By now everyone has heard of Project Aristotle, Google’s ground-breaking quest to discover the chemistry of high-performing teams. To cut a long story short - and if you don’t know the story, it’s well worth looking up - an extensive study revealed that the number one factor in predicting team performance was not education, IQ or experience, but psychological safety. When people know that they’re able to speak up and be listened to without fear of being ignored or disdained, that’s when you see them at their best.
Of course, this research was predicated on a traditional team scenario: groups being able to come together and work face-to-face on a regular basis. The candour that we project in person is an important ingredient in creating that safety. But it’s not so easy to get together in 2022. While some are back in the office full-time, many have taken the chance to institute or request hybrid working. Frankly, we’re together less than we used to be, never mind the fact that our colleagues are just a Zoom call away.
Who’s worrying about what?
But for all that we see less of each other, we show more - both consciously and unconsciously. The blurring of lines between our working and personal lives is becoming ever more noticeable. There’s so much more here for managers to parse. Do some of my people need more time with their families? Are they looking after a sick child or partner? Does that mean the non-parents will feel that they’re expected to take on extra work? What’s fair? It isn’t only the pressures that come with the work, or the situation, or the changes COVID has wrought - it’s our response to them. How are we supposed to feel about this? If someone else has more on their plate, does that trump our own experience? Are our own concerns petty and unreasonable?
And for all that the employees feel the effects of this most keenly, it’s the managers who need to make sense of the maelstrom. We’ve talked elsewhere about the impossibility of separating our working and personal lives, even before the pandemic brought the office into our living rooms. A manager’s instinctive reaction may be to ask for more info. HR’s may be to wonder whether managers have the skillset to have these more complex conversations. But the good news is that the antidote remains the same: regular, open, people-centric conversations.
Creating a safe space to share
First of all, it’s not about knowing more. Managers don’t need new skills to talk with sincerity, and they certainly don’t need to embed themselves in their people’s lives to understand the pressures of a sick parent here or a child struggling at school there. What they do need to do is to create the environment in which their people feel safe to talk. Yes, it’ll mean that more topics will be on the table for discussion, but the point is that we all see them through the same lens. We’re all trying to get the job done. We may need to share a little more to explain our specific circumstances, but we have the same target: to support our team in delivering.
This will not happen overnight - unless you already happen to have brilliant, honest relationships with your team already - and is, obviously, a two-way street. Managers can help this along by setting the example: sharing their own challenges, the effects they’ve had on objectives and workflow, and how they’ve surmounted them. Not every manager is happy to appear vulnerable in front of their team, and how this is done needs to be finessed from person to person. But when you boil all this down to its constituent parts, it’s a simple exchange of trust. We all have struggles. We all need to work together to get past them.
Guiding good intentions towards inclusivity
Many workers will have genuinely missed office culture. Perhaps it’s the energy of having everyone in the room together; perhaps it’s the social get-togethers. I do feel sorry, in particular, for younger people who are missing out on the collaboration and togetherness of working closely day to day. But a well-intentioned remark - “I wish we saw more of each other” - can have a double-edged effect. For one, it’s a simple wish to spend more time working in each other’s company. For another, it’s a guilt-laden reminder that they’re spending too much time at home.
Again, managers can only lead by example. So beware those open-ended “Wouldn’t it be nice if…” comments., Focus on specifics, and always offer support and encouragement. Compare “We missed you in that meeting yesterday” with “We missed your clear-headedness in that meeting yesterday. I know you’re struggling with X, so if there’s anything I can do to support with that, please let me know.” One is open to all sorts of interpretations. The other shows how the object of the sentence is valued, their challenges are understood and the manager has their back. Remember: it may be impossible to build towards a perfect world here (we’re humans, we’re messy and complicated, so isn’t it always?). But managers can show that they’re supportive and receptive. They can communicate their intentions by being clear, thoughtful and understanding.
It’s worth reminding ourselves that this human-centric approach is far, far more than a nice-to-have: it is, as Google’s research reminds us, the most important predictor of high performance. And although everyone - managers included - will benefit from regular, frank conversations about wellbeing and objectives, this is an essential ingredient for empowering your top performers. People need to feel that they can speak out; that they can share an opinion without fear of it being dismissed or ignored. It gives your best people the environment and confidence to do their best work. For that reason alone, this makes sound business sense.
It’s easy to make the mistake of thinking that it’s the big things - the pandemic, or our families, or our health - which push us out of a psychologically safe space. But it’s far more likely to be an accumulation of the minutiae: a comment here, a misinterpretation there. Strip this back and what you have is a failure to communicate, and there’s only one remedy for that. To talk more, more often, with more frankness and more clarity. Share your concerns. Strive to find good answers to them. Above all, do it together.