Clumsy Colossus or Gentle Giant by Julia Whitney

BY PETRA WILLE ON MAY 15, 2018

At this year’s MTP Engage conference in Hamburg executive coach Julia Whitney delivered a well-received keynote on psychological safety, as many studies have shown it to be the most critical factor in building high-performance teams.

As product managers we can ruin our team’s speed by “threatening” our team members. Most of the time we do so without even knowing – by questioning the status of a team member for example, or by taking decisions team members felt where just unfair. Julia takes us through the five social concerns in David Rock’s SCARF model of psychological threats that drive human behaviour: status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness, fairness. Leaders have a great deal of power over these social concerns.

Julia looked at how leaders can use their “outsized impact” to enhance their team’s performance rather than damage it. Leaders need to be aware of their outsized impact and take active conscious steps to cultivate an environment that lessens the threat. She says that as humans:-

  • We are far more focused on threat than positive outcomes.
  • We feel social threats and rewards with the same intensity as physical threats and rewards. Our emotional responses to events trigger much the same neural circuitry as physical pains and pleasures.
  • When we’re faced with a threat we work hard to avoid the danger that the threat represents. It makes us worse at decision making, collaborating, and problem solving.

We work hard at work to preserve the impression we are knowledgeable, competent, positive, and respectful. In the effort to do this, we avoid the behaviours that are key to learning.

Julia also looked at the findings of Google’s Project Aristotle in relation to psychological safety. Google was trying to find the recipe for successful teams, so Project Aristotle examined many facets, from educational background, international and even gender diversity. And the most critical factor to influence team performance was whether team members felt safe with their team members and their leader.

Julia talked about how to create an environment in which team members feel safe, including tips such as framing a problem as a learning problem not an execution problem, acknowledging your own fallibility, and modelling curiosity. This means you create an environment where the team can speak openly, report and admit errors, and where they can happily learn from each other. She shared her own thoughts as well as thoughts from Amy Edmondson and Paul Santagata.

She closed her talk with an appeal to the 350-plus product people in the room: “We should use our power as leaders to enhance our team’s performance: cultivate psychological safety and check if your efforts are working. And then iterate on what you learn.”

About PETRA WILLE

Petra Wille is an independent product management consultant and product discovery coach. She loves to help her customers build products and teams from scratch. Alongside her freelance work, Petra co-organizes and curates MTP Engage Hamburg and is always waiting for some windy days: she's a huge kite-surfing enthusiast.