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Preparing Your Leadership Team to Keep It Real

Setting the Stage

An organization founded 50 years ago as a direct result of the Civil Rights Movement -- which recognizes a culture of inclusion starts by asking good questions, listening more, and calling out and correcting racial injustice whenever it occurs-- was struggling internally with those very challenges. A culture of inclusion is foundational to their work in the community.

Background Information

Although a core tenant is that of “Belonging: A place where people feel that their authentic self is welcomed and celebrated and where they experience a sense that they are where they’re meant to be and can bring their best self,” the CEO is concerned about how consistently the stated and demonstrated characteristic of belonging is experienced.

The Challenge

In the same way that every nuclear family is structured differently and has unique needs, every organizational family is structured differently and has unique needs. Oftentimes there is concern about discussing “open secrets” in terms of dysfunction that every team experiences to some degree at one time or another.

The CEO and VP of Talent & Culture determined that the leadership team itself needed an intervention of sorts to work through their own trust issues before addressing their internal Racial Justice & Equity framework that would ideally serve as the organization’s north star in terms of strategic planning.

The Approach

An assessment called the Psychological Safety Index (PSI) is the result of research conducted by Amy C. Edmonson and documented in her book The Fearless Organization. Key highlights of the book defines psychological safety, recognizes it as the signature trait of successful teams, and positions psychological safety as the gateway to success.

In this case, 15 out of 17 leaders completed the assessment and in a large group setting, participated in a high-level discussion around the results indicating opportunities in four dimensions:

1) Attitude to Risk & Failure

2) Open Conversation

3) Willingness to Help

4) Inclusivity & Diversity

While scores have significant meaning, greater emphasis is placed on the conclusions drawn about a team’s ability to cultivate psychological safety to the degree that people feel safe to excel in the four dimensions. After the initial group session, leaders were placed in cohorts for team coaching. Originally planned to include the CEO, COO, and CFO in each group, the CEO preferred to abstain hoping to ensure the other participants felt free to engage in “real talk.”

The Outcomes

During the 1-breath check in before coaching began, many participants admitted to being somewhat distracted. However, having the space to share their frame of mind and tell the group what they needed to be present before the discussion began was helpful and may be a potential best practice for beginning their own staff meetings. When we are aware of how people are showing up, we can resist assumptions about why they are showing up a certain way which can reinforce trust and enable us to assume best intent, even when things don’t always go as planned.

Three primary conclusions were drawn during the first series of cohort coaching sessions:

  1. Cohort #1 focused on Willingness to Help (90) because it was the highest score; discussions made the distinction between willingness to help, capacity to help, and ability to help.

  2. Cohort #2 focused on Attitude to Risk & Failure (79) because it was the lowest score; discussions linked back to Cohort #1 and the possibility that lacking the capacity and ability to help makes it less likely that people will reframe risks and failures as teachable moments when earnest attempts to help do not meet expectations.

  3. Cohort #3 focused on Willingness to Help (90) and Attitude to Risk & Failure (79) along with the associated factors of overload, fatigue, and concerns about letting team members down either by not being in a position to help or trying to help at the risk of failure to keep commitments.

The common themes, to some degree, among all three cohorts were:

  1. Impending burnout impacts working relationships for both intradepartmental and interdepartmental collaborations.

  2. Disparity between the stated and demonstrated ability to connect with each other due to remoteness caused by locations (physical distance) or workloads (psychological distance).

  3. Constant competing priorities cause angst during decision making out of concern about repercussions for the decision maker should the right decision in the moment be deemed as the wrong decision in hindsight.

  4. Everyone is feeling the same pressures, has the same concerns, and finds support through commiseration in the cohort which increases a sense of belonging during discussions.

The Insights

Notably, it was shared that participants felt unprepared in each cohort because they hadn’t received pre-work.  Considering that every group mentioned concerns about a willingness to help that often conflicts with the capacity or ability to help, this was explored as an opportunity to reframe what pre-work can be.

Participants were encouraged to consider their experiences, reflections, and ah-ha moments from the first session and their everyday work lives as pre-work.  And that consistently being more aware of their interactions, making journal entries, and reflecting on those entries as pre-work for the next session serves to cultivate habits that will be needed to mindfully participate in a follow-on session focused on Trust and Feedback.  This will be a critical next step in exploring and improving psychological safety among the executive leaders to reach the goal of increasing a sense of belonging across the enterprise which will extend to the providers they partner with, and the communities they serve.

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