In an earlier post, we saw that a group of kindergarteners beat B-school graduates, CEOs, and lawyers, in a task that needed them to build the tallest tower, out of raw spaghetti, tape, and marshmallow. How? They made it safe for each other to experiment and worked together as equals. 

Says Prof. Alex Pentland, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, such a team’s performance is driven by five measurable factors:

  • Everyone in the group talks and listens in roughly equal measure, keeping contributions short.
  • Members maintain high levels of eye contact, and their conversations/ gestures are energetic.
  • Each person communicates directly with the other, and not just with the team leader.
  • They all carry on back-channel or side conversations within the team. It is expected that they do.
  • The team members take breaks, go exploring outside, and bring back information for others.

Quoting Pentland, “Individuals are like musicians in a jazz quartet forming a web of unconscious actions to complement the others in the group. These actions become signals that tell us about the relationships in the group. And that becomes the collective intelligence, and the group’s culture.”

How can you create such an inclusive, safe culture within your teams? Here are some actionable ideas:

Spot your fallibility early on. We all want to appear competent, especially at professional spaces. But this is the wrong move, if you’re looking at creating safety. Instead, show your mistake. Be human, even as a leader. If you are giving your opinion, say something like, “these are just my two cents.” Invite other thoughts by asking “what do you think?” Says researcher Amy Edmondson, “to create safety, leaders need to activate input, and ask for help. This is a signal for deeper connection.”

Embrace the messenger. If someone gives you critical feedback, or shares some bad news, don’t shoot them down. In fact, safety strengthens when you not just tolerate bad news, but embrace it, and make use of it. So, hug the messenger, and let them know how much you value their feedback. This relaxes people.

Communicate your listening. This is the one thing that makes people feel like they matter. Posture and expression are crucial. It’s the only way we prove that we are in sync with someone. So, lean towards the speaker, nod your head, say ‘hmmm’ or ‘got it’. Also, avoid interruptions. There is a power in smooth turn taking. Sudden interruptions shatter the flow of connection and disrupt belonging. Wait for the pauses where you can reflect back your thoughts. Or respond to their questions. In other words, be aware of how your excitement to connect might interrupt safety.

Creating safety is all about dialing into small, subtle moments, and delivering targeted signals at key points. It is an intuitive art, and a skill, which can only be built in close connection with people. Are you willing to go there?

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