Welcome to the exciting conclusion of “Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Psychological Safety but Were Afraid to Ask.”
Our generous expert, Alla Weinberg, CEO and Culture designer at Spoke & Wheel, has been patiently leading us beyond and through the buzzy frothiness that we (I) usually associate with Psychological Safety and into the deeply powerful and absolutely essential core elements.
In Part 1, we learned that psychological safety is more neuroscience than psychology (and required to be your smartest self).
In Part 2, we learned the first step to creating safety (and why corporate mandates are antithetical to the goal).
Today, we’re going where we need but don’t want to go – how to create a psychologically safe environment so everyone can thrive.
If Step 1 in creating Psychological Safety is verbalizing your emotions and understanding others’ emotions, I’m hoping Step 2 is easier.
Step two is relational intelligence.
There are three intelligences: emotional, relational, and systems
Relational intelligence is about understanding how to connect with different people, being aware when disconnection happens, and then acknowledging and repairing it. That last part is the most important because, without repair, there’s no safety.
Are you saying that saying, “I’m sorry” is essential to building psychological safety? Because I would much rather ignore the issues and move on. Or, better yet, pretend it never happened.
Nice try. But you know as well as I do that people are messy, and when we come together, there’s tension and conflict, and someone will get hurt or make mistakes. It’s normal. It’s okay as long as you know how to recover, repair, and heal.
The issue isn’t the conflict but how we handle it and whether we can repair it. I have a diagram of a relationship, which is a circle of connection, disconnection, and repair. We go around this circle just like breathing is inhaling and exhaling. Relating, connecting, disconnecting, and repairing is what a relationship is.
OK, step 2 is relational intelligence which requires repairing relationships, so how do I do that? Bonus points if I don’t have to admit to being wrong.
Not only do you have to admit that, but you also need to take responsibility for your impact, not just your intentions. Intentions are great, but without action, they don’t mean much.
When apologizing, we tend to try to explain ourselves. For example, we say, “I didn’t say anything in that meeting, and I’m sorry, but that wasn’t my intention, and I wanted to, but I had my own issue.” Instead, we should say, “I didn’t say anything in that meeting, and I’m sorry.”
When you apologize, don’t say “but.” To repair a relationship, you must take responsibility for your actions and their impact. Saying “but” negates all of that.
(head now on the desk because this is a lot to take in): I’m afraid to ask what Step 3 is, but I will practice verbalizing my feelings and ask anyway. What’s Step 3?
You’re doing great. This is a lot, and it’s ok that you feel overwhelmed.
Step 3 is systems intelligence, which focuses on the relationships within an organization that gives rise to its culture. Systems thinking is about understanding how structures, policies, processes, and relationships interact to create a greater whole,
Systems thinking! We’re getting back to left-brained stuff now. I’m feeling better.
Yes, and since connection is core to psychological safety, systems thinking tells us that we must fundamentally rethink how people work together by centering connection.
How do we do that?
We must reinvent, innovate, and rethink how we work together.
Lack of safety leads to power struggles, walls, and departmental rivalries, creating divisions and “othering.”
Hierarchy doesn’t align with connection, but shared leadership does. Hierarchy erodes trust because you need manager approvals, beg for budgets, or are told to prove your worth to get a seat at the table.
Silos are another problem because they lead to turf wars and people making decisions to protect themselves or their team rather than do what’s best for the greater good.
Look, I love challenging the status quo, but you’re suggesting that we burn it all to the ground and start over.
(Laughing) I don’t lead with that. When I work with organizations, I start with meetings.
Most meetings focus on work topics like status, decisions, and updates. But where are the meetings where we discuss emotions, share personal stories, and express hurt feelings? Everything shifts when we center connection.
Isn’t that called therapy?
Organizations value information, right? Emotions are information.
Emotions reside in our bodies, but in many organizations, the focus is on the intellect. It’s as if the head is the only important part, and the body is merely a vessel to transport the head from meeting to meeting.
And that brings us full circle to why psychological safety is mostly neuroscience. Our body houses our nervous system, where we feel safety or the lack thereof. So, when people talk about bringing their whole selves to work, I mean our entire body, not just the intellect. Our bodies contain wisdom and information that we often overlook and undervalue, yet this is where the crucial information resides to create psychological safety.
We don’t think of emotions as information. We think of them as signs of weakness, and you can’t be weak and successful.
It’s a lot of fear because how we’ve worked for the last 50 years gave us an illusion of certainty. Acknowledging that there is no certainty and that we’re in entirely uncharted territory is scary, and there’s a fear that everything will fall apart. We think the business won’t survive if we do it the other way.
I respect that fear. It’s okay to be afraid. But if we acknowledge that all of this comes from fear, we will be open to new ideas or thoughts. For organizations that want to innovate, they must change how they work. You can’t keep doing the same thing and expect different results. You need to innovate your approach to work.
Thank you so much for all of this. You’ve shared so much. Some of it was hard to hear, but I think that’s also a sign that it’s important to hear. Any last words of advice?
Give yourself and others permission to be human beings again. Not robots or cogs, not human resources, but to be human beings. That includes our bodies, our emotions, our messiness, and our relationships with each other.
If you would like to learn more about Alla and her work, please visit her firm’s website, www.spokeandwheel.co, and definitely download a FREE digital copy of her book, A Culture of Safety: Building a Work Environment Where People Can Think, Collaborate, and Innovate
or “Why Mandating a Return to the Office Destroys Safety”
In last week’s episode, we learned that psychological safety is more neuroscience than psychology and the huge role our nervous system plays in our experience of safety.
This week, we’re going deeper into our nervous system and how we can use our understanding of it to influence our psychology.
I’m sensing I can’t think my way to safety. So, can I fix my nervous system to feel safe and smart?
This is where I go beyond Dr. Amy Edmondson’s definition of psychological safety to incorporate neuroscience and how our nervous system works.
Our nervous system has three states:
Immobilization or the freeze response, as you felt, is often accompanied by a sense of overwhelm
Fight-and-flight when you try to either end the conversation or become more aggressive, resistant, and push back on exploring other alternatives.
Rest-and-Digest when you feel safe, social, and connected to the people around you
This third state sets humans and mammals apart from other living things. Communicating and connecting serve as a survival mechanism and represent a safe state for our nervous system. When we communicate and connect, our tribe looks out for us and keeps us safe from threats like lions or unfriendly tribes.
So, the answer is to foster more profound connections among human beings, which requires going well beyond our work roles and activities.
Does it require hugging? I knew it would require hugging.
Don’t worry, hugging isn’t mandatory.
We, as individuals, have a strong desire to connect and communicate, but it doesn’t necessarily require physical proximity. Being physically together doesn’t guarantee anything.
But what about the push to return to the office? There’s even research to support executives’ claims that physical proximity is essential to culture, innovation, and connection.
Not only does physical proximity not guarantee anything, but being forced to return to the office causes more harm than good.
From a safety perspective, our nervous system doesn’t want to feel trapped. Being forced back to the office activates our flight-or-fight response and erodes safety. Because of how our nervous system perceives choices, the more choices people have, the safer they feel.
Even though I’m tempted to ask questions about building psychological safety at the team or company level, I want to stay on the individual level for a moment. We talked about how I wasn’t consciously unsafe during a phone call. How can I tell when I feel unsafe if I’m not conscious of it?
There’s physical science behind what happens when you feel unsafe. Your heart rate increases, you might hold your breath, and your body may tense up. Your thoughts might blank out, and your peripheral vision may narrow as your body prepares for fight or flight. Your body doesn’t differentiate; it treats any threat as a threatening event.
On the other hand, feeling safe doesn’t mean you lack emotions or feel calm. Feeling calm and internally relaxed signifies safety, but it’s more than that. When your nervous system is regulated, your emotions align with the situation. They’re not an extreme overreaction or underreaction. There’s congruence. If your emotional response matches the situation, your nervous system and brain feel safe.
That makes sense, but it’s not easy. We’re trained to hide our emotions and always appear calm. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard and said, “Be a duck. Calm on the surface and paddling like hell below it.”
And that is not congruent. But congruence doesn’t mean you act out like a toddler, either.
Step one in creating safety is calming your nervous system by verbalizing your feelings. If you say, “This conversation is overwhelming for me. I need a break. Let me get some water,” you’re safe and regulated at that moment. There’s nothing wrong.
But when you can’t verbalize what you’re experiencing and freeze, that’s a sign you’re no longer in a safe state. Your body starts pumping cortisol and adrenaline, preparing for whatever it perceives as a threat.
Even if you feel overwhelmed, if you’re aware of that feeling and can take some breaths or a short break and return to the conversation, you’re in a safe, regulated state.
I can’t imagine admitting to feeling overwhelmed or asking for a break! Plus, I work with so many people who say, “I feel overwhelmed, but I can’t take a moment for myself. I need to plow through and get this done.”
It takes a tremendous amount of self-awareness. If you want to create safety and emotional intelligence, you must know what you’re feeling and be able to name it. You also need to sense what others are feeling and understand your emotional impact on them.
For example, if you say, “I’m feeling overwhelmed right now,” and I respond calmly and slow my cadence of speech, your nervous system receives the message that everything is okay. However, if I’m in “fight or flight” mode and you’re overwhelmed, we’ll end up in a chaotic and unproductive cycle.
Self-awareness and understanding are essential to safety. Unfortunately, many organizations I speak with need help with this.
Stay tuned for next week’s exciting conclusion, 3 Steps to Building a Psychologically Safe Environment or The No-Cost, No-Hug Secret to Smarter Teams
Using only three words, how would you describe your company?
Better yet, what three words would your customers use to describe your company?
These three words capture your company’s identity. They answer, “who we are” and “what business we’re in.” They capture a shared understanding of where customers allow you to play and how you take action to win.
Everything consistent with this identity is normal, safe, and comfortable.
Everything inconsistent with this identity is weird, risky, and scary.
Your identity is killing innovation.
Innovation is something new that creates value.
Identity is carefully constructed, enduring, and fiercely protected and reinforced.
When innovation and identity conflict, innovation usually loses.
Whether the innovation is incremental, adjacent, or radical doesn’t matter. If it conflicts with the company’s identity, it will join the 99.9% of innovations that are canceled before they ever launch.
Your identity can supercharge innovation.
When innovation and identity guide and reinforce each other, it doesn’t matter if the innovation is incremental, adjacent, or radical. It can win.
Identity-based Innovation changes your perspective.
We typically think about innovation as falling into three types based on the scope of change to the business model:
Incremental innovations that make existing offerings better, faster, and cheaper for existing customers and use our existing business model
Adjacent innovations are new offerings in new categories, appeal to new customers, require new processes and activities to create or use new revenue models
Radical innovations that change everything – offerings, customers, processes and activities, and revenue models
These types make sense IF we’re perfectly logical and rational beings capable of dispassionately evaluating data and making decisions. SPOILER ALERT: We’re not. We decide with our hearts (emotions, values, fears, and desires) and justify those decisions with our heads (logic and data).
So, why not use an innovation-typing scheme that reflects our humanity and reality?
Identity-enhancing innovations reinforce and strengthen people’s comfort and certainty in who they are and what they do relative to the organization. “Organizational members all ‘know’ what actions are acceptable based on a shared understanding of what the organization represents, and this knowledge becomes codified u a set of heuristics about which innovative activities should be pursued and which should be dismissed.”
Identity-stretching innovations enable and stretch people’s understanding of who they are and what they do in an additive, not threatening, way to their current identities.
Identity-challenging innovations are threats and tend to occur in one of two contexts:
Extreme technological change that “results in the obsolescence of a product market or the convergence of multiple product markets.” (challenges “who we are”)
Competitors or new entrants that launch new offerings or change the basis of competition (challenges “what we do”)
By looking at your innovations through the lens of identity (and, therefore, people’s decision-making hearts), you can more easily identify the ones that will be supported and those that will be axed.
It also changes your results.
“Ok, nerd,” you’re probably thinking. “Thanks for dragging me into your innovation portfolio geek-out.”
Fair, but let me illustrate the power of this perspective using some examples from P&G.
You are a rolling stone, and that means you gather no moss! You read the September issue of HBR (and maybe last week’s article), tossed out your innovation portfolio, and wove yourself an innovation basket to “differentiate the concept from finance and avoid the mistake of treating projects like financial securities, where the goal is usually to maximize returns through diversification [and instead] remember that innovation projects are creative acts.”
Then you explained this to your CFO and received side-eye so devastating it would make Sophie Loren proud.
The reality is that the innovation projects you’re working on are investments, and because they’re risky, diversification is the best way to maximize the returns your company needs.
But it’s not the only way we should communicate, evaluate, and treat them.
Different innovation basket views for different customers
When compiling an innovation basket, the highest priority is having a single source of truth. If people in the organization disagree on what is in and out of the basket, how you measure and manage the portfolio doesn’t matter.
But a single source of truth doesn’t mean you can’t look at that truth from multiple angles.
Having multiple views showing the whole basket while being customized to address each of your internal customer’s Jobs to be Done will turbocharge your ability to get support and resources.
The CFO: What returns will we get and when?
The classic core/adjacent/transformational portfolio is your answer. By examining each project based on where to play (markets and customers) and how to win (offerings, profit models, key resources and activities), you can quickly assess each project’s relative riskiness, potential return, time to ROI, and resource requirements.
The CEO: How does this support and accelerate our strategic priorities?
This is where the new innovation basket is most helpful. By starting with the company’s strategic goals and asking, “What needs to change to achieve our strategy?” leadership teams immediately align innovation goals with corporate strategic priorities. When projects and investments are placed at the intersection of the goal they support, and the mechanism of value creation (e.g., product, process, brand), the CEO can quickly see how investments align with strategic priorities and actively engage in reallocation decisions.
You: Will any of these ever see the light of day?
As much as you hope the answer is “Yes!”, you know the answer is “Some. Maybe. Hopefully.” You also know that the “some” that survive might not be the biggest or the best of the basket. They’ll be the most palatable.
Ignoring that fact won’t make it untrue. Instead, acknowledge it and use it to expand stakeholders’ palates.
Then place each innovation in one of three buckets based on its fit with the organization’s identity:
Identity-enhancing innovations that enhance or strengthen the identity
Identity-stretching innovations that “do not fit with the core of an organization’s identity, but are related enough that if the scope of organizational identity were expanded, the innovation would fit.”
Identity-challenging innovations that are “in direct conflict with the existing organizational identity.”
It probably won’t surprise you that identity-enhancing innovations are far more likely to receive internal support than identity-challenging innovations. But what may surprise you is that core, adjacent, and transformational innovations can all be identity-enhancing.
For example, Luxxotica and Bausch & Lomb are both in the vision correction industry (eyeglasses and contact lenses, respectively) but have very different identities. Luxxotica views itself as “an eyewear company,” while Bausch & Lomb sees itself as an “eye health company” (apologies for the puns).
When laser-vision correction surgery became widely available, Bausch & Lomb was an early investor because, while the technology would be considered a breakthrough innovation, it was also identity-enhancing. A decade later, Bausch & Lomb’s surgical solutions and ophthalmic pharmaceuticals businesses account for 38% of the company’s revenue and one-third of the growth.
One basket. Multiple Views. All the Answers.
Words are powerful, and using a new one, especially in writing, can change your behavior and brain. But calling a portfolio a basket won’t change the results of your innovation efforts. To do that, you need to understand why you have a basket and look at it in all the ways required to maximize creativity, measure results, and avoid stakeholder side-eye.
It’s that time of year. The summer sun is beating down harder than ever. The grass is fading from green to brown, and no amount of watering seems to be enough. School supply lists hit your Inbox as Back to School sales fill your mailbox.
Yep, it’s almost Strategic Planning & Budgeting season.
You’ve been through this before, so you know what a strategy is (a set of choices and actions to get you closer to your long-term goals). You know why you need one (set common goals, create shared understanding and responsibility, align key stakeholders, inform priorities and decisions, enable your team to be proactive).
But do you know how to create a strategy that gets used?
No, I’m not talking about a process (though that is important). I’m talking about the experience you create and the expectations you maintain for your team as you develop the strategy.
Earlier this week, a client and I talked about this. We were preparing for a strategic planning offsite, one that we vowed would be different from previous strategic planning efforts that were somewhat successful (a new idea was launched and has since become an essential part of the organization) but left the team with lingering frustration about the process and skepticism about this one.
As we shared our thoughts and I scribbled notes, themes emerged. The next day after the themes were presented to the nearly 50 people in attendance, the head of the group raised his hand. “You’ve just described the I Love Lucy approach to strategy.”
Now, I love a good pop culture reference, especially one that requires a bit of history. But I did not get this one. As I scrunched my face in confusion, he explained, “It’s Ay yi yi yi yi!”
And thus, the I Love Lucy approach to strategy was born.
If you want to create a successful strategy, one that gets you closer to your long-term goals despite an uncertain and changing environment, how you create it must be:
Inclusive: Use the IKEA effect to your advantage and give everyone in your organization a voice. Different voices bring different perspectives to the process and help you avoid groupthink. Research from BCG indicates that “organizations that engage a broad group of internal and external stakeholders in their strategy development efforts yield better results than organizations that leave strategy in the hands of a small, central team.”
Illuminating: In the same way, it’s easy to ignore the softball-sized dust bunny under the bed until your mom comes to visit, it’s easy to ignore the parts of the business that aren’t broke but aren’t in an ideal state until strategic planning season. Your process needs to shine a light on all the nooks and crannies of your business, revealing all the opportunities and flaws to be addressed.
Innovative: You would never write a strategic plan that makes your business worse, but are you writing one that makes it better? In most cases, and often for very sensible reasons tied to incentives and metrics, teams write strategic plans for steady and safe growth. But there’s no such thing in unsteady and uncertain times. If you’re not thinking about what’s possible, you’re not planning to achieve your long-term objectives.
Internalized: A common entertainment trope is a villain who monologues for so long that the hero can escape. So you know who else monologues? Managers talking about strategy. And yes, everyone is looking to escape. Don’t be the villain, be the hero and create a strategy everyone can remember and repeat.
Implemented: The most useful strategic plan I ever saw was in a binder being used to straighten a wobbly table. It was useful, but not in the way its creators intended. If no one acts on your strategy, you just made a great table leveler.
For best results, I also recommend chocolate during the process and Vitameatavegamin after (or during but outside of work hours)
What are your recommendations for a good strategy development experience, a successful strategy, or an I Love Lucy marathon? Let me know in the comments below.
What if a tool had the power to delight your customers, cut your costs, increase your bottom line, and maybe double your stock price? You’d use it, right?
That’s precisely the power and impact of Service Design and service blueprints. Yet very few people, especially in the US, know, understand, or use them. Including me.
Thankfully, Leala Abbott, a strategist and researcher at the intersection of experience, innovation, and digital transformation and a lecturer at Parsons School of Design, clued me in.
What is Service Design?
RB: Hi, Leala, thanks for taking the time to talk with me today.
LA: My pleasure! I’m excited about this topic. I’ve managed teams with service designers, and I’ve always been impressed by the magical way they brought together experience strategy, UX, and operations.
RB: I felt the same way after you explained it to me. Before we get too geeked up about the topic, let’s go back to the beginning and define “service.”
LA:Service is something that helps someone accomplish a goal. As a result, every business needs service design because every business is in the service industry.
RB: I’ll be honest, I got a little agitated when I read that because that’s how I define “solution.” But then I saw your illustration explaining that service design moves us from seeing and problem-solving isolated moments to seeing an integrated process. And that’s when it clicked.
LA: That illustration is from Lou Downe’s talk Design in Government Impact for All . Service Design helps us identify what customers want and how to deliver those services effectively by bringing together all the pieces within the organization. It moves us away from fragmented experiences created by different departments and teams within the same company to an integrated process that enables customers to achieve their goals.
Why You Need It
RB: It seems so obvious when you say it. Yet so often, the innovation team spends all their time focused on the customer only to develop the perfect solution that, when they toss it over the wall for colleagues to make, they’re told it’s not possible, and everything stops. Why aren’t we always considering both sides?
LA: One reason, I think, is people don’t want to add one more person to the team. Over the past two decades, the number of individuals required to build something has grown exponentially. It used to be that one person could build your whole website, but now you need user experience designers, researchers, product managers, and more. I think it’s just overwhelming for people to add another individual to the mix. We believe we have all the tools to fix the problem, so we don’t want to add another voice, even if that voice explains the huge disconnect between everything built and their operational failures.
RB: Speaking of operational failures, one of the most surprising things about Service Design is that it almost always results in cost savings. That’s not something most people think about when they hear “design.”
LA: The significant impact on the bottom line is one of the most persuasive aspects of service design. It shifts the focus from pretty pictures to the actual cost implications. Bringing in the operational side of the business is crucial. Building a great customer journey and experience is important, but it’s also important to tie it back to lost revenue and increased cost to serve
Proof It Works
LA: One of the most compelling cases I recently read was about Autodesk’s transition to SaaS, they brought in a service design company called Future Proof. Autodesk wanted to transition from a software licensing model to a software-as-a-service model. It’s a significant transition not just in terms of the business model and pricing but also in how it affects customers.
If you’re a customer of Autodesk, you used to pay a one-time fee for your software, but now you are paying based on users and services. Budgeting becomes messy. The costs are no longer simple and predictable. Plus, it raises lots of questions about the transition, cost predictability, control over access, managing subscriptions, and flexibility. Notice that these issues are about people managing their money and increasing costs. These are the areas where service design can truly help.
Future Proof conducted customer interviews, analyzed each stage of the customer journey, looked at pricing models and renewal protocols, and performed usability studies. When they audited support ticket data for the top five common customer issues, they realized that if Autodesk didn’t change their model, the cost of running software for every customer would increase by 40%, and profit margins would decrease by 15% to 20%.
Autodesk made the change, revenue increased significantly, and their stock price doubled. Service design allows for this kind of analysis and consideration of operational costs.
How to Learn More
RB: Wow, not many things can deliver better service, happier customers, and doubling a stock price. Solid proof that companies, and innovation teams in particular, need to get smart on service design. We’ve talked a lot about the What and Why of Service Design. How can people learn more about the How?