Using a Leadership Coaching Style to Promote Psychological Safety in Teams

Dr Laura Delizonna’s article (High Performing Teams need Psychological Safety. HBR, August 2017) focuses on the need for psychological safety in developing high performing teams citing Google’s key findings from its extensive two-year study on team performance.  Paul Santagata (Head of Industry at Google) concluded from the study that the highest-performing teams have one thing in common: psychological safety, which promoted risk-taking, speaking your mind and creativity - the types of behaviour that he saw resulted in the market edge.

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Delizonna is a highly respected Executive Coach. She explores how fragile psychological safety is.  For example, how the amygdala (which generates the flight or fight response in the brain) is activated when a threat by a boss, colleague or worker is detected. Our evolutionary survival instinct shuts down higher-level strategic thinking and broader perspective as we respond to the provocation.

The focus of coaching is often individual change and transformation.  So, how can coaching work effectively with the brain? First, brain research reveals that focusing on problems or negative behaviour just reinforces those problems and behaviours. Therefore, the best coaching strategies focus on the present and future solutions.  

Rock and Schwartz (The Neuroscience of Leadership. Strategy and Business. May 2006) argue that brain science research tells us a lot about why change is difficult and what approaches can work best.   Schwartz argues that our brains are built to detect changes in our environment and are more sensitive to what they perceive as negative change. Any change that constitutes a threat can trigger fear causing the brain's amygdala to stimulate a defensive emotional or impulsive response. These two areas compete with and direct brain resources away from the prefrontal region, which is known to promote and support higher intellectual functions. This pushes us to act more emotionally and more impulsively: our animal instincts start to take over.

Leaders with good coaching skills can generate more solution-oriented behaviours, motivation and positive emotions such as trust, confidence, and feeling safe. A situation or environment that could be perceived as threatening (such as a difficult performance review or unwelcome change) can be diffused with the appropriate approach.  Delizonna point to Barbara Fredrickson’s research (University of North Carolina) on the broaden-and-build mode of positive emotion, which allows us to solve complex problems and foster cooperative relationships. The finding was that we become more solution focused, open-minded, resilient, motivated, and persistent when we feel safe.  

Santagata said “There’s no team without trust.” Oxytocin is most well-known for its role in trust and decreasing fear. It has the effect of suppressing the activity of the amygdala which detects threats and processes fear. High levels of stress blocks oxytocin release. In a trusting relationship oxytocin is released. This is where Oxytocin levels in our brains rise, eliciting trust. This is a huge factor in team success. Leaders, like Santagata at Google, who work on creating this sense of psychological safety can expect to see higher levels of engagement and trust, increased motivation to tackle difficult problems, and better performance.

Santagata gives us this quick formula for building psychological safety – which is predicated on the coaching style of leadership:

·         First, approach conflict as a collaborator, not an adversary. When conflicts come up, avoid triggering a fight-or-flight reaction by asking, “How could we achieve a mutually desirable outcome?”

·         Speak human-to-human, but anticipate reactions, plan countermoves, and adopt a learning mindset, where you’re truly curious to hear the other person’s point of view.

·         Ask for feedback to illuminate your own blind spots

John Whitmore in Coaching for Performance notes that “Awareness and responsibility are better raised by asking rather than telling.”  Leaders using coaching skills can generate greater trust, a sense of safety and more positive outcomes even in the most challenging situations.

Author: Dr Veronica Lunn

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Veronica has had significant experience working with large and small organizations, industry groups and individuals, providing workshops, seminars, forums and one on one coaching. With a strong background working with local government and state government, as well as the private sector, Veronica is an accredited Enneagram practitioner and teacher and brings high level facilitation and relationship skills to Griffith Consulting.

For more information about Veronica or the Enneagram, please contact us here, today.

Breegan Gloury