Coaching Story | Leaders Create a Safe Environment

One of my coaching clients is eager to implement numerous improvements in a rapidly changing information technology organization. Among the targeted improvements is more open and candid communication, especially in meetings. Over lunch, we discussed techniques and ideas worth trying. Three topics came up.

First, use of our personal leadership philosophy. Setting expectations, which may include how we should communicate with each other, is a vital part of anyone leader’s compass. We may even call out the need to keep key stakeholders in mind when making critical decisions, especially when leading teams in a support role to a larger enterprise.

Second we discussed how a safe environment may be created. We discussed our recent Academy Leadership Advanced Communications Workshop, which showcases Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan & Al Switzler’s pathfinder Crucial Conversations. The authors share that people who are gifted at dialogue keep a constant vigil on safety; or paying attention to the content of the conversation — that’s the easier part — and further, watch for signs that people are becoming fearful. Think about all the wasted time spent in meetings where real issues are avoided, or the conversation is entirely one-way information sharing. Listening to my client, it sounded as though historical conflict avoidance still exists, and needs to be addressed.

Which leads to our third topic, from Jeff Sutherland’s SCRUM, where he shares how poorly we are at estimating factors such as program cost and schedule. However, Sutherland notes, we are pretty good at making comparative assessments.

So we put it all together. The client, in a coaching role, can ask the team, on a scale of 1 to 10, with one unsafe, ten extremely safe, how safe they feel bringing up difficult topics and working through them. Let’s say the consensus today is a three for the group. My client can now request that the team work on improving their environment, and perhaps increasing the number from three to five or six in the next several months. It’s also a good idea to see if this new expectation is supported by his leadership philosophy, which he is actively sharing with the group.

How well does your team communicate? Does your team tackle substantive conflict, or tend to avoid uncomfortable topics? Great leaders create a safe environment.