It’s much easier to argue with someone if you trust them.
If you’ll allow me to digress - if indeed you can digress before you’ve actually got started - the sorry state of modern western politics is attributable, in many ways, to trust. Not so very long ago - although it feels like a lifetime - politicians were quite capable of talking around an issue in a relatively civil way. Now, anyone who doesn’t agree with you is a lying liar who lies. Research is dismissed as bias. Opinion is presented as fact. And that’s before we even touch on the idea of fake news.
Let’s not touch on that.
Bringing this back to the comforting world of work, let me ask you a question: do you trust your manager? Of course, most of us feel confident that our managers aren’t secretly plotting our downfall, but that’s not quite what I meant. In any hierarchical working relationship, the emotional balance is out of kilter. Consciously or unconsciously, the employee knows that a manager’s default setting is evaluation. Managers judge their reports. Not that this is their fault, of course: this is an issue of perception rather than intention. But this quite basic fact has real psychological implications. It’s very hard indeed to be your best self when you’re operating from a position of uncertainty. However close you are to your manager, however clear your relationship or frank your conversations, you’re aware that this person has influence over your future and your finances.
Twenty years ago, the vast majority of workers would have thought nothing of this. Yes, my manager judges my work. He or she may also judge my demeanour, my appearance and my initiative. So what? That’s what managers are there for.
That was before Project Aristotle, Google’s influential research project on building the perfect team. To cut a (very) long story short, Google’s far-reaching and extensive knowledge-gathering exercise identified one key factor common to the teams that consistently delivered the very best results. And it wasn’t linked to academic brilliance, background or diversity.
The secret ingredient was trust.
It didn’t seem to matter whether a team was composed of strong personalities or shrinking violets. It didn’t even matter whether the team socialised together or only engaged with each other when they were in the office. The very best results came from groups with a powerful culture of psychological safety. Excellence stemmed from the knowledge that each team member could speak their mind without fear of ridicule or rejection.
When you lay this out in on a graph, it looks surprisingly simple. If the business (or team) is operating from a place where expectations are low, then even strong psychological safety can’t save you from the dreaded comfort zone. But where expectations are high, that inherent trust in your colleagues and managers is the key difference between consistently strong performance and the crippling anxiety that we’ve surely all experienced at some point in our careers. When you dread coming in to work every day, you’re in a nightmare that can be very hard to wake up from.
We recently ran a webinar on precisely this issue with performance and wellbeing consultant Natasha Wallace. An incredible 94% of 200 attendees agreed that psychological safety was a ”very important aspect” of the modern workplace. Well, it’s hard to argue with, especially when you understand the context. But then, is the traditional lop-sided manager-employee relationship conducive to that sort of trust and candour? To put it another way: would you be able to have a free and frank conversation with your manager, confident that the things you discussed would not in any way affect your job prospects or remuneration?
This cuts right to the heart of performance development. We’ve always advocated that performance should be about improving people. We believe that manager and employee should be able to focus on the areas that help the employee to grow. If you genuinely want your employees to develop, with all the benefits of productivity, learning and effectiveness that come with that, it’s time to start thinking of ways to encourage that safe environment. That could involve systems or processes. It could involve a real shift in culture. It could even be about implementing a piece of technology to support it. With the right attitude - and taking trust as your starting point - you’ll see the benefit.
Clear Review’s latest webinar recording - Appraisals, Anxiety and Psychological Safety - is available here.