by Mark Briant
I recently listened to the brilliant Alex Sanderson on a podcast. It’s fair to say that he has helped to build a team that is on the up within English rugby, Sale Sharks. But also a team that is, from the outside looking in, on a journey to transform its internal culture.
Alex spoke about some of his pillars for building a successful team, that span beyond just their obvious goal, winning rugby matches and titles. A lot of the things he has worked on to develop the culture at the club have been around developing the players as people first, something that isn’t necessarily expected of a rugby coach. By developing his people and leading in such a way, Alex has been getting incredible buy-in from his players and staff. And results are starting to come.
The same applies in any work setting. There are obvious goals and targets that a business wants to go after. However in order to have everyone pulling in the same direction and getting after universal outcomes, an environment needs to be created that allows people to develop and feel like they have an input into the greater direction of the company, or said goals. I would actually argue this is even more important in a business setting, where the purpose and vision on an individual basis isn't necessarily as easy to align yourself with.
Something that is so often overlooked and dismissed that is critical for a high-performing team of any sort, business or sport, is the work you can do as an individual on purpose and values-based behaviours. The crux of it comes down to “why am I doing this five days a week for a significant chunk of my life?". If there isn’t an obvious answer it can be hard to align with company values. However, I think that is best saved for a whole other post.
The values that Sanderson fixated on were really interesting, and again I think there is food for thought with this outside of a sporting setting.
1 - Creating psychological security
The idea of psychological security stems back to one of Maslow’s fundamental needs in life. When we feel psychologically safe in a situation, we perceive our environment to be safe, free from harm and threat. People who feel psychologically secure usually have high confidence and trust in themselves and others. They feel less anxious and tend to be more social and actively involve themselves in relationships with other people. They also feel compelled to build more connections, one of the keys to highly functional teams. When we feel connected, we also feel safe. They also tend not to perceive the world and other people as a threat. Nor do they hold the belief that other people’s behaviours will negatively impact them emotionally.
The result of this? The shackles are free and they no longer feel intimidated by difficult projects, pitches or presentations and ultimately go on to be higher achievers. So in a real-life example, this translates as someone not fearing the consequences of speaking up in a meeting to express their views or opinions on an important matter. They're not worried about the implications of it being taken the wrong way or negatively impacting their career prospects. They feel safe enough to voice their thoughts, confident they will be met with respect and empathy.
The importance of leaders in creating psychological security at work.
But how do you create psychological security? This isn’t a quick fix. It needs to take time, to be authentic and real. A lot will begin with leaders, at all levels, and the examples they set. We’ve been speaking a lot about it recently with clients, but this idea of 'boundaried vulnerability' from leaders is really key in building trust within teams. With trust, comes feeling secure.
Vulnerability can be a tricky one to get right, especially at work. You don’t want to, or necessarily have to, come into the workplace and bear all emotionally. But equally stonewalling on emotions can be problematic. Finding the line is something to test out yourself, a trial and error method. But letting your teams know at times when you need some help, or things aren’t all going swimmingly, is a great way to build trust and create a sense of the fact that sharing is ok, and that in fact none of us truly have our sh*t together all the time.
Other methods that work are ensuring your team is included in key decisions and also explaining why those decisions were made, especially when they’ve potentially gone against certain individuals.
Two-way feedback has been shown to again build trust, being open to critique or honest feedback, but also delivering balanced, descriptive feedback is very important.
2 - Decreasing social desirability
I think this is a particularly interesting notion for the younger workforce, especially those in managerial positions. The idea behind this is that people will often conform or go along with what they think is the right thing to do or say, and that in the long run, this will bring them success via being liked and popular. This is socially desirable. And this can lead to problems for young managers who simultaneously want to be liked as a person, but respected as a manager. It can be a difficult line to tread.
I think this also leads to a lack of cognitive diversity. People bringing the same ideas and opinions to meetings makes for a dull existence. Regurgitating what your manager or peers think doesn't necessarily drive innovation. The argument here is not that you always have to go against the grain and be the social black sheep, but more know what you believe in, how this aligns with your personal values and those of the business, and then act those out every day. When someone is themselves, rather than who they think they should be, they tend to be a happier, more psychologically secure person, and colleague.
There are some cool ways of breaking this down. One of which is encouraging junior employees to speak first in meetings once the presentation has been done. Allow them to voice their opinions first, before more senior members. This can help to avoid influencing what they think they should say. There is also deeper work to be done on assertiveness and separating out being liked as a manager and being respected. Two things that can sometimes be blurred amongst younger leaders. Also figuring out what your values and purpose as an individual are, which again play key roles in decreasing social desirability.
3 - Increasing self-awareness
This final one relates to our emotional intelligence. How good are we at understanding, controlling, regulating, and managing our own emotions, but also those in our team? This is such an incredible skill to develop, especially as people climb the ranks in a company. In many ways the higher you get in a company, the less important it is how good you are at the actual job. It becomes more about how well you can manage people and the wonderful spectrum of emotions we all have.
Some of the work that can be done here is around effective communication. Understanding and vocalising how you work best, especially in times of stress and pressure, can help your team to understand how they can support you best. Really it removes a lot of the guesswork or having to try and interpret things. It may be a case of ‘give them additional quiet time, without disturbance, in order to be able to figure out and solve issues’ or it may be the opposite, and rallying as a team and collaborating, works best.
Equally the flip is true. Sharing in meetings how each of your team works best, is a really powerful exercise to do because each individual will work differently. How someone acts when things are going well will differ from when they are under the pump. Understanding and knowing these allows all to flourish and support each other in the best way possible. Those that are more self-aware can effectively adapt and manage stress, relate and communicate their feelings smoothly with others, and are less impulsive. This again creates a safe, secure environment, to allow people to really get after it and collectively succeed.
I love what Alex Sanderson is doing at Sale, building these people up, creating their own tribe, full of trust, connections and basic human-ness. Awesome to see!