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Our Sense of Safety is Directly Related to Our Levels of Relationships

A few years ago, Google published their studies on how teams with a high degree of psychological safety outperform teams that have lesser degrees of safety.

This led to many learned articles on what psychological safety entails and how to achieve it. Often, it sounds quite complicated, but not always. I wrote a simple version here.

The research breaks psychological safety down into four key components:

  • Tribe (A sense of belonging)
  • Expectations (Are they clear?)
  • Hierarchy (Can I say what I think?)
  • Autonomy (How much influence do I have on “how” I do my job?)

In simple terms, that means it's important that everyone feels included, that you set clear expectations, and that you try and limit the surprises. There shouldn't be an excessive focus on authority and positions. Finally, the ultimate motivator for your team is if they get to have a say in how they do their work, not what they do—that's a management decision—but how they do it.

But we can actually simplify this even further.

Psychological safety means that the relationships among all team members is at a high level. When relationships are solid there is trust, so we feel safe.

When we feel safe, we do our best work because our brain is not preoccupied with survival.

There is no real need to make it more complicated than that.

But first, we need to agree on what we mean by relationship.

Edgar Schein has this definition:

A relationship is a set of mutual expectations about each other’s future behavior based on past interactions with one another.

Meaning, your relationships are a result of how you showed up in this world until now!

Second, we need a way to talk about relationship levels. Edgar Schein uses this scale, which I like a lot:

  • Level Minus 1 (Total impersonal domination and coercion)
  • Level 1 (Transactional role and rule-based supervision, service, and most forms of “professional” helping relationships)
  • Level 2 (Personal cooperative, trusting relationships as in friendships and in effective teams)
  • Level 3 (Emotionally intimate total mutual commitments)

As you can see we need to be at level two or above in order to have productive and safe relationships. This clashes with what I hear from many managers who have the opinion that being a professional manager means maintaining relationships levels at level 1, no more nor less.

Well, in my view, they are wrong.

I believe that all team leaders worth their salt should be should be asking themselves two things:

First, to what extent do I and my colleagues feel safe on this team?

(Not because you should be touchy-feely and all that, but because it has a direct relationship to your team’s ability to "perform!")

Here’s a simple test you can take. If you have the guts for it, have your team members take it as well. Then compare notes.

Second, what are the things that I and each of my team members need to be aware of in order to develop at least Level 2 relationships with each other?

Well, it so happens that you are in luck because here comes Mike's ABC of developing healthy relationships. 😉

  • Actions: What you do, and maybe more importantly, what you don’t do sends a strong signal to the people around you—a signal that is much more powerful than any words you might use. Remember that we judge ourselves on our intentions and others on their actions. Over time, everything you do or decide not to do will provide pattern on which I will base my trust in you.
  • Behavior: How you chose to show up. Are you above or below the line? Are you stable and predictable or volatile and erratic? But more than anything else, are you here? Are you present when we talk during our meetings? Or is it clear that most of the time you are somewhere else?
  • Conversations: What is the quality of our conversations and how often do we have them. Marcus Buckingham in his great new book says that as a team leader, you can have as many people reporting to you as you can manage to have a one-hour heart-to-heart feedback conversations with—weekly!

Okay, I admit that was the short version of the ABC of building great relationships. But as I already mentioned, I’m in the process of developing a series of training modules under the banner of The Art of Working with Others that will explore in much more detail how when can improve our skills at this.

The Art of Working with Others
If you would you like to review the first module of my Working with Others training once it’s ready for free—well, almost for free—because I would appreciate some feedback in return. That will help me improve in the early stages. Just leave your name and e-mail address here.


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Mike Hohnen, MBA is a coach, trainer, author and public speaker who supports leaders, managers and their teams in implementing the principles of the Service Profit Chain.

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