Fostering Psychological Safety and a Growth Mindset
Liz Guthridge: Leadership coach, consultant, and facilitator at Connect Consulting Group where she is Managing Director. Liz is a Master Corporate Executive Coach (MCEC) who helps leaders improve their thinking, communication, and performance.
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How can we create workplaces where every voice matters, everyone thrives and finds meaning, and change and innovation happen naturally?
Liz: I think this is one of your toughest questions because it really requires a lot of behavior change. Ideally, it will work best if people have a growth mindset. Everybody in the organization and individuals have mindsets as well as organizations have mindsets. And if you have more of a growth mindset in which you believe you can change, you're constantly learning; failing is okay.
You also want to hear other points of view that help foster a place where people will feel like their voice matters and can speak up. You've got that psychological safety. I would also say that just because you have a growth mindset doesn't mean you also have psychological safety.
People really have to work on psychological safety. This idea is that you can speak up without feeling that you will be ridiculed or made fun of or have retribution against you. So it's a safe and brave place to speak.
Leaders think that once they set the parameters for psychological safety, it's one and done. It's not.
You need to continue to work at it. Then the other thing I think leaders tend not to appreciate fully is that even if they provide psychological safety, team members may not be role modeling that. Team members can inadvertently or intentionally shut down other team members. This often happens with the dynamics of gender equity, power plays, etc.
And the other thing, we humans are complicated. For example, if I don't feel included, I don't feel included. You have to make it clear that I am part of the group where it's very easy to feel excluded because that's just how our brain works. Our brain goes to being fearful and often assuming the worst.
The idea is that you encourage a growth mindset by ensuring that you provide psychological safety. That's what will be helpful to get a workplace where every voice matters, and everybody thrives.
What does it take to get an employee's full attention and best performance?
Liz: Attention is one of those things that I find interesting in that we just assume we can get people's attention, and we can't. For example, you have to be able to cut through the clutter. If I want to get your full attention, I have to be able to take intentional action.
It often helps to say your name and talk about something emotional to pique your interest. Then I can start moving into something more detailed.
If you want to get my attention, you've got to make a similar effort to ensure I'm focusing on you. And are you sure I'm not distracted by certain things? Is it a time of day that will not work for me? I remember years ago, I was in an organization where I worked with somebody in an office next to me who always wanted to grab people, especially mothers, at the end of the day as they were running out the door to pick up their kids at daycare.
And if you know anything about daycare, they close the doors at certain points. So he wanted to give them something new to do, and they couldn't really concentrate because they were so needing to get out the door to pick up their kid. He was just creating a bad situation for both of them by doing it that way. What I'm talking about is very specific.
However, I think we've got so many things going on in the workplace that it's not ideal for getting people's attention. Attention is very delicate because you really need both parties to pay attention at the same time.
I have a dog I absolutely adore, and he's a therapy dog, a working dog, and he's now seven. He is a master at getting my attention because of what he will do before we go on a walk. He's 100 pounds, so he's pretty big. He will use his body weight to get my attention. He loves to go for walks, but if I put on his leash and he does not budge, I know something is up. And what I've discovered is often two things. He knows we need his water bottle for a good walk. He's also learned we need my phone because if I don't have my phone, we're often coming back to get it. So he will look to make sure that I had those two things with me before we go out the door..
You can learn a lot from these animals and recognize their actions to get your attention. We won't be licking our coworkers by any means, but we need to do something to get all of us focused because we all carry a cognitive load with all these things going through our heads.
Also, consider this idea of continuous partial attention, which has been a problem for years. I think it's getting worse. It's this concept that you're constantly scanning your environment, which means you're really paying attention to nothing. So deep, deep focus is really hard to get.
What do people really lack and long for at work?
Liz: My work is with knowledge workers, so I will continue on that theme. The knowledge workers want a sense of purpose. We especially see the sense of purpose with millennials and Gen Z.
Also, people value autonomy and how I can do my best work.
Autonomy is something that became much more apparent to people during COVID and the lockdown because people were working out of their homes and had much more freedom and accountability for how they set up their work day. They started to learn if they were morning people, evening people, or whatever, and how to really make their work day work for them rather than against them. For those of us who have our own businesses, or have a lot of autonomy already, we were already aware of that. But now we've got so many more people who now appreciate how they can adapt the way to work to play to their strengths and preferences rather than conform to a standard that doesn't fit them. I think that's one of the fights against returning to work in the office.
I've got a coaching client, and they have one child who's in kindergarten now, and her husband is a professor, so he has a fair amount of freedom regarding his workday. And one of the things that they have been really loving as a couple is they will take an outdoor walk before their child comes home from school. So it's an opportunity for them to exercise , plus they can talk about adult things without the child around. And so when her office said we're going to forget about our new "work from anywhere" policy and require people to come back to the office, that to her was, "Oh, my gosh, I'm going to lose my walk with my husband. I'm going to miss that." And I still think at some point, Steve Jobs may become as well known for the value of walking meetings as he is for technology because, yes, you can't do a walking meeting with five or six people, but two people, it can really be effective.
And so here they understand you can't multitask, but you can multipurpose. So they're walking and talking, which worked well for them. So the prospect of having to give up individual autonomy hurts.
Employers must consider other things to compensate people for because that autonomy is valuable.
What is the most important question leaders should ask employees?
Liz: The most important question is about what barriers can I help you overcome? What's standing in your way to get things done?
Even if you have psychological safety, sometimes human nature is unsure.
You often may not want to ask that or even think about asking it. But if somebody were to tell you, "What barriers can I get out of your way? What would be helpful for you?" You've got an answer.
Bill: How can leaders make the employee feel comfortable answering a question where they may not feel comfortable speaking what they really feel or think?
Liz: That's an interesting question, so what a lot of times we as coaches suggest is that you ask the question, and then if you feel like people have given you a very edited response or a pat response, you can say kind of with a smile, "Let me ask you that question again. What do you really think?"
What is the most important question employees should ask leaders?
Liz: I think employees should ask leaders, where are we going and why? I also think if you feel like you really need something to do your work, that's helpful to ask leaders as well. And certainly, if employees feel that they're in danger of stagnating or not getting the opportunities they want, they need to ask about that.
What is the most important question we can ask ourselves?
Liz: Am I being the person I want and need to be, and am I being true to myself? Now, it helps to ask if you feel like you really do know yourself. That is the self-awareness that we were talking about a minute ago. If you don't have that self-awareness, ask yourself, is this how I want to show up? Is this what I want to be known for?
How do you define leadership?
Liz: I define leadership as leaders needing a vision of where they're going as an organization and where they want to take their people. They've got to articulate that in a way that is compelling for people and allows people to ask questions, to have a conversation about it, and not just be a speech. And they also need to take action to bring people along on the journey.
I think the other thing that's really important these days is making sure they're involving people in meaningful ways and giving them a chance to contribute to the conversation because people do not want to be just told what to do these days.
People do not want to be lemmings. They want to feel involved, play a role, contribute, and do the right thing.
And also, leaders have a real role in helping develop the next generation, especially maybe not even the next generation, even their immediate successors.
Here in the US, I thought Bob Iger was a terrific leader for Disney. Yet the individual he wanted, Bob Chapek, to take over from him a few years ago flamed out. You can see the difference now that Iger is back. He is a stronger, more powerful, and more effective leader than Chapek. But I also wonder, is Bob Iger doing what he needs to do to identify a successor? He can't be the only one who does it, but he plays an important role in helping develop.
Leaders have to deal with a lot of stakeholders. Still, their employees are important in that development piece because that's going to the organization's health. It's a sustainability matter, quite frankly.
How important is it for leaders to pay attention to their inner development?
Liz: For leaders to lead today, you must plumb your inner self. You have to become much more self-aware.
You're going to be much better with your emotional intelligence and how you interact with people, be able to get their perspective, not just assume you know what's best because everybody can be very different.
The other thing that's really valuable today is knowing your values, what you stand for, and what's your North Star. That can be a bit challenging if your personal values do not align with your organization's values.
But hopefully, there will be a lot of overlap because I think for so many situations these days, you have to look at yourself and consider your values to help guide you as you act.
One of my colleagues and I have been working on a women's leadership program to help women become the leaders they want to be rather than what their male bosses think they should be. Even today, many of the men they interact with say, "Oh, just be like me." But they're not like them.
So for everybody in the program, 17 women, we did a values exercise, and that proved so helpful for them because they realized instinctually several of them had been working with their values already. And now being able to lean into them intentionally gave them a lot more confidence. And that confidence really came through this early this spring when, unfortunately, they had, like so many companies in the US, had to do a layoff on the tech front, which is unpleasant for everybody.
They could look into themselves and their values to say, okay, how do I want to talk about this with the people I need to lay off and those who are staying on? And they said, as difficult as it was, knowing that I could lean into my values was really helpful, and I would do it my way.