Unlocking Leadership Potential

In 2012, in their ongoing pursuit to understand how to build the perfect team, Google launched an internal project called Aristotle. Whilst Aristotle was not short of funding, data or researchers, after studying 180 groups, they still couldn’t find an answer.  

More than proficient at pattern finding, Google analysts looked at everything from personalities to education, from co-location to the number of high performers on a team, but they remained flummoxed. There seemed to be no remarkable correlation between a group’s performance and the characteristics of its members. However, as described in a 2016 New York Times  article, the Aristotle researchers were increasingly interested in “group norms”. These are how team members behave and the spoken or unwritten rules of how a team functions. After going back to the drawing board, they began to understand that “what really mattered was less about who is on the team and more about how the team worked together”. But the data was still somewhat amorphous; for example, everyone gets airtime, and team members are good at figuring out and responding to how people in the team are feeling. At about the same time, lead researchers were learning more about ‘psychological safety’, and this understanding gave the team the final piece of the puzzle.  

In late 2014, Aristotle researchers presented their data to over 50,000 Google employees and published their findings on what makes an effective team. Top of the list was ‘psychological safety’, and it still is.  

What is Psychological Safety? 

Psychological safety is a concept first formulated by Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson in a journal article published in 1999, in which she characterises it “as a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject, or punish someone for speaking up.” 

Fast forward to the present day, and there is now a considerable and growing body of research on how a culture of psychological safety correlates to an organisation or team’s performance. It is essential for fostering inclusion and harnessing the benefits of diversity. How does it look? Like a team of people who trust and respect each other, who collaborate and feel able to take risks and fail together.  

How leadership is changing and the implications for you 

The increasing complexity and speed of change has required flatter organisational structures, that are leaner and well networked, to provide agility and adaptability. Rather than traditional hierarchical structures, there is a move to distributed leadership throughout teams. Promises of growth to shareholders rely on a workforce that can respond to changing competitive and customer dynamics with independence and creativity. The connection between diversity and innovation is well established, but difference alone is not enough to benefit from varied thinking. Leaders must couple diversity with authentic inclusiveness, developed through creating psychological safety.

This changing business context and rapid increase in uncertainty hasn’t just resulted in a renascence in recognising the role of psychological safety. There has been a corresponding evolution in the theory and practice of leadership, seen in approaches such as ‘Inclusive, ‘Compassionate‘, ‘Servantor ‘Leader as Coach‘, to name a few. These approaches typically challenge the traditional role of leading from the front. Instead, there is a focus on enabling others through leadership behaviours such as trust, empathy, curiosity, enquiry and vulnerability. 

Leading using these behaviours, helps create psychological safety, which in turn enables others. And the evidence is mounting that if you can flex your style towards enabling others, you are more likely to build better teams and help your organisation achieve growth and outperform its peers 

Of course, most leaders instinctively know this and understand that they will be more effective if they can lean into helping people thrive in this way. Indeed, many leaders cannot understand why they over-index on behaviours that they suspect are less productive for them and their teams in the long term. 

What’s in your way? The role of your emotions in leadership 

Most of us understand that ‘evolved’ leaders can adapt their styles and access a range of leadership behaviours, although there are tensions and paradoxes between them. Take, for example, the continuum between controlling and trusting. A controlling approach is efficient and effective in the short term, ensuring that the job is done to the proper standards. But for team members, it can be debilitating and create feelings of inadequacy. A culture of control stifles innovation and promotes conformity. 

In contrast, trust motivates and enables people to be creative and thrive. However, it brings risks; for example, it can slow you down in the short term. Indeed, a trust-based approach may be entirely inappropriate in a crisis. But how many situations are the type of crisis that require a ‘command and control’ style? The sophisticated leader can not only access a range of behaviours but also evaluate which is the most appropriate to employ in the moment.  

Assuming you want to be the kind of leader who creates psychological safety for your teams, and knows what that looks like, and are capable in your best moments of accessing a range of leadership styles, what is getting in the way? Even acknowledging the tensions, many of us are baffled as to why we aren’t the type of leader we would like to be more often. Our lack of agility in approach is commonly more pronounced at times of stress. Indeed, it is when we are under pressure and arguably need to bring our most sophisticated leadership skills to bear that doing so is the most challenging for us. It can become difficult to choose our behaviour because our emotional response hijacks our brains and impairs our ability to respond appropriately. Perhaps you have found that, just at the moment when you possibly should be empathetic and curious, you default to a style of controlling and telling. For example, when a team member comes to you with the news that an important project is seriously off track, do you think first, even fleetingly, of the implications for yourself? How does this impact your response? These are hard-wired reactions built out of our evolutionary need to survive. Unless we can manage the impact of these internal responses, they can continue to drive our behaviours.  

To fully unlock your leadership potential, you need to be able to access the full range of leadership behaviours when you need them most. To do that, it may be beneficial to gain insight into your emotional drivers and how to manage them. 

Your emotional systems

Dr. Paul Gilbert, the founder of compassion-focused therapy, calls our brains “tricky”. This is because of the three human motivational systems rooted in an evolutionary perspective. The first is the threat system that motivates us to avoid harm, and the second is the drive system that encourages us to achieve and seek resources. The final system is our soothing and contentment system. It has two parts: our capacity to seek out and ask for help and accept it and our ability to soothe ourselves.

To understand the motivational systems and the power of balancing them in context, consider a typical morning at work. Let’s say you have an early, potentially problematic meeting with that peer or team member who tends to make you feel irritated, angry, or anxious. They may be a competitive peer or an underperforming team member you fear is risking your reputation. Bring that person to mind now.

Now imagine that on your way to the meeting, someone you respect takes you aside. They let you know how much they enjoy working with you and the recognition by the board of your performance. They confirm that you are in the company’s plans for several years ahead, and nobody can imagine the landscape without you. This individual is also warm towards you, and you feel a strong sense of belonging. After this conversation, you go straight into that meeting with your problematic colleague.

The chances are you can sense already that you will handle the meeting much better. Why is that?  

The conversation with the respected colleague would have probably made you feel safer. When your threat system is deactivated, you lower your defences, and it’s much easier for you to be collaborative and connected to others, crucially including those individuals you don’t particularly have an affinity towards or like. You may find yourself understanding your colleague’s position more easily, being patient, seeing their strengths rather than weaknesses or seeking a win/win situation. 

Advancements in the science of our mind and body have allowed us to understand more of the neuronal circuits associated with stimuli and physiological responses. Your threat or safety-seeking system arguably remains the most powerful driver of your physiological responses and behaviours. Remember, your mind does not distinguish between perceived and real danger.  

The response to an activation of our threat system is automatic, and your body is pre-programmed to engage the sympathetic nervous system. In addition to the physiological reactions, your psychological defences are raised: your focus narrows, and your ability to think, create, and solve problems declines. Compassion and our ability to connect to others are also impaired. 

Threats include fears of irrelevance, inadequacy or failure, and because we are social beings, the work environment can easily trigger these feelings.  

In addition to the threat-based system, many people find that their drive system can be highly activated within the workplace, presenting as high achievement, working late, and pushing themselves and others to do more.  

Indeed, even a perceived source of safety can actually be a trigger for our drive response. For instance, safety came from the respected colleague in our example of that Monday morning meeting. A conversation that recognises achievements may provide a sense of security for a while, but unfortunately, this may not last. The dopamine hit from the praise is a pleasurable experience but creates an increasing threshold for the same response. There would be an ongoing need for more and more achievements and confirmation of ‘safety’. That is why many of us do more, earn more, and achieve more — to feel safe. Whilst this constant search for safety is recognised as high drive and can bring many accomplishments; it’s a never-ending cycle. Imagine the athlete more concerned with the runner next to them or looking over their shoulder rather than at the finish line; this is threat-based drive. The athlete may win, but the constant comparison and fears are stressful and lower the athlete’s resilience.

How to regulate your emotional systems 

Working alongside the sympathetic nervous system, which is linked to threat and drive, and which enables us to respond to stress, we have the parasympathetic nervous system. This system kicks into action to allow us to soothe ourselves and recover from the stress, or “rest and digest” if we allow it.

Paul Gilbert advocates a ‘balanced mind’ where the three motivational systems operate together, allowing you to be helpful rather than harmful to yourself and others. To achieve this balance, you need to be able to access your soothing system as well as your threat and drive system. 

We can control our responses much better by engaging our soothing system. When your soothing system is activated, both endorphins and oxytocin are released; these are essential hormones that down-regulate the stimulating threat and drive systems. From this position, you will find it easier to adapt your behaviours, think strategically, disconnect achievements from your self-esteem, and instead focus on learning. All of which are significant contributors to effective and inclusive leadership.   

And the good news? Doing this is within our control. The old cliché of “take a couple of deep breaths” is grounded in a physiological phenomenon. Advancements in science show that even the simple practice of meditation or conscious breathing can have a long-term positive impact on your brain and its interaction with your body. Activating the parts of your system designed to calm your responses results in higher resilience in the face of life setbacks.  

Can you identify what helps you switch between your motivational or emotional systems? Think of your emotions as a ladder; what enables you to move up and down? The important thing here is to find the technique which works for you. When asked this question in coaching, many will highlight activities like walking, being with and very ‘present’ for their family, cooking, deep breathing, yoga, etc. There is no surprise that these are all activities which are proven to activate the parasympathetic nervous system. However, when asked what activities they routinely reject and deprioritise, people reel off the same list. We have a deep, often unconscious belief that these activities are the ‘nice to haves’ in life.  

Creating safety or being kind or compassionate to ourselves are skills that are often misunderstood as a weakness but are a source of strength, not vulnerability. Despite many years of psychological research and insight, there is still a lingering deep-down suspicion that soothing yourself and being kind to yourself is self-indulgent. However, it is a vital tool in our leadership armoury. Suppose we aspire to be our best selves as leaders and to create psychological safety; we must practice self-soothing to control our emotions and choose the responses that will create the best environment for the moment. Without doing this, we risk getting trapped in an exhausting stress response. We also risk not being able to access the thinking parts of our brain, which enable us to choose our responses.   

Of course, as you understand the role of safety for yourself and the essential part it plays in your performance and well-being, you will be able to adapt your behaviours and help create psychological safety for your team. It is a virtuous cycle or flow of compassion and understanding.