We’ve all done it. Diligently researched the space-saving requirements of our home or office; meticulously down-selected the perfect piece of furniture in the Swedish home design catalogue; measured up and taken contextual images to confirm the size and colour version that perfectly meets our individual criteria; made sure that the item is then accurately tracked to our doorstep … and then applied nowhere near the same level of diligence and competence to its construction, flinging aside the printed assembly instructions.
The result, of course, is that we invariably compromise the intended form of function of the item that we so diligently sought out, and often end up with several spare parts left over. This final, fatal lack of focus is something we regularly replicate in leadership, and it can have disastrous effects upon our ability to create a psychologically safe workplace culture.
Just as in the catalogue example, the form and function of psychological safety cannot be fully captured in a changing organization unless it is constructed in a methodical way – using all component parts, tools, and instructions in harmony.
We lay out the component parts of a bookcase before we assemble it to confirm our understanding of left and right-facing surfaces, tongue and groove joints, and the various gauges of connecting components and recesses. Understanding your team in the same way is essential to building psychological safety, especially when onboarding new teammates. All bring different experiences, perspectives, behaviors, and backgrounds to the environment you are building, and you have to know which connections will provide the optimum fit as you seek to build trust, diversity of thought, and a sense of inclusion. Years of military experience has taught me there is no quick boilerplate formula for this. It just takes time – your time.
A trusted colleague reminded me recently that “communication carries culture.” She is dead right - communication is the most important multitool provided in your flat pack box of psychological safety. But whilst leaders tend to focus heavily on establishing comprehensive approaches to the reach and rhythm of communications, few apply the same level of focus to the creation of compelling content. By not focusing on what their audiences need to hear (as opposed to what they want to say) leaders can often encounter a tragic, unexpected, and totally avoidable loss of trust – effectively dismantling a psychologically safe culture in a single communique.
Recent examples include often draconian corporate internal messaging on the return to office environments, confusion and hesitancy over what to say to their teams in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests in summer 2020, and encouraging employees to join COVID vaccination programmes to promote safety in the workplace. All of these require communications to be placed at the heart of leadership because all seek to achieve a change in behaviour among key audiences, who have more vocal opinions than ever before.
Having the tool is one thing, using it to its maximum safe effectiveness requires a set of instructions.
In his forthcoming book “Risk: A User’s Guide” (published on 5 October 2021) General (Ret.) Stan McChrystal describes communication and narrative as two of several critical “Risk Control Factors”, highlighting the need to blend content, reach, and rhythm with equal emphasis. An instruction handbook that might sit under this guide would contain five steps for the development of compelling content in a continuous loop:
Objectives. Many leaders go wrong from the very start because their communications don’t have a clear objective. Without a defined goal in mind, the communications quickly become muddled. The popular “SMART” framework often used to set performance goals can be adapted to communications as well. You can see the details of how I’ve adapted this common framework to make communications goals SMART in audience terms (Simple, Meaningful, Appropriate, Reasonable, and Trackable) in a previous article here.
Audiences. The more you know about your audience(s), the greater chance you have to maximize resonance in your messaging – and the greater the sense of psychological safety you can generate. Leaders need to dig deep into the skill and will that particular audiences possess to carry their message and identify the influencers, advocates, and adversaries that will influence its impact. Techniques of audience analysis honed in the military and political environment offer great guidance here.
Connection. The aptitude to connect objectives to audiences is usually found within the creative departments of advertising agencies. Whilst the majority of organizational leaders lack pure artistic creativity (it comes with the territory) there are many techniques we can use to foster an emotional connection amongst key audiences. Robert Cialdini’s six principles of influence and persuasion and the numerously accessible approaches to storytelling are great references.
Orchestration. I use this term deliberately. Just as the conductor of an audience brings together the rhythm, pitch, volume, and expression of a piece of music to maximize its impact on the audience, so leaders must ensure that all means of messaging (words, images, and actions) are synchronized and harmonized across all media and channels. Only through diligent orchestration of communications can leaders prevent the dreaded “say-do” gap, which significantly damages trust and psychological safety.
Measurement. It is important to understand and plan the means by which the resonance of communications content can be measured. Communications outputs (column inches, airtime, Tweets), measure effort but do not prove success. Out-takes (readership, viewer ratings, and likes) help indicate the reach of your message but not its impact. Outcomes (the degree to which humans start, stop or swap their behaviour) are what you need to chase. If you set SMART objectives in the way we propose and baseline them with audiences, you can more effectively plan measurement of effect in your own terms. Demonstrating a planned quantifiable shift in behaviour, even a microscopic one, will be far more powerful than unfounded statements of changed perception when you are striving the gain and hold the trust of your team and their willingness to voice up.
We don’t view this process as one and done.
As you arrive at the top of the loop again, it’s time to find out if your communications objectives are still valid. Even if only small adjustments need to be made to any step, it is worth taking another lap.
Placing communications at the heart of all leadership activity is the key to building psychological safety. From our experience, most organizations do some of these things well. But achieving the most inclusive and psychologically safe team environment is best achieved by following all of the steps as diligently as possible and in the right order. So, if you want psychological safety to look and feel great, and last - don’t just consult the image of the completed article. Read the Instructions.