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Culture, Psychological Safety, and Emotional Intelligence for High Performance Teams

| by Ben Linders Follow 27 Followers on May 17, 2018. Estimated reading time: 4 minutes |

Humanity is the heart of the creative intellectual work that many of us are engaged in. The foundation of high-performance teams is people who have freedom and autonomy and feel safer. Games can be used to support self-awareness and connection, and also to build team emotional intelligence onto safety.

Richard Kasperowski, speaker, trainer, coach, and author focused on high-performance teams, spoke about Culture, Psychological Safety, and EI at the Agile Games conference 2018. InfoQ is covering this event with Q&As and articles.

InfoQ spoke with Kasperowski about a high-performance team culture, self-organization in organizations with power structures, and using games to work on team culture.

InfoQ: What does a high-performance team culture look like?

Richard Kasperowski: A high-performance team looks like a group of friends, a group of people in a state of intense friendship. If you observed a high-performing team through a one-way window, they would look like friends. They’d be exhibiting caring collaborative behaviors. And they’d be super-aligned with each other and their goals – they’d be creating and getting stuff done.

InfoQ: What if I don’t consider colleagues as my friends? I mean, I like working with them, but do I really need to become friends with all of them to make our team work?

Kasperowski: Yeah, I get that. I’m not saying you have to spend all your time together 24-7, eat every meal together, go hiking together every weekend. The observation, though, is that a high-performance team looks like a group of friends. And there are certain behavior patterns that they exhibit. And if you want a high-performance team, you can incorporate those behaviors into your team.

InfoQ: What are the main challenges that organizations face when working toward such a culture?

Kasperowski: Many organizations are structured for the industrial era. They operate to maximize the efficiency of scarce resources. They coerce us to do more in less time, and they threaten to fire us if we don’t comply. They dehumanize us by using the word "resource" instead of "person" – you’ve heard of human resources departments, right? Financial achievement and the bottom line are all that matter.

That sort of management may be fine for repetitive industrial era work, but it destroys invention and innovation – it destroys the humanity, which is the heart of the creative intellectual work that many of us are engaged in today. The research from people like Laloux and Edmondson shows that we perform better when our organizational culture is humanistic and holistic, when we treat people like people, take good care of each other, manage ourselves autonomously, and connect in group flow. And coincidentally, when you do that, you get better results.

InfoQ: Can self-organization work in hierarchical organizations with power structures? How?

Kasperowski: If you want more innovation and better results, you probably want less power distance and less hierarchy. Freedom and autonomy are the foundation here, and there are practices your whole organization can adopt to decrease power distance via freedom and autonomy. Make everything opt-in, starting with team membership: give clear guidance on goals, and then let people form teams on their own. Actually invite people to meetings, rather than making them mandatory. Those calendar emails you get in your inbox are called "invitations," right? – treat them that way! Let people pass and check out from activities that they don’t want to participate in, or when they think they have more important work to do. These behaviors for freedom and autonomy decrease power distance: no more commanding people what to do. When people have freedom and autonomy, they begin to feel safer. That feeling of safety is the foundation of high-performance teams.

InfoQ: What kinds of games can teams play to work on their team culture?

Kasperowski: Building on that foundation of freedom, you can add activities for self-awareness and connection. The emotion check in is a great example. It has an easy script to follow. You just fill in the blank: "I feel ____________." To make it easy, we make it multiple choice: fill in the blank with glad, sad, mad, or afraid. You can add additional information to explain why you feel that way. When you’re done, your teammates welcome you. When everyone on a team does this, they build team emotional intelligence onto the safety they’ve already established. And the check in includes its own safety mechanisms: no one talks about your check in, no one tries to "fix" your emotional state, and you can pass. Many teams add this on to their daily stand-up as an important fourth question: how do you feel right now?

InfoQ: When and how can teams play such games?

Kasperowski: Try incorporating some of the Core Protocols into your everyday activities. Let people pass and check out. Try an emotion check in every morning. Try a meeting where "deciders" are the only thing you do together – you’ll be amazed at how effective that meeting is. And ask for help early and often. You can ask me for help – just visit my website or email me.

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