Tag Archives: managing conflict

Creating a culture of psychological safety – in project and operational teams


By Elisabeth Goodman, 1st May 2020

Psychological safety – definition of the term

One of our RiverRhee Alumni reminded me recently of the concept of ‘psychological safety’ in teams.  It’s a concept that’s been around for a few years now and is something that is relevant to any team, at any time.

It may be something to pay particular attention to at the moment, with many teams working on a shift basis and spending even less time together in a face-to-face environment.

Edmondson (2002) listed “four specific risks to image that people face at work: being seen as ignorant, incompetent, negative, or disruptive”.

She described potential triggers for these risks as:

  • Asking questions or asking for information
  • Calling attention to mistakes or asking for help
  • Seeking to learn or improve (on what’s not worked as well as on what has worked well)
  • Wanting to do any of the above, or asking for feedback on their performance

Discomfort with being able to express these kinds of questions is what would typically be represented by the ‘storming’ stage of Tuckman’s (1977) stages of team development: “Can I get my say”?  The suggestion is that, until we can get this part of the team’s culture properly sorted, it will be very difficult to move onto the ‘norming’ let alone the ‘high performing’ stage.

Stages of team development_Elisabeth Goodman

Stages of team development, adapted from Tuckman.  Illustration by Nathaniel Spain in Goodman, E. “The Effective Team’s High Performance Workbook”, 2014

Edmondson used the term ‘psychological safety’ to reflect “the degree to which people perceive their work environment as conducive to taking these interpersonal risks”.

There have been further publications and also some TedEx talks and other presentations on this topic, by Edmondson and others since 2002.  This blog touches on some of these, and on the key points that are emerging from them.

Understand and influence group norms

Google launched Project Aristotle in 2012 to understand why some teams performed better than others and came to the conclusion that it was all about team norms:(Goodman, 2018b) the unwritten rules that a group operates by.

They concluded that psychological safety, more than anything else, was critical to the effectiveness of these team norms, and looked at Edmondson (1999) to understand this better.

They found that what helped to create psychological safety was when:

  • There was less of a divide between home and work life
  • Everyone took turns to speak about what was going on in their lives (if they chose to do so)
  • Individuals were comfortable about expressing fears, feelings, emotions
  • People showed empathy towards each other.

This behaviour is what Delizonna (2017) referred to as “speaking human-to-human”.  She too points to Edmondson’s (1999) work which includes her tool for measuring psychological safety.

Lead by example

Young (2020) has a collection of recommendations for creating psychological safety in project teams.  His article in the APM’s Spring 2020 issue of Project magazine includes these useful nuggets:

Be visible, available, open and curious

A leader sets the tone for psychological safety within the team.  The old adage of ‘management by walk-about” still holds.  If you are available, supportive, open and curious about what is happening and wanting to learn from others then you will create a safer environment.

Choose your pronouns carefully

As the team leader, choose “I” for messing-up, and “we” for successes.

Use “it” for finding the root cause of problems, combined with “why” to understand: “Why was the customer told that?”, rather than “Who told them that?”

Set a forward-looking and positive tone

Things will go wrong, that is the nature of any complex endeavour.  Reframe problems as learning opportunities, for working together using the diverse strengths and expertise of the team, and for being creative and innovative.

This point echoes some of Delizonna (2017) to:

  • Approach conflict as an opportunity for collaboration rather than competition. (This is reminiscent of emotional intelligence and conflict management (Goodman, 2018a))
  • Replace blame with curiosity: adopting a learning mindset

Use team kick-off meetings, and regular reflections to agree and review how the team is working together

Ask such questions as:

  • What will help the team thrive?
  • What can the team agree to do when things get “sticky”?
  • What kind of atmosphere do we want to create as a team?
  • What can we do to work even more effectively as a team?

And, as suggested by Delizonna (2017) generally adopt a culture of asking for feedback.

Conclusion

Edmondson (2014) describes this whole topic very vividly in her TedEx talk.  She uses the word “voice” to describe what we need to be comfortable about conveying and has three simple rules:

  1. Frame the work as a learning opportunity rather a problem
  2. Acknowledge your own fallibility
  3. Model curiosity

What are you doing to create a climate of psychological safety in your teams?  How well are you expressing your “voice” and enabling others to “bring their whole and contributing selves” to the workplace?

Notes

References

Delizonna, L. (2017) High-performing teams need psychological safety.  Here’s how to create it. Harvard Business Review, August 24th

Duhigg, C. (2016) What Google learnt from its quest to build the perfect team. New York Times, February 25.

Edmondson, A. (1999) https://www.midss.org/content/team-learning-and-psychological-safety-survey (Accessed 1st May 2020)

Edmondson, A.C. (2002) Managing the risk of learning: Psychological safety in work teams in West, M. (Ed) International Handbook of Organizational Teamwork, London: Blackwell.

Edmondson, A. (2014) Building a psychologically safe workplace. TEDEx HGSE. https://youtu.be/LhoLuui9gX8 (Accessed 1st May 2020)

Goodman, E. (2018a) https://elisabethgoodman.wordpress.com/2018/04/28/conflict-is-the-lifeblood-of-high-performing-organisations/ (Accessed 1st May 2020)

Goodman, E. (2018b) https://elisabethgoodman.wordpress.com/2018/06/03/defining-team-norms-for-high-performance-teams/ (Accessed 1st May 2020)

Tuckman, B and Jensen, M. (1977) Stages of small group development revisited in Group and Organisational Studies pp 419-427

Young, R. (2020) Honesty is the best policy. Project, Spring pp. 49-51

About the author

Elisabeth Goodman is the Owner and Principal Consultant at RiverRhee Consulting., a consultancy that specialises in “creating exceptional managers and teams”, through courses, workshops and one-to-one coaching, and with a focus on the Life Sciences. RiverRhee is a member-to-member training provider for One Nucleus.

Elisabeth founded RiverRhee Consulting in 2009, and prior to that had 25+ years’ experience in the Pharmaceutical Industry in line management and internal training and consultancy roles supporting teams on a global basis.  She is developing her coaching practice, with a focus on helping individuals to develop management, interpersonal and communication skills, and to deal with change.

Elisabeth is accredited in Change Management, in Lean Sigma, in Belbin Team Roles, MBTI (Myers Briggs Type Indicator) and is an NLP (NeuroLinguistic Programming) Practitioner. She is a member of the APM (Association for Project Management) in which she was a founding member of the Enabling Change SIG.

Elisabeth is also a member of the ICF (International Coaching Federation) and is working towards her PG Certification in Business and Personal Coaching with Barefoot Coaching and the University of Chester.

Re-building working relationships with emotional intelligence


By Elisabeth Goodman, 9th August 2019

Emotional intelligence - the basics

Emotional intelligence – the basics. Illustration by Robin Spain for RiverRhee

The Summer issue of APM’s (Association for Project Management) Project magazine has a couple of excellent articles on rebuilding relationships.

Susanne Madsen (p. 63) addresses how to strengthen your relationship with internal stakeholders who have become cynical and negative over the years.

Marion Thomas and Sarah Walton (pp. 65-67) have an amusing article about how to take on adversarial project team members. They suggest that team members fall into one of 5 types (the adjectives are my additions):

  • enthusiastic advocates
  • supportive allies
  • passive associates
  • problematic adversaries
  • unhelpful abdicators.

As the names imply, some types will be more harmful in their effects on your work than others.  People can also flip between categories depending on changing pressures on them, or even how you interact with them.

As all three authors point out, there is a lot that can be done to repair such damaged relationships in a very positive way.  These strategies rely on engaging your emotional intelligence.

Oh and never use email to do this – face-to-face is always best to pick up on body language as well as tone.  The telephone is a back-up option if face-to-face is not possible.

Here are a few tips, inspired by the articles and also with a few of my own elaborations.

 1. Assume positive intent.

It’s amazing how much of a difference the ‘going in’ attitude that you adopt in your interactions with others can make.  It’s very true that “behaviour begets behaviour” – and that others will very often reflect your behaviour.

As Susanne Madsen says – someone else will sense if you feel negative when you approach them and are likely to become hostile in return.  It’s an almost automatic emotional response.  Her advice? Present yourself as a friend rather than a foe.

2.  Try to see things from the other person’s perspective.

We have a tendency to think that someone is a difficult person, or being difficult, whereas what might be happening is that they are struggling to find the best way to deal with a difficult situation.

Marion Thomas and Sarah Walton take a similar stance:

When people are being difficult there is usually an underlying reason

Here is what Susanne Madsen suggests:

If you are in doubt about somebody, assume that their need is to feel listened to, accepted and appreciated.  That thought alone can transform your professional relationships.

We need to use our best observational, questioning and listening skills to understand another person’s perspective.

Then, if we can at least acknowledge the situation that they are dealing with, and maybe even help them with it, we will ultimately make our working relationship with them that much stronger.

3. Connect with the whole person – rather than with aspects of their behaviour. 

This is something that Marion Thomas and Sarah Walton explain very well.

They suggest that you aim to get to know something about the other person that enables you to connect with them at a personal level as well as at a professional one.  It might be something that they enjoy doing in their spare time, something about their home situation, a personal ambition.  You might be able to share something about yourself that might help them to connect with you too.

Connecting with someone as a person should make it easier to keep any ‘difficult’ occurrences in perspective, and also to open conversations about them.

4. Pick your battles

This is based on another point made by Marion Thomas and Sarah Walton.  They suggest that you assess the impact of any apparently negative or adversarial behaviour, and then match your action appropriately.

In some cases the ‘damage’ may be one of discomfort only, that can be safely ignored.

In other cases it might be more damaging for instance to team morale, or to the quality of service to customers, or to the outcome of a piece of work.  In these situations, you will need to take action.

Actions will include:

  • Engaging other people who are better positioned to influence them – perhaps because they have a good relationship with them
  • Speaking directly to the person concerned (see point 5. below)

5. Articulate your perception of a situation and seek a way to address it collaboratively.

Any interaction involving emotions is very easily influenced by assumptions and misunderstandings.

If:

  • assuming positive intent
  • trying to see things from the other’s perspective
  • connecting with them as a person
  • using the influence of others

have not somehow addressed a situation, then it’s time to articulate what you are observing.

As Thomas and Walton point out, it’s a good idea to prepare well for any discussion of this type by:

  • Thinking about the other person’s style of working and communicating and how you can approach them in a similar style
  • Looking for any positive aspect of their behaviour and/or work that you can speak about in terms of the value that they bring
  • Gathering evidence that you can use to illustrate the behaviour that you are observing and what a difference changing it would make

This is about trying to engage their emotional intelligence to understand the consequences of their actions.  The skill is to do this objectively, non-confrontationally, without implying blame.

A good tactic is to talk about the behaviour that you have observed, how you are feeling about it, and the different result that you would like to achieve.  If you can encourage and persuade them to find a better way forward, or if you can work collaboratively to find one, then you will get a  much more robust and longer lasting outcome.

Notes

There is more about using emotional intelligence to manage conflict in one of my earlier blogs: Conflict is the lifeblood of high performing organisations.

Elisabeth Goodman is the Owner and Principal Consultant at RiverRhee Consulting., a consultancy that specialises in “creating exceptional managers and teams”, with a focus on the Life Sciences. (We support our clients through courses, workshops and personal one-to-one coaching.)  Elisabeth founded RiverRhee Consulting in 2009, and prior to that had 25+ years’ experience in the Pharmaceutical Industry in line management and internal training and consultancy roles supporting Information Management and other business teams on a global basis.  RiverRhee is a member-to-member training provider for One Nucleus. 

Elisabeth is accredited in Change Management, in Lean Sigma, in Belbin Team Roles, MBTI (Myers Briggs Type Indicator) and is an NLP (NeuroLinguistic Programming) Practitioner. She is a member of CILIP (Chartered Institute for Library and Information Professionals) and of APM (Association for Project Management) in which she was a founding member of the Enabling Change SIG.

Conflict is “the lifeblood of high performing organisations”


By Elisabeth Goodman, 28th April 2018

I’ve just been reading booklet number 10: Conflict Management, in the “Building Blocks of Emotional Intelligence” by Daniel Goleman et al.

The authors have some powerful insights on the benefits of conflict and how to address or facilitate it constructively, both as an individual participant, and as a team leader.

The benefits of conflict

George Kolrieser is the originator of the quote in the title of this blog: conflict is the “lifeblood of high performing organisations”.

He and Amy Gallo give a great overview of the benefits that conflict can bring to groups as well as to individuals.  Their views are a confirmation of why “storming” is such a vital step in the stages of team development.

Stages of team development_Elisabeth Goodman

Stages of team development, adapted from Tuckman

Conflict is the result of the discussions and disagreements that arise from diverse points of view.

For a group, when conflict is handled effectively, people will have the courage to speak up, take risks and listen to and consider other’s perspectives.  In such a climate, conflict will generate energy, creativity, change, improved performance, innovation and a more strongly bonded team.

For individuals who accept conflict as something positive, it will give them:

  • better results – because they are considering others’ viewpoints
  • learning and development – through self-reflection on their reactions to conflict as well as understanding of others’
  • improved relationships – through being open to conflict, and the strength they gain each time they respond positively to it
  • job satisfaction – through not feeling worried or stressed about conflict at work

“Put the fish on the table”

This metaphor is also supplied by George Kolrieser.  It comes from Sicily, where fishermen will lay their catch out on a table and deal with all the messy preparation of it together. (The opposite metaphor would be to let the fish rot under the table.)

catania160

“Put the fish on the table” – photo from http://galenf.com/Sicily/catania160.jpg

In this situation, as George Kolrieser describes, the people involved are openly raising and discussing the issues involved.  They are seeking a win:win resolution, without aggression or hostility.

This approach to conflict resolution is founded on achieving a common goal, or, as Richard Boyatzis puts it, an “overarching objective”.

The people involved are able to feel and demonstrate respect for each other – although they don’t have to like each other!

How individuals can address conflict

The following approach is my take on those described in the booklet by Amy Gallo, George Pitagorsky and Matthew Lippincott.

Addressing conflict

  1. Be self-aware.  This is about taking time to assess how you are feeling: your emotional response to the situation; stepping-back.
  2. Adjust your mindset. Considering the conflict as an opportunity rather than a problem; one where you can help others as well as yourself.
  3. Consider the other’s perspectives.  Show your interest in what they have to say; ask diplomatic questions; empathise; treat it as a learning opportunity.  Be aware that the organisational context may have some bearing on their perspective.
  4. Prepare your response.  Think about what the common goal might be.  Choose an appropriate time and place to have the discussion.
  5. Achieve closure.  Make sure that both parties reach agreement on a decision and on the resultant action, and that they follow-through.

Amy Gallo has some additional useful tips on how an individual can help themselves by unloading their emotions before having a discussion – perhaps with a ‘neutral’ third party.  They can also practise the discussion with a third party.  And of course it’s important to know when to take time out to deal with your emotions and calm down.

How leaders can facilitate conflict resolution

George Kolrieser’s “secure base leadership” concept is about providing individuals with both a safe and challenging environment to work within.  This applies to how they help their team members deal with conflict, as well as to day-to-day management.

Leaders can create a climate for positive conflict by:

  1. Positively promoting the differences within the team
  2. Helping people to get to know each other in a deeper way (which is why face-to-face team building activities are so valuable)
  3. Encouraging and supporting people to speak up
  4. Personally accepting conflict, risk-taking and failure as promoters of growth

They can facilitate discussions to deal with conflict by:

  1. Recognising when conflict is happening, and acting on it early
  2. Learning to put their own emotions aside (keeping their emotions “under wraps”)
  3. Tuning in to what the individuals are experiencing emotionally, their ideas and perspectives
  4. Facilitating the conversation – using all the strategies described for the individual in the section above

Conclusion

Dealing with conflict is not easy!  So much of it is learning to separate automatic emotional responses from the issues involved.  Those issues may be to do with the relationship of the ‘protagonists’ and/or with a particular topic.

However, like just about anything in life, the more we learn to deal with conflict, the more we will learn about ourselves and others, and the better we will get at reaping the associated benefits!

And sometimes… it may just be about choosing the battles we want to fight, as well as when and how to do so…

Notes

About the author. Elisabeth Goodman is the Owner and Principal Consultant at RiverRhee Consulting., a consultancy that specialises in “creating exceptional managers and teams”, with a focus on the Life Sciences. (We support our clients through courses, workshops and personal one-to-one coaching.)  Elisabeth founded RiverRhee Consulting in 2009, and prior to that had 25+ years’ experience in the Pharmaceutical Industry in line management and internal training and consultancy roles supporting Information Management and other business teams on a global basis.  RiverRhee is a support supplier for One Nucleus and a CPD provider for CILIP (Chartered Institute for Library and Information Professionals). Elisabeth is accredited in Change Management, in Lean Sigma, in Belbin Team Roles, MBTI (Myers Briggs Type Indicator) and is an NLP (NeuroLinguistic Programming) Practitioner. She is a member of CILIP and of APM (Association for Project Management) in which she was a founding member of the Enabling Change SIG.