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InfoQ Homepage News Creating Great Psychologically Safe Teams with Sandy Mamoli

Creating Great Psychologically Safe Teams with Sandy Mamoli

Sandy Mamoli, Agile coach and author of Creating Great Teams: How Self-Selection Lets People Excel, recently appeared on the No Nonsense Agile Podcast to discuss her experiences in creating and sustaining high-performing teams with a common purpose and underlying safety.

Mamoli also shared approaches for dealing with typical toxic team behaviours, addressing questions relating to team members who are highly skilled but lack team cohesion, weakly skilled yet highly cohesive, "charming slackers", and those who avoid conflict to create "artificial harmony." Keith Ferrazzi, author of Competing in the New World of Work and organisational coach, also recently wrote about his success in using social contracts within a sizeable Agile transformation to cultivate empowered teams with candour. Mamoli and Ferrazi both described having the safety to engage in candid feedback as a critical ingredient for high-performing teams.

Referring to Daniel Pink's 3 elements of intrinsic motivation, Mamoli emphasised the importance of autonomy and purpose to high-performing teams, saying that many organisations successfully provide "mastery" to teams, while autonomy and purpose are more often neglected. She spoke about how most teams are usually formed by a manager's selection of individuals, "without giving them a purpose." Mamoli, who has been enabling self-selection since her experience with TradeMe in 2014, said of team self-selection that "instead of managers deciding who is going where, we trust people to come up with a good solution for the entire organisation." Mamoli explained:

People do their best work if they can choose who they work with and what they work on. If you choose a team that has a particular purpose you choose into that purpose. You can take responsibility to ensure you have the skills that are necessary and you want to work together. I find that people (team members) get this right, because they are the ones who have the information about what they want to do and who they want to work with.

Mamoli, who started her career as an Olympic athlete, also spoke about teams choosing their own managers, much as a sports person would choose a specific coach to learn from. While acknowledging that this "is not always possible in all organisations," she said that this was particularly valuable where the manager is "someone who takes care of you, provides pastoral care, helps you in making career decisions, who coaches you or who you bounce ideas off."

Discussing behaviours which hinder achieving high-performance, Mamoli spoke of the importance of understanding individual context when faced with staff or teams which avoid conflict to create an "artificial harmony." As an example, she shared her experience of creating safe environments for teams within countries where "admittance of a fault may result in dismissal." Mamoli said:

I have learned to have a lot of empathy with people not admitting mistakes if they are in a different context. It took a really long time and repeated experience of no-punishments-for-mistakes to build a team out of people where safety is just not there.

Ferrazzi wrote about the importance of candour to team health, stating that teams should be seen as peers to leaders. He describes enabling safety using "candour breaks"; sections of a meeting where teams are encouraged to point out "what is not being said?" He also uses "red-flag replays" as spontaneous interruptions for historical fact-checking. Ferrazzi also instilled unusual "safe words," after which a team agrees to listen and intentionally avoid interrupting. Eg. "Yoda in the room." Highlighting the dangers of conflict avoidance, Ferrazzi wrote of its risks and the importance of addressing it:

Conflict avoidance can be corrosive, even deadly, causing teams to miss opportunities and needlessly exposing them to risk. Members might recognize hazards but decline to bring them up, perhaps for fear of being seen as throwing a colleague under the bus… No matter how sensitive the issue or how serious the criticism, members must feel free to voice their thoughts openly—though always constructively—and respond to critical input with curiosity, recognizing that it is a crucial step toward a better solution.

Mamoli pointed out that "there is a lot of misunderstanding around psychological safety," saying that "it doesn’t mean we’re super nice to each other and feel comfortable all the time." She explained that the resulting behaviour should be that teams "hold each other accountable" and can safely provide direct feedback saying, "this is what I need from you. Or you are not doing this." She said that "this is what we need to remember psychological safety really means."

Pointing to the importance of understating your starting context, Ferrazzi wrote about some of the tensions often seen at the start of a less healthy team-centric transformation:

Before you can change the ways in which your team members interact and operate, you need a clear view of how they are functioning right now. Too often members have an unspoken agreement to avoid conflict, stick to their individual areas of responsibility, and refrain from criticism in front of the boss. And they may be willing to take advice only from higher-ups, not recognizing the vital role of peer-to-peer feedback. All that needs to change.

When asked about disproportionate salaries and conflict avoidance by women and others on work visas, Mamoli shared the importance of understanding that there is often a fear of losing their jobs, which would also "uproot their entire family." Her approach is to get "people out of their shell" not only because it’s good for the team, but to enable them to acknowledge and understand that "just doing as you’re told to do is not the road to success."

Mamoli was asked if a high-performing team could be achieved with only novice team members, lacking in stills but possessing the right behaviours. Mamoli said that without skill, "there is no team spirit that can completely eliminate that problem" with immediacy. She said that if you have the right behaviour, in time, "it will be possible to succeed." Mamoli shared her experience with a Wellington-based company, with a very young team where no one knew very much about service design. The team was given five weeks to learn about service design. Mamoli shared that "this was a team with the behaviours being sent out to acquire the skills." She said that "over time", they did become a "great team."

In contrast, Mamoli was asked about whether a team of highly skilled experts can become high-performing when they did not have appropriate team behaviours. She cited Robert I. Sutton’s book on Building a Civilised Workplace and Surviving One, whilst identifying this as a behaviour problem, rather than a personality problem. Mamoli explained that "behaviour can be learned," however if this fails, she also pointed out that one may need to remove the "toxic personality for the good of the team." Mamoli spoke of her approach to coaching such team members:

Differentiate between the behaviour and the person. Give feedback on the behaviour and tell them what would be useful instead. These are the things you do. This is the impact. How about you do this other thing instead? I don’t believe in wrapping feedback... Pick the right time and the right person. Ask if you can give feedback, then be honest and upfront.

Mamoli was also asked about challenges with the "charming slacker", who is broadly liked but does not perform. She described the persona as "hard to deal with" because "other people like them and don’t see the problem." She said that "if it has an impact on the team", she would have a conversation without making team members "gang up." Mamoli also points out that "sometimes the lazy slacker has other qualities which are immensely important for the team" and can make a "huge difference for team cohesion." She said that one must assess if the damage of removing the individual would "be greater than the hit on team performance."

As part of a team’s social contract, Ferrazzi listed a range of intentional lenses, including measuring conflict avoidance, the presence of silos, excessive hierarchy, shared success, growth-mindedness, maintaining a team "energy-level", supportiveness and achieving innovation. He advocates workshopping and prioritising weaknesses; he recommends "start with a limited number and expand once practices have begun to shift."

Mamoli shared that, ultimately, a team with psychological safety would address issues arising within the team. She said that such a high-performing team would have a "conversation with each other" rather than "escalating to my manager." Describing her experience of high-performing teams, Mamoli listed the behaviours she’d expect to see in a team which has reached such a stage:

They enjoy working with each other. They bounce off each other. They respect each other. They want to work together. There is banter. There is constructive criticism. There is constructive feedback, and there is no sugar coating... It’s people who are honest, frank, direct with each other, and they have clarity and also a desire to reach their goal together, so they can overcome any differences they might have because simply their shared goal is more important.

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