I had started managing a new account during my early sales days, and I wanted to do a great job.

In one of our meetings, the client expressed a complaint regarding another team in my company that was also working with them. I talked to the manager responsible and shared the complaint.

He invited me to come to their team’s weekly meeting with his director and share what I had learned. ‘Oh,’ I thought, naively, ‘these insights must be so useful, he wants everyone in the team to hear them from me.’

I joined the team meeting and shared my client’s complaint. Foolishly, I thought the team would appreciate this piece of intelligence as it allowed us to serve the customer better, but it turned out the manager had invited me because he did not feel safe to bring this complaint to the meeting himself.

The director of the team shouted at me and said: ‘Your client is smoking weed!’ I was shocked. Nobody wants to be yelled at, especially from a person of authority. For months after this initial encounter, I found myself losing my words when I was in front of that director.

Why did I become speechless when I was confronted with this director after that fateful meeting? My brain had associated a fight-flight-freeze response with being around him.

A critical comment from a boss, a dismissive remark from a colleague, or a subordinate’s provocation are often perceived as a life-or-death threat.

We go into ‘act first, think later’ mode. We cannot think strategically or problem-solve. You can see how this dynamic could negatively impact the quality of your meetings – and, quite frankly, your business.

You may think this director was a bully. That you are nothing like that. The problem is that most of us are not aware of how scary we are. And while we might be lovely and approachable most of the time, having a bad day and showing a bit more impatience in a meeting is enough for people to think that it is not safe to speak up around us.

A year after launching my coaching business and completing my MSc in coaching, I joined a team coaching training event at Oxford University. My business was growing rapidly, and I oozed confidence.

To my disappointment, I realized that the class was for beginners. I felt impatient with people asking questions all the time.

At the end of the training, a lady from my working group shared the feedback that she had been so intimidated by me that she had stopped contributing to the group. This time, I was the one scaring others. I would have never known, if it weren’t for the structured feedback exercise the course required.

The consequences of interpersonal fear in business

Fear to speak up can lead to disasters. Take a look at Nokia; it used to be the world leader in mobile phones. The company’s market value declined by about 90 per cent in just six years, from 2007 to 2013, losing around US$100 billion.

INSEAD Professor Quy Huy did more than seventy interviews with Nokia employees to find out what happened. His conclusion? It was fear that killed Nokia, even more than the iPhone.

Senior leaders were described as temperamental, often shouting ‘at the top of their lungs’. Middle managers were directly lying to their bosses during meetings, presenting the situation as more positive than it was. They masked the deficiencies of the Symbian product. Employees created a falsely positive bubble, to avoid the anger of their superiors, eventually leading the company to its downfall.

Another example is General Motors and the faulty switch scandal. When GM launched vehicles with a switch safety issue, at least 54 crashes occurred, and up to 100 people died. In 2014, GM recalled more than 20 million vehicles.

Following an internal investigation, General Motors CEO Mary Barra publicly stated that the company’s corporate culture had helped suppress the voices of employees who were alarmed about safety issues. ‘Speaking up at meetings was not safe.’ In this case, the lack of psychological safety proved costly to human life.

What makes a team successful

I first learned about the concept of psychological safety while I was working at Google. Their people analytics department wanted to figure out what makes a great team. They studied 180 successful and unsuccessful teams over several years.

Initially, they could not crack the code. They could not put their finger on what was the common thread across successful teams. Tenure, seniority, extraversion or individual performance did not matter. Consensus decision making, workload, or being located at the same office did not matter either.

It was only when they stumbled on Professor Amy Edmondson’s research on psychological safety that they figured it out.

Psychological safety was the most important attribute that separated effective teams from the ineffective.

It made by far the biggest difference in team performance compared to any other attribute they studied.

What does this mean for your meetings? You can have the perfect agenda and a very competent team, but unless there is psychological safety in the group, your meetings will not be successful. It is that important.

So, what is psychological safety?

Edmondson defined psychological safety as the ability to take an interpersonal risk in a team. This means that the team members can bring up ideas or issues without being afraid of the consequences.

Do you remember a meeting where you held back and did not share an issue or an idea? Most of us can.

People do not speak up because they are afraid of two things: that others are going to see them in a negative light, or that they are going to harm their relationships with others. People stay silent because they are playing not to lose rather than playing to win.

Conclusion

Psychological safety is what sets high-performing teams and successful meetings apart. Putting in the effort to measure it – and create it – is well worth it. How do you foster psychological safety in your team?

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