On elite teams, it’s about honor, not safety
Google is an interesting company to say the least.
In the midst of a behemoth company that has a very thin historical record to draw from (seriously, the company is essentially 15 years old as a player on the global stage) lies a fascinating combination of entrepreneurship, hard-core, old-school competitive behavior, and analysis of people issues.
It’s that last thing that has me questioning whether Google has gotten something wrong. A month or so ago, Google explained the traits that make its best teams click, and here’s an article that hits on the topic; it’s a quick read. The list is a little bit ho-hum for any active observer or participant in strategic management culture development—that is, clarity, purpose, dependability—except for one piece: Psychological safety.
Psychological safety. It sounds like the latest in a long line of management theory gobbledygook, but it’s not. Google (and any number of academic papers out there, and a TED talk here) basically says that people tend to stay and produce better when they believe their teams are safe places for intellectual exchange.
I have no problem with that notion—not one. In fact, it makes good sense. If I’m being listened to on my team and not belittled for the things I don’t know, I will like it better. Makes good sense, right?
But as a practitioner who has worked at and continues to work at the top levels of organizations, I think Google’s prescription is only half right, which means partially wrong. And the part that Google gets wrong is the part that matters to the strong functioning of the highest parts of complex organizations—the elite parts, if you will.
The higher you go, the less “psychological safety” matters…
Here’s the rub: In the run-of-the-mill team, psychological safety matters. As you go higher in the organization, people worry less about “safety.” Safety isn’t a big issue to the average executive, or at least, it shouldn’t be; an executive who is worried about safety probably is not confident enough to be in the role.
But what does matter? Honor.
In other words, this difference in perspective between that of a mid-level team member and that of an executive team member is like the difference between a weekend rock climber and a global mountaineer. The weekend climber is signing up for an experience for which safety is key to the integrity of the experience, and death isn’t part of the deal.
The mountaineer, on the other hand, is signing up for a gig that involves making choices that could very well end in his or her death, and bad choices aren’t even necessary for the gig to end in death. The most elite mountaineers in the world run into bad luck now and then, and death is actually a very real part of the integrity of the experience.
Thus, such is the difference between low-level and elite teams when it comes to “psychological safety.” Low-level teams sign up for gigs that involve performance, but not necessarily at the peril of their careers if they are wrong about something. So, a safe environment for sharing encourages risk taking and less selfish political posturing, and these are important things.
Elite teams, however, with their high-stakes choices and high-level visibility, are inherently less “safe.” A career-limiting move is always possible for executives who are actually trying to get things done; safety might matter, but what really matters for these executives is that they are part of organizations—as part of the executive team or as a CEO with a board–that will act honorably on commitments and policies when things go poorly or opinions differ.
Honor, as in fulfilling agreements and obligations—that is, fair dealing in the face of adversity.
To extend the mountaineer example, a mountaineer’s mindset is to weigh risks in light of the physics of a situation. Gravity pulls down, certain rocks have certain levels of traction, equipment holds certain loads, and muscles and bones perform in certain ways. You want your mountaineers (and executives) to think this way.
Now imagine that the mountaineer makes a choice, but then in the middle of acting, the physics change. Gravity suddenly pulls sideways, not down. That carabiner now only holds half a ton, not 2 tons. The honor of the situation is compromised, and the mountaineer is doomed.
Think about the roots of effective elite team functioning as being similar to establishing the direction of gravity or the load rating of a carabiner. A fall is a fall, but a fall in which the carabiner breaks far short of its load rating and gravity dashes the climber into the rock wall at a diagonal is an entirely different matter: it can be deadly.
On an executive team, gravity is all about how things fall when there is a slip. Usually, gravity is set by policy and values, but it can also be set by the caprice of a specific executive. There is no honor when elite leaders change the direction of gravity mid-course, unaccountably and, potentially, only for individual members of the team.
What this looks like in real life
Okay, so perhaps there is some interesting imagery around the mountaineer vs. the rock climber, but what does executive dishonor look like in real life? I’ll list a few tactics, and perhaps you can take it from there.
The most common tactic is scapegoating. It’s used by the most insecure leaders and is one of the more dishonorable moves, and it goes like this: An executive team outlines a high-risk move for one individual to take. The team agrees to it, and the stakes are known; that is, gravity is established for the team. Then, the individual takes the risk, and the individual takes the fall, and gravity has no effect on the rest of the team or the leader. This happens a dozen times a day in business culture.
A second tactic is the bait and switch. Gravity is established as one direction in order to elicit a decision, but it is then switched to another direction after the decision is made. It’s a corrupt influencing tactic in any context, but is one that some executives resort to. A good example of this on a poorly functioning elite team is when the leader establishes implicit cover for a decision and then pulls the cover back after the decision is made. It’s “I’ve got your back” writ small. Usually, a bait-and-switch move at elite levels starts with “we agree” and ends up as “you agree.” “We agree” to spend millions of dollars on a change program slowly transforms to “you agreed” to spend the money. Gravity is switched, and only one team member falls.
Bait and switch tactics are common in recruiting and hiring—almost to the point of being the expectation vs. the exception. Some recruiters and executives will entice top talent with the promise of milk and honey—an aggressive agenda (or promise) focused on change and growth–only to reduce the talent to a real life of drudgery, order taking, and politics once the job starts. Executives who do this are typically small minded and posturing…not strategic and expansive.
The final tactic is the non-obligation move. This one is really a test of values, and it encompasses all of the rest of honor as far as I can see: it’s the question of how organizations honor the gravity that has already been established even when they don’t have to. A good example of this is when executives allow ambiguity to overwhelm organizations during “good” times because they individually don’t “have” to clarify things. All is well. The health of the organization suffers. To paraphrase clergyman Eugene Peterson: Often the values of an organization can be measured by what its leaders do when they don’t have to do anything. Non-obligation moves are prevalent at all levels of organizations.
How to watch out for it
Do your due diligence, and ask around. Specifically, ask how organizations or individual teams honor their commitments to individuals over both the short and the long terms. Ask what would happen if an individual executive took a reasonable risk but failed. Ask what the implicit contract will look like. Ask whether policies exist for tough circumstances (and whether they have been followed in the past when the circumstances arose).
In other words, be diligent.
Even more direct, and once you are actually in or around an elite team, observe. As with all people and things, you will know (dis)honorable people by their fruit. Watch for the hallmarks of dishonorable bureaucracies everywhere: CYA as a course of business. If senior executives constantly confirm their commitments and expectations, and reconfirm them in writing, but they don’t act without reciprocal confirmation, they are operating in a dishonorable senior culture. When senior executives constantly exchange explicit contracts—or say that they should have after getting burned—you can bet that the culture is one that is based on contracts and not honor. An elite team should have the honor necessary not to have its individuals constantly protecting themselves from shifts in gravity.
This topic should be dear to any executive, particularly to those who want to either join or build cultures of honor. I care deeply about this after having witnessed dozens of senior management teams, including a handful that could be categorized clearly as dishonorable. The dishonorable ones have invariably struggled to attract and retain talent, and as a result, they have struggled to form and enact any semblance of a strategic approach to growth and improvement.
If you are reading this and are a part of a mid-management level team, you probably get the notion of psychological safety implicitly: Teams are effective when people feel like they can share without repercussions for them personally. Google at least got this right.
The danger lies at the elite levels, where the safety to share shouldn’t really matter; if a person is on an elite team and won’t share perspective, they aren’t elite in the first place and should be removed; at the elite level, honor matters, and even a choice well made can still result in removal from the team. The world is a tricky place, but what matters to honorable executives is that they will be treated honorably in return, and Google may have gotten that wrong.
Elite executives don’t mind taking big risks, but they do mind when gravity can’t be estimated. Thus, the call to action on this one is simply this: Watch out. It only takes an instance or two of dishonorable behavior to label an organization and its leaders as either actively or passively dishonorable. If you’re in a situation like this, know what you are getting, and if you’re contemplating going there, weigh your options closely: There are other fish in the sea.
In sum, if you are an executive leading an elite team, the answer is short: Establish gravity and honor commitments. Dishonorable executives are well known and can have long lives, but they have short reputations
On elite teams, it’s about honor, not safety. Now, go figure out which way is up.