4 min read

From Ambiguity to Alignment: The Role of Psychological Safety

Sep 3, 2021 10:43:45 AM

Have you ever driven a car with an alignment problem? If you have, you possess hidden insight into why psychological safety is so important within teams.

Let me explain.

If you’re driving a car with an alignment problem odds are you won’t notice anything wrong with the car when you are driving below a certain speed. The second you speed up however, the car begins to shake. Drive a bit faster and the car begins to shake more. At some point you will hit a speed where the entire car feels like it’s about to shake apart.

Teams operate the same way. If the team isn’t required to go very fast, misalignment between team members rarely results in friction. They’re not being tested enough for differences in opinion, communication, or work styles to trigger one another.

However, as soon as you need the team to go ‘faster’, requiring people to both interact with each other more and do so with less than perfect information, the friction that results will start eroding team cohesion. Annoyances become arguments. Arguments become fights. Fights become personal. Now an uneasy tension falls over the entire team as silos form and people begin avoiding one another.

And that’s simply when you need your team to go ‘fast’. Picture a situation where you need your team to go ‘all out’. Maybe you’re launching a new product or need to hit a revenue target by a certain date. Perhaps you’re responding to a disruption in the market or a new competitor. Regardless the cause, a small issue of misalignment now will make it feel as though your entire company is shaking apart, the moment you have no choice but to pick up speed.

So, what does all this have to do with psychological safety?

The answer to that lies in the definitions of a few key terms.

  • Psychological Safety: the belief a team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking such as providing feedback, asking questions, and owning mistakes.
  • Alignment: the correct positioning of something within a system.
  • Ambiguity: the quality of being open to more than one interpretation.

If you have multiple interpretations of why your company does what it does, how it should operate, or what success looks like, you cannot achieve alignment because none of the parts of the business will be positioned where they need to be.

Ambiguity thrives in psychologically unsafe teams because people are too afraid to question things they don’t understand. Differing opinions are not challenged for fear of reprisal. People do not ask for clarity on what the objectives are or how they could better achieve them for fear of looking ignorant or incompetent. Silence grows as safety erodes. Therefore, if you fail to establish psychological safety, you will fail to eliminate ambiguity. If you fail to eliminate ambiguity, you will fail to achieve alignment. If you fail to achieve alignment, your company will begin to ‘shake apart’ the more speed you gain.

While the logic of this is straightforward, addressing it can feel anything but. To help with this, I’m here to offer the only three norms you need to establish to create safety, thereby allowing ambiguity to be questioned and alignment to be achieved.

  • In-Group Behaviours: a person’s social identity is the collection of personal qualities that they display to others so consistently that they are considered to be part of one’s essential, stable self. When these consistent behaviours are ones that support the best interests of a group the individual is a member of, they are referred to as in-group behaviours. Through these behaviours, the person is showing the group they are ‘with them’, increasing the level of comfort and safety in the group itself. You must determine the in-group behaviours your team requires to deliver on your company’s mission and purpose, and then hire and performance manage all staff against them.
  • Feedback: maintaining alignment once you establish it requires feedback to know when you’re veering off course. The problem is criticism and feedback are often confused with one another. Criticism amplifies fears of being judged, eroding safety. Learning to properly frame feedback in constructive ways allows your team to eliminate criticism, restoring safety.
  • Conflict: conflict must be courted. Why? When a team first begins to focus on safety, they often overcompensate by avoiding conflict. The thing is, conflict is like cholesterol, there’s good and bad types. Learning to court conflict teaches your team how to have the healthy task-based conflict that drives performance while eliminating the unhealthy relationship-based conflict that kills safety.

96% of companies fail to see their 10th birthday. While there are many different reasons for this, what all of them share is the fact they’re all preventable with enough feedback. Fail to create safety, you fail to enable feedback, ensure you…fail. Create safety, and you set yourself up to be more than a cautionary tale to future generations of leaders.

You should also remember that while you are struggling with issues of alignment, so are your competitors. They have the same people, managing the same fears, facing the same consequences if they don’t. While your product may be what differentiates you from your competitors, psychological safety will be what actually separates you from them.

Shane Wallace

Written by Shane Wallace

Shane is the Founder & CEO of CultureSmith Inc. He works with leaders and teams of high-growth organizations to help them overcome the behavioural and emotional issues that prevent their growth. Leveraging the CultureSmith Growth & Sustainability Framework, Shane helps demystify the the theories of Psychological Safety, Emotional Intelligence and Servant Leadership to turn companies into places people care about.