The Leadership Traits that Inhibit Team Performance
Entrepreneurial companies are expected to think fast, move quickly, try new things, and iterate rapidly. These behaviors help companies learn as they go—both product and services companies alike.
Great leadership navigates us through these winds of change. Teams must pay attention, gather data, and listen to customers. With luck and persistence, we create the business outcomes of our dreams: increased growth metrics, better conversion and retention, and ultimately more revenue and the next stage.
One predictor of team workplace performance is the presence of team psychological safety. Teams that have it grow faster and farther than teams without it.
Here’s what psychological safety is and how to put it into practice (plus, how command-and-control leadership is hamstringing your team’s performance).
Learning behaviors drive workplace performance
We’re familiar with the idea of The Lean Startup—form a hypothesis, build an experiment, measure and analyze metrics, learn from the result, and pivot or persevere through new hypotheses.
High performing teams exhibit team learning behaviors—their ability to learn together as a single unit. Teams expressing a high degree of team learning behavior:
- Ask for and give feedback
- Transparently share information
- Ask each other for help
- Openly discuss mistakes and errors
- Actively experiment and try new things
Results from team learning behaviors take time—and they aren’t guaranteed. They are like the venture capital of customer experiments: many go to zero, few make it all worthwhile. Team learning behaviors are like a small fee to pay relative to a large potential gain of getting it right.
This is quite important for start-ups and small businesses that need to move quickly, learn from customers, and iterate. And it’s the responsibility of the team leader to create this environment.
Sound easy? Not exactly. Asking for help, admitting your errors, and seeking feedback are the kinds of behaviors that pose a threat. People on teams are often reluctant to disclose their errors.
Think about it. Have you ever hesitated to share information with a senior leader in your organization, thinking:
- “If I say that, they’ll think I’m stupid or unprepared.”
- “I can’t share the full truth. They might get upset, or I might get fired.”
- “Better not to ask questions. I don’t want to look like I don’t know what I’m doing.”
This is the norm in many workplace environments, but it doesn’t have to be. To create an environment ripe with team learning behaviors, we need psychological safety.
Psychological safety creates team learning behaviors
Psychological safety, coined in 1999 by Amy Edmonson at Cornell, is “a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk.” It’s a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject, or punish someone for speaking up.
Team psychological safety exists when you are less concerned about others’ reactions to your work performance. This is why team psychological safety facilitates team learning behaviors: you’re more likely to stretch and fail fast because you’re not shamed for mistakes.
Think about it. Without psychological safety, a negative feedback loop persists:
- You discover you made a mistake.
- You don’t bring it up, because you fear being seen as incompetent (or you get yelled at, or miss out on that promotion coming up, or you get fired).
- You discount the negative consequence of your silence: “It’s not a big deal; it probably won’t matter.”
- Compound across a multitude of errors, and the team silos: less learning, fractured trust, more “approval process,” and a stronger focus on individual contribution.
With psychological safety, a positive feedback loop persists:
- You discover you made a mistake.
- You share the error with your team. The team reflects on what can be learned from the error.
- Everyone benefits from the positive consequence of your voice: “Now, we have a new system to add even more value to our customers.”
- Compound across a multitude of errors, and the team grows: better decision making increased speed, and a stronger focus on team outcomes.
How can we create psychological safety in our teams? We must first understand the types of leadership behaviors that inhibit psychological safety.
How authoritarian leadership prevents psychological safety
When team leaders act in authoritarian or punitive ways, team members become reluctant to express team learning behaviors. Why would I ask for help, if I know I’ll get shot down? Why would I share some key data I discovered with my colleague, if I know we’ll be ranked against each other, and I might miss a promotion opportunity? It’s not personal. It’s just business, right?
Authoritarian leadership is not conducive to psychological safety, and it directly impacts team performance. Authoritarian leaders:
Give little praise, only points out flaws
- Focus on control, discipline, and organization
- Keep decisions to themselves: all the policies, procedures, tasks, and even the rewards system
- Require unquestioning compliance, and give punishment for not complying
- Express manipulative or coercive behaviors
- Are intolerant of mistakes
- Tend to be emotionally detached, unable to empathize well with others
- Request little to no input from others
- Provide little to no feedback to their teams
What are the consequences of having such a leader? You guessed it: increased employee stress, demoralization, higher turnover rate, lack of motivation, and feeling resentful and undervalued. If you’ve ever felt this way on a team, you get it.
You might be reading this and think “that sounds like me!” or “that sounds like my boss!” Here’s the good news: awareness is half the battle. We have a choice in who we are, and our behaviors can change as we grow as leaders. Everything is a skill. Trust me.
No one wants an environment of high control—not even you. Authoritarian leaders may feel they have to behave this way*,* but it’s a false belief. Authoritarian leaders may be successful in the short term, but they are likely to be outperformed by psychologically safe teams in the long term. Why? Safe teams will be experimenting, iterating, and learning quickly while authoritarian teams are struggling to replace all of the A-players that quit.
So, what can leaders do to shift out of authoritarian, command-and-control habits and create psychological safety on their teams? Here are a few key focus areas.
How to create psychological safety at work
Lead the team through vulnerability. Small acts of vulnerability reduce work anxiety and increase team learning behaviors. When leaders actively share more of themselves at work, it shows the team that these behaviors are safe. Leaders can say:
- “What I’m really struggling with right now is…”
- “One recent mistake I made is…”
- “I feel afraid/worry/anxious/concerned about…”
- “I have exciting news happening in my personal life; let me share it…”
Be present for the team. Give everyone else security and peace by showing up and proving that you’ll be there for them, not just for a business transaction. Leaders can say:
- “That sounds really difficult. How can I help?”
- “Thank you for sharing that. Here’s what I heard from you…”
- “Let’s set up a separate time to share your concerns and we’ll talk it through.”
Create sharing environments. Invite others to share aspects of their personal situations as relevant to their work, such as scheduling. Trust employees to make the right choices for themselves and their families balanced against the needs of the team. Welcome others’ disclosures. Build confidence that sharing is not penalized.
Visualize recent safe situations. Discuss as a team where you have been successful at perspective-taking, speaking candidly, or creating an atmosphere where others can engage fully. This invites the whole team’s perspective on what is already working and shifts your awareness toward success.
Train the team. Individual leaders (like you) must practice skills like perspective taking, active listening, and inquiry that reveal the honest ideas and concerns of the team. Practice these together as a team, especially as a means to getting “real work” done.
Shut down blame and gossip. Putting these into practice means removing blame culture and chopping people’s heads off when mistakes are made. Watch out for those that shoot down interpersonal sharing or take advantage of anyone’s shared personal information to advance themselves.
The net result is your team feels confident to stretch higher and be willing to fail—ultimately pushing the bar higher along the way.
A great place to work
Psychological safety goes beyond interpersonal trust—it describes a team climate in which people are comfortable being themselves. Psychological safety predicts team performance, and by creating a psychologically safe environment on your team, the whole team experiences faster growth and a better workplace environment. You’ll find that the team learns faster, grows faster, and becomes happier. This is what a great place to work can look like. Who doesn’t want that?