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Why didn’t you tell me before?

Some visitors to the Ombud’s Office tell me they don’t feel entirely comfortable expressing their ideas, concerns and opinions within their team or to their supervisor or project leader.

The thing is, such teams are probably losing out on early warnings of risks, game-changing ideas and thought-provoking views on how to achieve the team‘s goals. In today’s era of knowledge and innovation, a team’s knowledge and ideas are its biggest assets.

Extensive research has been conducted on what makes outstanding teams, i.e. well-functioning, productive, innovative teams – basically, the kind of teams you want to join. See, for example, the results of the four-year research project Aristotle conducted by Google in its quest to build the perfect team.

In addition to diversity, which is a key dimension of the best teams, is psychological safety[1]: “a group culture and team climate characterized by interpersonal trust and mutual respect, in which people are comfortable being themselves. It is a sense of confidence that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking, i.e. that the team will not embarrass, reject or punish someone for speaking up”.

In a psychologically safe team, you feel included, safe to make mistakes and learn, safe to contribute and safe to challenge the status quo.

To get a sense of how psychologically safe your work environment is, you may want to ask yourself some simple questions.

  • Have you ever been afraid to ask a question?
  • Have you ever remained silent when you knew the answer to a problem?
  • Have you ever been ignored in a discussion?
  • Have you ever been rudely interrupted in a meeting?
  • Have you ever felt you were the target of a negative stereotype?
  • Have you ever faced retaliation for challenging the status quo?
  • Have you ever had a boss who asked for feedback but didn’t really want it?
  • Have you ever been publicly shamed or made fun of?
  • Have you ever been punished for making an honest mistake?
  • Have you ever been made to feel inferior?

If the answer is yes to some of these questions, the chances are that your commitment to the team’s objectives and your performance might have declined.

Leaders, and anyone in a position to influence the culture of a team/group, have a clear responsibility to create a safe and trusted environment. Here are three steps that you may wish to follow:

  1. Set the stage: Frame the work and frame failure appropriately, clarify the need for a diversity of thoughts.
  2. Invite participation: Demonstrate humility – you don’t always have to be right, you don’t have an answer to everything and you too can make mistakes, in which case it can be very powerful to apologise. Proactively ask questions and welcome diverging views. Be a model of active listening.
  3. Respond proactively: Walk the talk. Express appreciation when team members speak up. Destigmatise problems and failures. Address clear violations of the rules of team collaboration.

All team members can actively contribute to shaping a psychologically safe environment that will unleash creativity, innovation and learning. 

The beginning of the year and the MERIT interviews are great opportunities to start asking the following questions:

  • Have I spoken of failures in the right way given the nature of the work? (leaders)
  • Have I clarified the need to speak up and voice a diversity of thoughts? (leaders)
  • Have I talked about what is at stake, why it matters and for whom? (leaders)
  • Do I act like a know-it-all? (everyone)
  • Do I welcome a diversity of thoughts? (everyone)
  • How often do I ask questions of others rather than just expressing my perspective? (everyone)
  • Do I acknowledge or thank someone when they bring an idea or question to me? (everyone)
  • When someone comes to me with bad news, how do I react? (mainly leaders)
  • Do you make speaking up a positive experience, even when you don’t like what you hear? (everyone)
  • Do I respond proactively and in a timely way to address clear violations? (leaders)

Creating a psychologically safe environment for your team may prevent you having to ask the sometimes very painful question, when it’s too late: “Why didn’t you tell me before?”

                                                                                                                                                                Laure Esteveny

I want to hear from you – feel free to email ombud@cern.ch with any feedback or suggestions for topics you’d like me to address.

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[1] Amy C. Edmondson, The Fearless Organization