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  • Writer's pictureMatthew Davies

What do you do when it all goes wrong?

A little while ago, I spoke about addressing the elephant in the room when you're in meetings, and getting those big things out on the table. Part way through, as I was exploring psychological safety in a bit of detail, I wrote a paragraph which was starting to grow arms and legs, so I decided that to do the subject justice, it deserved its own blog!

In banking, there is a lot of talk about moments that matter. Opening your first account, depositing your first pay cheque, starting a family, borrowing money for a car, getting your first mortgage, etc. The big moments in our lives where your bank can have a massive impact, and where the service and the experience that you receive can make or break this relationship. Most people are too apathetic to change banks (and despite the switcher service that was designed to make it much easier and to drive competition, it's seen as a lot of hassle), so if a customer's provider of choice gets these things right, they'll very likely have a customer for life.

In leadership, the same concept applies. Starting in a new company/role, your first leadership role, falling ill, suffering a bereavement, celebrating success. All of these are moments that matter, where the relationship between the boss and their team, and the bond with the organisation more broadly can be cemented or the trust that underpins it can be destroyed.

But there's one moment that matters in particular, which I'd like to focus on, because it's absolutely pivotal to building psychological safety within a team: How do you behave as a leader, when your team make a mistake?

Psychological safety is one of the most common topics that I speak about at events and which appears in the leadership development interventions that I design and deliver. It is a phrase which was coined in the 1960s and came into prominence again in the 1990s but it's most frequently referenced these days as having been the big takeaway from Google's Project Aristotle, a piece of research undertaken in 2012 which you can read a great article about here. Essentially, Project Aristotle found that psychological safety, or the creation of an environment where people feel safe to speak up, try new things and admit to mistakes without a fear of negative personal impact, was a key factor in a team's success. They found that teams with psychologically safe environments had employees who were less likely to leave, more likely to maximise the power of diversity, and ultimately, were more successful.

Psychological safety isn't something that's built with a single act or intervention, it takes time, effort and consistency to create, but much like trust, it CAN be significantly damaged with a single incident. If you have a team member who makes a mistake, that presents you as a leader with a moment that matters - a fork in the road where you can act in a way which builds or reinforces psychological safety, or you can act in a way which erodes it. While mistakes are not desirable, if you want a team that is creative, that finds new efficiencies and new ways of doing things and which looks to stretch the boundaries of its capability, it is inevitable that mistakes will happen. We hear a lot these days about agility) with a big or a small 'A') and that is a methodology based on short iterative development and improvement, trying new things, making mistakes, learning from them and quickly pivoting to overcome them. If you want agility, you will get mistakes.

So what do we do when mistakes happen? Like many examples of great leadership, this stuff is pretty obvious, but common sense isn't always common practice. Here are a few tips:

  • Stop and reflect. When you get bad news or hear of an error, it's important that you respond rather than reacting. Pause, consider your response and be intentional about how you move forward. If you knee-jerk and explode in a fit of rage, you can apologise but you can't ever take that back. And when you do that, you lessen the chance of the team bringing bad news to you in the future, which means mistakes won't reduce, but they'll be hidden or covered up.

  • Separate the act from the actor. A mistake is a factor of what happened, not a factor of the person who did it. I firmly believe that nobody gets up in the morning and says "I can't wait to get into the office and be shit at my job!" So remember that a mistake is not a defining feature of the person who made it, it's simply something they've done or not done. When you give feedback, stick to the facts of the case. Protect their self image.

  • Reset and recalibrate expectations. If there are areas where you allow autonomy and creativity and others where, perhaps for regulatory or safety reasons, you expect things to be done absolutely by the book, reinforce that and remind people. Make sure they know where they have flexibility and freedom, where they don't, and why.

  • Recognise when your input helps and when it harms. If you're debriefing or holding a retro or a post-mortem, sometimes having the leader in the room does more harm than good. You might have heard of HiPPO (Highest Paid Person's Opinion) - and that's what you'll get. Everyone agreeing with you, even if they don't, to curry favour with the boss. Sometimes it's better to let them come up with the solution themselves.

  • Don't throw them under the bus. How you behave when there's credit given to your team and how you behave when there's criticism levelled at your team is important. Show them that success and failure are collective by protecting them, not hanging them out to dry.

A few ideas to get you started but I'd love to hear more. What approach have you taken when things have gone wrong and what have the impacts been?

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