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  • Writer's picturePilo

What delivers results… fear or trust?

In one of our recent leadership training with the paradox team (, we got an outstanding question from a participant. What will make a team deliver results fast? What if instigating fear in a team was working better than trust?!

As part of the pre-work, there was a short video clip from Amy Edmonson about psychological safety. In a nutshell, the video was reporting the result of a study performed by Google about the single biggest factor that makes a team perform… and the conclusion was Psychological safety. With that in mind, we assumed research was on our side and did not need to explain psychological safety any further… until we had this brilliant question… what if fear was actually bringing results faster? This was a brilliant reframe. What I love with this question is that it does not assume anything… and even better… it challenges the point directly (“radical candor”!) and with a genuine desire to understand… what is psychological safety? Does it really work?

About 20 years ago, I was assisting a scout leader at a camp in the mountains. I was about 20 years old and had been a Scout myself for about 12 years. We were a team of 5 leaders supporting him and leading a troop of about 45 boys (12-17 years old). So, we were finishing a 3 day highly intensive game: involving lots of running and fighting with limited supply of food and water. The last part of the game was happening in the woods at night with a flag game opposing 2 forts on each side of the forest. To end the game and announce the results, we were gathering the troop on a field away from the pine forest. We were facing each other in a large square, not as tight as usual, feeling exhausted and drained. We were all there but one… indeed, our troop leader was missing. Someone said… “Oh I just saw him, he’s coming”. So, we waited… and waited some more… until I thought this is way too long. I went back his way with a flash light and using my, for once useful, strong voice to call him out. I could not hear any voice back… silence… a heavy dark night. Then I heard a far and faint voice screaming “Help! Help!”. My heart pace picked up… this was happening… the emergency you train for but hope you will never have to face. I started running towards the voice. Got closer only to discover our leader had fallen into a crack in the middle of the leaves… it was hard to see and imagine an adult could fall in there. As I got closer, I realised he had fallen badly and deep into the heart of the earth. He sounded like he was about 12-15 meters lower than me. I immediately called for help specifying only troop leaders and patrol leaders needed to come. My team mates heard and asked the Patrol Seconds to keep an eye on the troop and reassure the younger ones. In a blink of an eye, the leaders found me, I told them about the situation in one short sentence, clearly stated the objective (we get him out asap) and I mentioned one thing: undo the forts to get the ropes, do it quickly. Then, I maintained contact with our troop leader… gathering information from him and making sure he knew help was coming. He was literally climbing back a wall in the dark inside the mountain. What I remember precisely is the silence from our leadership team in action. Everybody was working and getting things done. Everyone knew precisely what they had to do.

Communication was scarce and extremely efficient. We had never rescued anyone from a mountain before and yet we seemed to know what needed to be done. The team freed up the rope and someone suggested to install it in a way we would have leverage to lift our friend’s heavy body. We listened and did just that. We started to pull him out, constantly communicating with him to extract him from this tight space in the quickest yet most gentle way. Finally, after lots of careful pulling and communication, we saw his face coming out with blood all over him. He was injured but he was alive… we were so relieved to see him. Someone dashed to go and reassured the troop. To me, this is the ultimate illustration of psychological safety! We had lost our leader, needed to operate a rescue, which we had never done before, and the outcome was either fatality or rescue. Psychological safety was strongly present in our silence… trust in each other we could succeed with limited knowledge and experience, trust in our skills and ability to work together over a scary situation we had never faced.

On the opposite, I once worked in the corporate world in a team that was constantly led by fear. First, the objectives were not achievable: everyone knew it but nobody was talking about it. Then, we were constantly told the pressure we received was coming from higher and needed to be transmitted down to the teams. We were obsessed by results (“know your numbers”). The monthly review was a ceremony where we knew someone would be "shot" (highly criticised) in front of the others. This led to unhealthy internal competition. The primary purpose was to stay alive (ie not loose your job). Every individual in the team felt that one was alone. There was no sense of a team except maybe a few coalitions. There was no sense of togetherness, community or care. It was supposed to be all about the results, yet our focus was on survival. In that environment, there was limited creativity, sense of purpose, meaning at work. Although we looked extremely busy, we were not achieving much individually and nothing together.

So, what is psychological safety? This definition sums it up pretty well: “Psychological safety is being able to show and employ one's self without fear of negative consequences of self-image, status or career (Kahn 1990, p. 708). Reading this definition carefully, you can see how the corporate example differs from the scouting one.

My biggest insight from these 2 stories is to observe where fear is located! Indeed, in the scouting example, danger was outside the team. Although it was a really scary situation where life was truly at stake, we did not have fear inside us. We were acting with courage and trust in one another. Nobody was alone at this moment… notice how everyone was cared for at all level in the troop. We were collectively aiming at saving someone. In the second example, the overall objective was simply to grow the business, yet everyone constantly scared for their life (loosing one’s job). The fear was inside the team like having a wolf constantly prowling in the sheepfold. Fear was inside us inhibiting our access to innovation, creativity, perspectives, sharing. Each one of us was individually aiming at saving oneself.

So, when thinking back about the teams you are part of today where is fear? Is it outside the team? Is it inside the team? Is it in you? What about the team’s environments you create? What energy do you think your climate enables? What resources do you think your team members are able to access? How does that actually really deliver long term sustainable results vs short term hustling?

Kind regards from Pilo

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