You might think of the military as a steadfast chain of command, where generals bellow out orders and soldiers disdainfully comply. But in fact, according to Chris Fussell, a former Navy SEAL and a partner at the McChrystal Group Leadership Institute, task forces thrive when this isn't the case.
They thrive when soldiers, no matter their rank, can speak up when necessary and voice concerns, according to Fussell. And this requires one thing: psychological safety.
In the new book he co-authored alongside C.W. Goodyear, "One Mission: How Leaders Build a Team of Teams," Fussell defines psychological safety as a culture in which individuals "feel safe contributing to a constantly changing situation where there is an inherent risk of imperfection."
Such a mindset is so important, says Fussell, because "real ties, between humans, are at the epicenter of life." It all comes down to believing in one another. That's the case on the battlefield and in the office.
So, if you're an employee, be bold, writes Fussell. The book shares the example of Karen, a low-ranking analyst who interrupted a mission targeting a valuable Al Quaeda member, because she received contradictory information on the target's whereabouts. She had to interpose herself in a meeting of top senior analysts, not to mention hundreds of others listening in virtually from dozens of rooms throughout the world, and risk jeopardizing their task with questionable intel.
In the end, Fussell explains, the team confirmed that the target had a cousin who was often mistaken for his twin, and that he was who must have been spotted elsewhere. The mission was carried out successfully, and Karen was commended for her contribution.
The Spartans, writes Fussell, "prided the ability of warriors to protect one another just as much as themselves." They fought shoulder-to-shoulder, in what was called a "phalanx." Karen had the interests of her team at heart. She served the role of a Spartan warrior.
Fussell recommends regularly using Operations and Intelligence ("O&I") forums, where leaders can encourage their employees "to connect as humans, to share insights and to solve their most challenging issues." This, he says, is "information-age version of a phalanx."
When you endorse such boundary spanning, you support psychological safety: "Confidence among the members that senior leaders are willing to accept transparency and debate." And your company avoids the typical shortcomings of a typical bureaucratic system, which, writes Fussell, "would have incentivized [Karen] to keep her head down."
The consequences of that are too great and seen in countless examples.
As Fussell discusses, the 2003 Columbia space shuttle disaster, for instance, was in part to blame on a lack of psychological safety. This was a point originally made by Amy Rodney, who introduced the concept of psychological safety in her book, "Teaming."
An engineer noticed that there might be damage to a chunk of insulating foam on the shuttle, but was discouraged from drawing attention to the issue. He was "convinced that voicing concerns was career limiting," said Rodney, and that culture of keeping quiet contributed to the deaths of the all seven crew members.
For Fussell, a culture of honesty ties directly to the other main components of a thriving company, like decentralizing power and creating decision spaces for certain team members to have autonomous authority.
Or another: interconnection, bringing everyone across all divisions together under a single aligning narrative. He compares companies to cephalopods, organisms whose "nervous systems are not concentrated within their brains (like ours) but are instead distributed throughout their bodies."
Without psychological safety, you won't achieve this. When individuals lack the confidence to speak up, the team is exposed to failure, Fussell writes.
"Harming relationships, degrading trust or concealing insights," he continues, are "the equivalent of dropping one's shield."
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