your staff ask you anything without fear of judgement? This matters because it says a great deal about the culture in your business.
High performing teams and psychological safety go hand-in-hand. You don’t get one without the other. And to have psychological safety, you need a culture where everyone feels able to speak up and say what’s on their mind. You’ll only get that if you’re open and honest with everyone.
In my career, I’ve seen both sides of this coin. At Rackspace, the leadership team tended to avoid tricky conversations. We’d all read Patrick Lencioni’s ‘Five Dysfunctions of a Team’ but there was a fake harmony – an avoidance of conflict. That’s how most people are, whether at work or at home. Their default is ‘Don’t rock the boat’. Or ‘If you haven’t got anything nice to say, say nothing’. Sound familiar? But when I was MD at Peer 1 it was clear that our open, honest culture made a massive difference. It was pivotal to the transformation of our leadership team and ultimately our huge business success.
So why does it make such a difference?
Anything that strengthens relationships in a business is a good thing. Honesty and transparency build trust – an essential ingredient to any high performing culture. When I think back to my days at Peer 1, people often pointed out that it was very un-British. ‘Have you spent a lot of time working with Americans?’ they asked. This was because we banished the stiff upper lip along with that annoying British habit of not complaining directly but festering for days. Our people thrived in a meritocracy where anyone could challenge anyone else
A common mistake is to confuse confidence for competence. It’s a quirk of human relationships. People are often stunned into silence by extroverts. So the loud person who seems supremely sure of their ability will often dominate. You’re in a room with them. They say something you don’t agree with. But you feel isolated and you’re looking around, feeling like the only one. This is about power. Your people need to be able to speak truth to power. And you’ll only get that when your managers recognise that it’s authentic relationships, not power, that drives them forward.
Heated passionate debate that isn’t personal is important. It needs to happen. But it’s really hard. When I think of myself as a manager or a business leader, I often have to swallow my instincts. Particularly when staff say idiotic things. In any business where you’ve got inexperienced but enthusiastic people, this is going to happen. Someone will ask you a daft question and you think, ‘Have you bothered to engage your brain before asking me that?’ Over the years, I’ve tried to push through this with patience, in a way that doesn’t make the other person feel stupid. The last thing I want is for them to feel they can’t bring things up again. It’s important to harness the power of my smart people.
I’ve mentioned pre-mortems before. More than once. So if you haven’t introduced them yet, do it! They’re such a great tool. A good pre-mortem will remove any future blame from a team as it encourages everyone to come up with a reason why something won’t work before it happens. It builds an environment where this constant questioning and challenging happens all the time – it becomes second nature for everyone.
I’ve introduced pre-mortems to the team here at Foundry Farm. We have a big summit coming up on 15 September so, at our latest monthly meeting, we cast ourselves forwards to the day after. There’s been a disaster – what was it? What went wrong? Forward planning like this is incredibly useful.
Our ‘Cock-Up of the Month’ award at Peer 1 was legendary. We’d encourage team members to share embarrassing moments – both working and personal. This instantly built rapport and was a very good sign when people felt able to share. We used phrases like ‘There’s no failure, only learning’. Our aim was to make sure people ‘fessed up quickly if something had gone wrong and weren’t worried about any feeling of blame.
This is how you fix issues quickly before they mushroom into bigger problems. As CEO, recognise that mistakes are inevitable, particularly if you’re doing something for the first time and you’re travelling at pace. Actively avoid creating a blame culture.
According to Gallup, two-thirds of staff can’t recall recent praise or recognition. That’s just miserable! And yet it’s crucial to psychological safety. It’s a key element of the ‘Culture Canvas’ that I’ve started using with my clients. Get clear on the behaviours that matter to your company and start praising when you see people doing these great things.
I try to make a deliberate point of giving praise every day. It doesn’t come naturally to me. I have to work at it. But I know its transformational power – I’ve seen its effect so many times. It’s particularly good when you notice more subtle things like someone’s diligence in finishing a project on time – the unremarkable stuff of everyday working life. It’s easy to notice the big, dramatic moments, like someone working through the night to fix a problem, but you also need to notice when people are quietly doing their job well.
Why not take the temperature of your business by holding an open Q&A session? Tell your staff they can ask the leadership team anything that’s on their mind and make sure the answers are honest. If you get asked inane questions about opening hours or car parking, then you know that psychological safety is weak. It’s when you’re asked more difficult questions that you know you’re getting somewhere.
A first step might be to ask for anonymous questions, to start to build some glimmers of trust. But you want to get to a point where people feel comfortable asking anything in a public forum. And I mean anything. Salary transparency is a big one. When I say to clients they should publish all of their salaries, they go into immediate cardiac arrest. But why? Because they know there’s unfairness there. Or perhaps people feel their salary is more than their actual value. Secrecy in companies can be corrosive, particularly around this issue. So, take the opposite view. Only keep things secret when you have to.
To build a culture of honesty, your leadership team needs to model it first. Most importantly, they should agree that they won’t have any negative conversations about anyone else unless they’re in the room. Get them to work on confrontation and make transparent, open communication the norm. Monitor each other and don’t introduce it anywhere else until you’ve all agreed you’re doing it correctly. You’ll be amazed how it starts to filter out naturally to the rest of the organisation if you’re modelling it well. It will become the way you operate, every day.
Let me share another fantastic tool with you for building understanding in your teams – the ‘Stinky Fish’ exercise. Stinky fish is a metaphor for the things we carry around but don’t like to talk about. The longer you hide your stinky fish, the smellier it gets. It’s a way of getting people to acknowledge their fears and anxieties. Or things that happened in the past that the whole team can’t get past.
I send this exercise out early on with teams I’m coaching. People fill it out on their own and the feedback is anonymised. Once gathered together, the collection of stinky fish is pushed out to the whole team to discuss. This forces into the light the things that aren’t being talked about. The enormous elephant in the room. It’s a great way of getting to the root of a problem rather than treating the symptom.
A regular rhythm of daily, weekly and monthly meetings will also build understanding and psychological safety. Regular feedback and dialogue encourage discussion of issues before they get bigger. The daily rhythm is most crucial in my mind. A short, 10-15 minute chat at the start of each day can work wonders. Managers can iron out any stucks and check-in with their team, keeping communication flowing.
Personality analysis tools like CliftonStrengths and Myers-Briggs are really useful in my coaching relationships with clients. They highlight that we’re not all the same. Only last week, I was talking to a leadership team who’ve taken Myers Briggs through their company. The joy in their faces! They talked animatedly about the differences between introverts and extroverts. How they were looking at ways to get what they needed from introverts in particular. One of the team said, ‘Isn’t it the job of the introvert to speak up? Why should it be the job of the extrovert to make space?’ So speaks a true extrovert! Make sure you use these tools to help you run meetings and build psychological safety. Know that people’s strengths are different. Then you can give feedback in a non-judgemental way.
I often ask people why they don’t give more feedback. I can tell from their answers it’s more about them and how uncomfortable it makes them feel. Rationally they can see that if they gave that feedback, the person could get better. If it’s about something that directly impacts them, they have an incentive to give feedback. But when it isn’t, it’s hard. Even if they care about the person and want them to be the best version of themselves they can be.
My suggestion is to ask first whether it’s ok to give feedback. Always. You don’t know whether someone’s cat has just died or they’ve argued with their wife that morning. Check that it’s a good time to have this chat. And if they say no, don’t give your feedback anyway (how many times have I seen this!).
If you’re given the green light, tell them it’s going to be a difficult conversation for you to have. They’re more likely to be empathetic. They’ll realise that, whilst it’s hard, you’re doing it with their interests at heart. Then be straight with them about the problem e.g. when you do x, it makes other people think y or something similar. Handled in the right way, I find that people will often thank me for being honest. Then your job is done. Let the person digest what you’ve told them.
This is the essence of ‘Radical Candour’, a phrase coined by Kim Scott in her best-selling book. Her pivotal moment came when she was given brutally honest feedback by Sheryl Sandberg when she was working at Google. After a presentation that had gone well, Sandberg took her aside. She congratulated her but then told her she’d said ‘um’ a lot. To drive the point home, she said this made her sound less smart, even though she very obviously wasn’t, and suggested she see a speech therapist to fix it. When Kim reflected on this encounter, she defined her theory of radical candour – a skill that requires bosses simultaneously to care personally whilst challenging their employees directly.
I got an NPS result from one of my clients last week in response to a recent session. They rated it a 4. Not good. They said this email had been hard for them to write. It was even harder for me to read, believe me! But they mirrored how I’d felt the session had gone and I appreciated their honest feedback. It’s only in these moments that we learn and grow.
Dominic has spent 14 years working in sales, marketing and business management within the IT sector. He has held executive positions at Peer 1 Hosting, IT Lab and Rackspace. At Peer 1 he built the UK business to £30m run rate in 5 years. He won many awards for creating a great place to work. At Rackspace Dominic built the UK company from four to 150 staff, and increased annual revenues from £595,000 to £25 million in just four years. Under his management, Rackspace was recognised as one of the most outstanding workplaces in Europe, and won several service awards for its Fanatical Support TM. Dominic has a BSc in Agricultural and Food Marketing from Newcastle and a MBA from Sheffield Business School. Dominic is also a regular public speaker on creating great places to work and achieving continuous client satisfaction and an assessor on the Sunday Times Customer Experience Awards.