We work with all types of teams whose skill sets are diverse and they are part of many industries, but some things transcend every enterprise. One of these things is how there’s a question -too often it’s an unspoken one- in the eyes of many team leaders once they comprehend what Psychological Safety is and why it’s crucial to succeeding in business -the newer they are to leadership positions, and oftentimes, the more skilled they are in their particular area of expertise and the more technical, the more often this is true- “When does the people work stop?”, “When is Psychological Safety “sorted, and in place” and we can focus on other things?” and ultimately “How much of it can we consider “done” and forget about?”.
The answer is: “Never” and “None”. It’s not a static state. It needs constant and daily attention. It needs more work, time and thought than any of the regular jobs we have been called to do. It’s a continuous effort.
The mere fact that we wonder about that, means we find it hard. And why shouldn’t we? Very few of us have ever been trained in recognising human emotions and even fewer have been told that matters and it’s a leader’s main job. And even if we had been told that it would have been as a print-out at some leadership workshop, while the company we work for carries on like it’s 1999, filling in our time with hundreds of other tasks, never even asking how the people work is going and never rewarding us for doing it.
With team leads overworked and expected to lead as an afterthought, not as a primary to-do, is it any wonder that we have them glare with an accusatory “So let me get this straight – you want me to continuously monitor my team’s psychological safety over their other KPIs, you want me to be a servant leader and an inspiring coach over a scrum master or PM and you want me to spend every waking moment wondering about the well being of my team, read their mind and ensure they stay purposeful, honest, courageous and therefore performant – correct?” and the implication there is “Who’s gonna do my day-job then?”.
That in itself is indeed the hefty part of the issue – the scarcity of companies that acknowledge that is the only day job of the team leader, that everything else they know and do is replaceable and should be done by others, freeing them for this, the most important of tasks. But the flip side is that the lack of company permission oftentimes also serves as an excuse for lack of personal responsibility on the matter.
As the year draws to a close, no matter how we feel about New Year’s Resolutions on paper, we all can’t help but make some -at least implicitly and privately, if not devise mood boards armed with glitter and stationary- and to anyone who is in a leader’s position, -no matter how accidental or intentional- those resolutions must include ways in which they want to better themselves.
Every NYR list should have “something blue, something old, something borrowed” so maybe something for the body – “New gym regimen”? “Eating better”?; something for the mind – “Make learning an everyday habit”? “Read more”?; and something for the team aka something to succeed and be productive – “Develop and grow a people practice”.
If that’s even a resolution or one of the epics on our own internal list and there’s goodwill to build solid habits around doing the people work, many smaller tickets can find their way on the backlog:
“Do all the 1-on-1s”;
“Help their courage”;
“Ensure everyone opens up about some personal stuff”;
“Make everybody speak up”;
“Catch every instance of impression management and track its root cause”;
“Help each team member understand emotions better”;
“Keep an eye on their flexibility”;
“Ensure their morale is up and regularly offer thoughtful and genuine praise as well and open criticism”;
“Monitor and increase failure appetite”;
“Get fanatical about continuous learning”
“Competitively remove blockers”
“Be sure everyone is curious and probing”;
“Keep yourself positive”;
“Model vulnerability aka courage”;
“Keep being intensely emotionally involved and remind them you need them to be so as well”;
“Obsess about your team’s “bubble” – the “family” and so many more.
Here’s a good test: if you read the examples above and you felt slightly giddy about new ideas on how to get better at this people topic and thought “hey, I can stick some of those on my backlog, work out what there is to do to accomplish them with the team and what a difference they would make to what we can achieve together and how we’ll grow, 2020 will be awesome!” then you’re on the right track and you’re one of those lucky humans poised to thrive in this upcoming times of AI, fast technology and different business models where only the more “Counsellor Troy” of us will stay employed alongside machines, but if you read it and rolled your eyes or dreaded it, then you have work to do.
I’m sure no one reading this is afraid of a little work though. Here’s a tip that will make it slightly easier: focus on your empathy first. If you can honestly diagnose how much you have and then increase that and manage to become open and genuinely interested, then all of the above to-do’s will feel so much less like a chore and so much more like the decent (and thankfully efficient and productive) thing to do.
So yes, it is undoubtedly true that most organisations may feel as if they certainly don’t give us the tools, time or permission to do the people work – that’s unfortunate and ultimately will come to bite them as an enterprise which won’t be able to compete in this VUCA world-, but as an individual who’s a team leader of any sort, we can and we should focus on our people practice regardless and sort out own tools, earmark our own time and ultimately give ourselves enough permission to do the people work anyhow because the one new year’s resolution that matters to both our teams and ourselves is: “Build a Leader’s CI/CD Pipe For The People Practice”.