By now you’ve likely heard of Google’s project Aristotle, a study of hundreds of Google’s teams with the objective of discovering why some succeed while others don’t. One of the most significant findings from this initiative is that “psychological safety” is crucial for team success.
Where “psychological safety” exists, there is a team climate characterized by interpersonal trust and mutual respect in which people are comfortable being themselves. The benefits of a team high in “psychological safety” are numerous. For example:
- Better problem solving
- Enhanced innovation
- Less conflict and drama
- Faster learning curve
- Reduced turnover
- Greater engagement
- More goal attainment
Are you doing all you can as a leader to foster psychological safety? Or, could you be inadvertently sabotaging psychological safety? Are you making choices that enhance or choices that detract from psychological safety?
THE PERIL OF BINARY THINKING AND COMMUNICATING
One subtle, and yet insidious, way many leaders and team members erode psychological safety is with binary thinking and communicating. What is binary thinking and communicating? It is where things are seen as having only 2 options. These options are often polarizing. For example:
- Feeling like something is either good or bad.
- Believing a plan will either work or not work.
- Believing a person is either right or wrong.
When we engage in binary thinking, we often then will communicate that way. We will say things like:
- That is a bad idea.
- That won’t work.
- You are wrong
Binary thinking and communicating can shut people down. It can make them feel immediately judged. It makes it difficult for them to trust that the next time they offer an “out of the box” recommendation they won’t be quickly slammed down. It can make them feel like their perspective isn’t valued.
It is easy to understand how being told “that won’t work” can erode the psychological safety of the person offering the idea along with everyone else present. However, it is more complicated to understand how being quickly told “that will work” can also erode psychological safety.
Imagine how it would feel if you spent a substantial time preparing to pitch a solution to a problem and not be given time to fully explain the benefits or impact. It might make it seem like the leader is disinterested or is simply looking to move on to the next agenda item. While perhaps not as dangerous as quickly saying “that won’t work,” being too quick to agree also has negative potential.
When we, as leaders, engage in binary thinking and communicating also is evidence that we are unable or unwilling to see the complexity of situations. Boiling something down to a simplistic “that will work” or “that won’t work” can be akin to “throwing the baby out with the bathwater.” Rarely is something ALL good or ALL bad. Rarely is a solution COMPLETELY without merit.
Binary thinking and communicating can often mean that potential great solutions to problems never come to fruition. It can mean that mean that potential goes unspotted and leveraged. It can mean that team members may not feel safe in the future sharing something risky or unorthodox and sometimes risky or unorthodox are the keys to success (disruption anyone?)
Recently, I was speaking to a group of engaged and committed leaders about the power of psychological safety. (Thank you, Serco and Kent Brown for the opportunity to work with your fabulous leaders.) As we talked about ways leaders often unintentionally shut people down and erode psychological safety, it became clear that the solution to avoiding binary thinking and communicating is simple.
The power of curiosity in the workplace is indisputable. The business case for curiosity is so strong that is it the cover story of the current Harvard Business Review. Curiosity is the antidote to binary thinking and communicating. Staying curious about ideas, solutions, or potential implementation and not rushing to judgement allows potential to be fully explored before decisions are made. Curiosity is, indeed, a leader’s superpower.
While accepting that curiosity is the antidote to binary thinking and communicating is simple, implementing curiosity as a communication habit can be more challenging. It can be challenging because it requires us to become aware of our current (perhaps binary) communication habits and patterns. Self-awareness always takes effort. The next step is to replace the old habits and patterns with new, more curious habits and patterns.
Questions, by their very nature, unleash a leader’s curiosity superpower. Questions, in particular open-ended questions, are the easiest way to counter binary communication.
Think forward to your next team meeting. Can you commit to judging less (binary) and questioning more? Here are a few sample questions you might choose to incorporate into your conversations:
- I’m curious. Tell me more about how you envision this?
- Help me to understand. What else do I need to know?
- What do you think are the strengths (or drawbacks) of this approach?
- How will we implement this?
- What potential challenges do you see?
- Where else might we be able to use this?
- Let’s explore this more. Who do you think will be impacted by this approach?
Obviously, the possibilities are endless. As an executive advisor, I encourage my clients to make a list of “curious questions” they can incorporate into their business conversations. By intentionally making a list of 5-7 “go-to” questions that can be asked in a variety of situations, they increase the likelihood they will ask those questions and stay out of the binary.
Of course, it is important when you question to be aware of your tone of voice and other nonverbal cues. However, if you are genuinely curious, your questions will open up conversations as opposed to putting people on the defensive or making them feel like they are being interrogated or that there is one “right” answer.
STAY OUT OF THE BINARY. UNLEASH YOUR CURIOSITY.
Where psychological safety is present, team problem solving, decision making, improvement and business growth can thrive. Staying out of binary thinking and unleashing curiosity can enhance psychological safety. Great leaders choose to make curiosity part of their relentlessly positive communication style.
Pamela Jett, CSP is a leadership and communication expert based in Phoenix, AZ. Delivered with energy, humor, and a dash of neuroscience, her latest keynote presentations, The Relentlessly Positive Leader and The Relentlessly Positive Communicator, provide audiences of all types new, evidence-based tools to overcome adversity and challenges. Find out more at Relentlessly-Positive.com.