As a leader, there are few things more uncomfortable than asking your team for feedback, only to be met with silence.
I recently witnessed this scenario play out firsthand. Unfortunately, in this case, the well-meaning leader made the situation worse by responding to the team’s silence with an angry outburst. Afterward, he asked me: “What is wrong with these people? I told them I want to know what’s on their minds, yet they sit mute and unresponsive.”
In my role as an executive coach, leadership development trainer, and positive psychology consultant, I see these kinds of uncomfortable interactions play out all the time. More often than not, the cause is rooted in one extremely important thing: a lack of psychological safety. When people don’t feel “safe,” they don’t feel free enough to speak up – even when asked.
Where fear is hiding in the workplace
Yes, people are literally afraid at work – and that fear can be triggered in ways that may surprise you.
Here are things I’ve heard from individuals who sit on teams that have difficult dynamics:
- They’re afraid if they speak up and share uncomfortable truths, it will come back to “bite” them later.
- They struggle with confidence (yes, even those who seem the most self-assured) and would rather stay in a quiet comfort zone than challenge a superior or the status quo.
- They worry that if they say something a manager doesn’t like, it will affect their possibility of promotion or, even worse, put them on a target list when the next round of layoffs comes.
- They struggle to know how to communicate hard messages and think others may judge them for even trying to articulate them.
- They fear not being liked, or even ostracized, by managers and teammates.
As I work with executives, I find that helping them understand the neuroscience behind their team’s behavior brings “lightbulb” moments that can help cultivate healthier team dynamics.
For example, the SCARF model, created by Dr. David Rock of the Neuroleadership Institute, is an excellent way to gain insight into difficult team interactions. Rock found that five social factors that can trigger a threat or reward response in the brain. The five factors make up the acronym SCARF:
- Status is about our relative importance within a group (“Am I respected and seen as important?”).
- Certainty is our brain’s desire to be able to predict the future (“Can I anticipate what is going to happen next?”).
- Autonomy is about feeling a sense of control over our lives and works (“What am I able to control?”).
- Relatedness is our sense of safety in our relationship with others (“How well do I belong? Am I supported by those around me?”).
- Fairness is about our desire to have justice and equity in situations (“Am I being treated fairly?”).
People need to feel safe in these five areas in order for them to perform at their highest levels and take risks.
On the other hand, when the brain feels threatened, it triggers a state of amygdala hijack. That’s the fight, flight, or freeze response where your heart beats faster, your palms start to sweat, and you feel the need to escape. The logical brain goes offline and the emotional brain takes over. Your ability to collaborate, innovate and be a productive team member goes down significantly.
Shifting from judgment to curiosity
People can sense when a leader truly wants to understand them and their team members. As leaders, if we can meet these uncomfortable situations with greater awareness of neuroscience – and with the tool of curiosity and a genuine desire to understand those around us – people will begin to feel safer. Curiosity is a more light-hearted, responsive energy than the fear-driven energy of instantaneous judgment.
On a practical level, there are five steps you can take this week to turn the insights from this article into action.
1. Raise your personal awareness.
Take the free SCARF assessment, available from the Neuroleadership Institute. This assessment will show you which of the five SCARF triggers may be impacting your work and your reactions.
You can even encourage your team to take this so everyone can gain a better understanding of the group’s drivers and inhibitors.
2. Look for common patterns in team members.
Step back this week and observe the dynamics in team meetings and in your one-on-one conversations. Notice if someone seems uncomfortable or hesitant to share with you. Which of the underlying “alerts” might be getting triggered?
3. Notice your triggers and rehearse better responses.
Study your own predictable patterns (yes, we all have them). Smile a bit here as you notice that the same things trigger you again and again. At the end of the day for the next several days, write down what those things were.
Then, relive those situations in your mind the way you wish you had approached them. Doing this will help you create the new neural pathways in your brain, so the next time you’re in the situation you’ll be primed to do better.
You may also start to surprise your team. Remember, if you change your side of the dance, those around you will have to adjust and dance differently too.
4. Commit to curiosity for 1 week.
Lighten up and be humble. Rather than assuming you know what’s going on with others, seek to understand. Become curious and truly interested in knowing your team members more deeply.
Before judging what they’re saying or what they’ve done, explore by asking simple but powerful questions, such as “What are your biggest concerns right now?” and “How can I support you?”
5. Try this new approach if there’s an awkward moment.
If an uncomfortable silence occurs, breathe deeply. Embrace the silence. Then say: “I’m noticing it got very quiet just now and I can imagine this is an uncomfortable topic. I truly want to hear your perspectives, so we can all work together as a team to solve this. I know it takes courage to speak up and it would be really helpful if we could have an open conversation about this right now.”
If silence lingers, then perhaps it will take some work to build greater psychological safety in the group. Adjust your approach. Start by having one-on-one conversations to build stronger relationships with the leaders on your team. With some encouragement and practice, they’ll start to feel more confident and secure, so they can eventually start opening up in group settings as well.
Patricia Omoqui is a Princeton graduate and former professional basketball player (Brazil, England and Sweden). She is a senior executive coach and leadership development and positive psychology consultant with more than 20 years of experience working with leaders up to the C-suite.
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