1. Leave titles and egos at the door
Peter Skillman, a veteran of creative product design and engineering, delivered a 2006 TED talk where he introduced a marshmallow design challenge.
In his TED talk, he describes how over several months, he challenged students across different age groups across the world to build the tallest possible standing out of
twenty pieces of uncooked spaghetti
one yard of transparent tape
one yard of string
one standard-size marshmallow
The only rule was that the marshmallow had to be at the top of the standing structure. Interestingly, among the worst structures built were those constructed by business school students, who, on average, built not only the shortest structures but the least visually appealing and least stable structures.
Surprisingly, the group that produced the highest-standing structures with the more robust and visually diverse, and creative designs were, in fact, kindergarten students. On average, the kindergarteners built structures that averaged 26 inches tall, whilst the business school students built structures that averaged 10 inches or less.
Intrigued to understand this unexpected phenomenon, Skillman observed and analysed the behaviours and social interactions among the groups. What he found was that the business school students did a lot more planning and strategising, jockeying for power to understand who was in charge and trying to figure out if it was okay to challenge ideas.
The kindergartners, on the other hand, did not know or care who was in charge; happy to take risks, they quickly spotted when something wasn't working, made adjustments whenever necessary, and offered each other help.
Amy Edmondson, who is the Novartis professor of Leadership at Harvard Business School, explains psychological safety as "a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes."
2. Ensure all ideas are heard and evaluated equally
"There is no correlation between being the best talker and the best ideas." Susan Cain
The very best ideas and solutions often come from harnessing perspectives from individuals with different experiences and backgrounds.
Often, you'll find when trying to solve problems or coming up with creative solutions, teams default to brainstorming. Brainstorming definitely has an important role to play in the workplace; however, what you often find is that 80% of ideas generated come from 20% of the people in the meeting. This can often be compounded where ideas are being discussed remotely or by virtual teams.
An alternative way of encouraging all ideas and perspectives from all team members to be heard and ultimately get to the best ideas is to ask team members to write down their ideas on cards, which are then posted on a wall for the rest of the group to discuss and vote on.
3. Speak last in meetings
As the most senior person, you may feel compelled to either do the majority of the talking during team meetings or offer your ideas first to get the conversation going. However, consistently being the dominant voice in the room can have the following unintentional effects.
“The very best ideas and solutions often come from harnessing perspectives from individuals with different experiences and backgrounds”
You create what is known as the mirroring effect, where team members consciously or subconsciously gravitate to the person of authority in the room. Team members either default to either agreeing with everything you say or do not feel safe to challenge and offer a different perspective. Over time, this approach creates disengagement and stifles the richness of the discussion and idea-generation process you get from having diverse thinking and perspectives.
4. Encourage dissenting perspectives
In Patrick Lencioni's bestselling leadership book, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, one of the main reasons that teams often don't commit to decisions that are made in the room is due to a lack of constructive conflict and debate leading up to that decision. Not fully committing to the decision results in individuals lacking a sense of accountability for delivering on what was agreed, and ultimately this has a negative impact on the quality of the results.
Surrounding yourself with people who are willing to disagree with you, and challenge your perspectives and each other, not only allows you to make better and informed decisions but builds a culture of safety and trust where diverse perspectives are encouraged.
5. Replace blame with curiosity
During high-pressure situations, where there can be tendencies for tensions to be high and fuses short, this can lead to finger-pointing and blame both from the team leader and between teams. Over time, it has the effect of eroding trust and effective collaboration.
Dr. John Gottman's extensive research on resolving conflict highlights that blame and criticism inevitably and reliably escalate the conflict, leading to defensiveness and eventually to disengagement.
In a team that lacks psychological safety, these negative behaviours are even more prevalent. So it's important that leaders adopt a curious and learning mindset and approach, recognising that in most situations, they won't have all the facts. They need to be thoughtful of how they approach conflict and role-model the right behaviours to diffuse and enable teams to move forward.
For if you believe that you already know what the other person is thinking, then you are not ready to have a conversation.
The alternative to blame is curiosity, and one way to achieve this is by being deliberate about the language that is used during these situations. Specifically, language that signals curiosity, as opposed to emphasising blame.
Some examples of the type of language that can be used during these times of pressure include:
"Tell me more."
"How can I help and support you?"
"I imagine that there are multiple factors at play. Why don't we work through these together?"