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Foundational Safety, Vision Accomplished

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It is amazing to me how most teams are brought together and asked to accomplish extremely complicated goals without taking steps to develop a sense of trust among team members. I completely understand that factors beyond our control will often require leaders to quickly assemble teams to perform tasks in short periods of time. This is simply a reality of our professional lives. However, I have found that supervisors can anticipate this need and work proactively to develop foundational safety and a level of trust for their core team. The Step Ladder of Group Development, presented later in this article, is an effective way for leaders to introduce the principle of foundational trust and safety to their team members, colleagues and their management.

Developing foundational safety is undoubtedly an investment of time and effort. While skepticism is often an obstacle to this process, the logic behind it makes a lot of sense and tends to turn skepticism into curiosity (and often acceptance). If we think about the way most teams are assembled, we come to realize that we often ask our teams to jump into incredibly difficult situations without providing them with the tools and knowledge they need to discover how to learn about each others strengths, how to share feedback or how to avoid conflict.

Can we really expect people who don't know each other well to support each other during unexpected challenges and problematic situations in order to accomplish outstanding results? This is a tough position in which to put our people, but we do this all the time!

The reality I have faced is that teams will perform well for a short period of time before costly staff turnover or complicated conflict situations arise. Of course, not all turnover is related to staff conflict and negative relationships. Every now and then, staff members do find better opportunities that they want to pursue, but in my experience, most turnover occurs as the result of staff dissatisfaction with the work environment. This is a costly problem for any team and a serious blow to its ability to consistently deliver results. In another common scenario, "cliques" develop and staff conflict becomes part of the work environment.

If the goal of the team is to consistently exceed expectations and deliver great results, low turnover and diffusing conflict are critical goals for management.

Doesn't it make sense that we invest time in our team's relationships and prepare all staff members to manage conflict? Even if our answer to this question is “yes,” we still don't make the investment, do we? Instead, we allow cynics, who feel that trust building is a bunch of nonsense, wrongfully lead us into jumping ahead towards goals, time and time again. Why do we let this happen? Is getting to know each other and our commitment to the team's success truly a waste of time? Somehow, it is deemed better to leap carelessly into projects and handle conflict when it arises. Inevitably, conflict does arise and management then spends hours and hours of valuable time trying to remedy situations that are often full of rancor and beyond repair. This simply does not make a lot of sense to me.

Once strengths and personality traits are identified and the process of building safety has begun, supervisors can proactively work on expanding the team sphere of influence and establishing the concept of the safety zone. This is the focus on my next article, “6 Steps to Superior Leadership: Growing the Sphere of Influence.”


The graphic above, credited to Rod Napier and widely used by my colleagues at Cornell University's Organizational Development, provides a good starting point for the safety and trust conversation. Although this is difficult and requires careful facilitation, team members can use this model to ask the very important questions ” Who am I?” (for step #1) and “Who are you?” (for step #2) as a way to start developing productive relationships.

I add a very tough and personal question to step #1 when I think about who I am in all my relationships. I ask myself, "will I seek to do anything that may hurt the other person's reputation?" By this I mean doing things such as talking about someone instead of having the courage to give honoring feedback to that person directly or looking to publicly discredit someone I disagree with or may not like. This is a key breakthrough in my experience. I know how it feels when others belittle me in public and I also know, very well, how it feels when I find out others are talking about something I can do better but not telling me about it directly. Therefore, I must avoid doing any of that to others. If I can truly do this, I have an easier time telling anyone that they can trust me.

If we have enough courage to ask this of ourselves and check our own intent, we may find that the answer we uncover is not a good one. If that’s the case, we are presented with an excellent opportunity to build safety and trust. Think about it. If we can honestly say that our intent is to help all other team members, even when they do something that frustrates us, then when others ask us, "who are you?" in step #2, we can honestly say:

"I am someone that you can trust because I will work hard NOT to hurt you or your reputation in any way and I will do my best to always be straight with you."

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