Why CEOs Hear It Last: Building Enabling Team Cultures

By Shyamli Rathore
Certified YPO Forum Facilitator

In a world filled with volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity, chief executives – of businesses large or small – are continually facing complex challenges. To keep their organizations relevant, they must constantly reinvent their organizational strategic landscapes.

Ironically, often, the very designation of “CEO” that acts as a source of power to propel changes, also creates a barrier in obtaining direct feedback from their internal stakeholders.

One of the key reasons for lack of timely or correct information reaching the C-suite is lack of perceived “psychological safety” by teams reporting to top leadership. Amy Edmondson, Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at Harvard Business School, defines psychological safety as “a belief that no one will be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes.”

Edmondson says, “Psychological safety encourages speaking up, enables clarity of thought, promotes exploration and innovation, and mitigates failure, increases teamwork and the pursuit of high performance.” It allows people to be creative, promotes healthy dialogue and fosters a sense of belonging, which leads to more productive employees and organizations.

While senior leadership teams are tasked with creating robust organizational cultures, a lot of this is driven by signals emanating from the CEO (which are often very subtle) that cascade within the organization.

Unfortunately, empowering employees and trust-building are the latest buzz phrases in many organizations. They emit great sound bites, but reality tells quite a different story.

Here are five common indicators to check how you, as the CEO, are fostering psychological safety within your teams:

Meetings – Dialogue Or Monologue?

Do you often find that you do most of the talking in a meeting or are your executive team members engaging in healthy dialogue with you? Asking the right questions and listening closely to what is being said can often lead to powerful insights for you as well as your teams. Being vulnerable and saying “I don’t know” rather than having all the answers promotes a culture of openness and sharing.

The Bubbling Up Of Innovative Ideas

Are most of the ideas for organizational direction created by you or are your teams also sharing ideas and thoughts? How do you address ideas that are different from yours? The art of listening patiently and encouraging executives to voice their divergent thinking enables people to speak up and test their ideas and assumptions. This in turn to leads to building creative thinking and promoting a culture of innovation within the organization.

Speedy Remedial Actions

How quickly are you informed about a strategic direction that has gone awry? Many times, executives know that a possible strategic direction will be a failure but do not voice any opinion at the right time. Emitting signals that you are open to receiving bad news and dealing positively with it without punitive action creates a powerful booster for your teams to share timely information with you.

Embracing Failure

What is your reaction to failure that has resulted from trying something new? Punitive actions for trying something new that did not go well tends to curtail creative thought and action. Embracing failure is a key way to foster a culture of transparency within your teams.

Constructive Dissent

When you share your thoughts, do your team members ever challenge your assumptions? Are people in your team willing to disagree, debate, and then reach a consensus and course of action? Fostering constructive dissent and building on ideas that emerge will lead to more innovative and potentially successful ideas, as well as better buy-in for action steps.

Shyamli Rathore is Founder of  Sidman Learning Solutions, a boutique talent development firm offering customized leadership development initiatives for senior business leaders. Over the past two decades, she has designed and facilitated such workshops in manufacturing, consulting, IT, telecom, banking and financial services, and pharmaceuticals for several Fortune 500 companies. Rathore has also been consulting with Harvard Business School Publishing since 2011 for designing and facilitating workshops and webinars globally where she works with multicultural senior leaders.

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