Establishing a Climate of Openness

As we wrote in our last blog on creating a high performing culture, Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson established the concept that a climate of openness is one of the three main conditions for building an environment of “psychological safety” among teams. So how do you get there?

First, define work as a learning experience. That means the leader clearly “walks the talk” in demonstrating that both failures and successes are opportunities to continuous improvement through shared lessons learned. The leader models behavior by owning his or her mistakes, and doing something about them.

To this end, successful leaders establish and promote tools such as the After Action Review (AAR), conducted after every significant event. We learned this powerful interactive technique as young Army officers, when we would gather the whole team after every mission and employ the AAR to examine:

  1. What happened.
  2. Why it happened.
  3. What we would sustain.
  4. What we would improve.
  5. Who would lead the fixes necessary, and by when.

We employed the AAR in the corporate world too, and it didn’t take long for our team members to open up and really participate in these reviews – because the input of every team member mattered, and we acted on the outcomes. Their jobs were not at risk when they offered up critical comments and recommendations for improvement; in fact, they felt more empowered along the journey. As the leader, you have to be willing to check your ego at the door when you go into the AAR, but soon people realize you are being open and honest. Trust is rapidly built in both directions.

Just as Google has enjoyed amazing success by establishing “psychological safety”, you can begin to build it in your organization by employing tools such as the AAR on a routine basis. It’s more than just a process. As John Lencioni writes in The Five Dysfunctions of a Team:

“Trust is the foundation of real teamwork…the first dysfunction is a failure on the part of team members to understand and open up to one another…if that sounds touchy-feely, let me explain, because there is nothing soft about it. It is an absolutely critical part of building a team. In fact, it’s probably the most critical.” (p.43)

When leaders employ practical applications such as the AAR on a regular basis, they are building a climate of openness – and ultimately, trust. Teams learn not to fear honest feedback and tough conversations, because everyone knows their opinions and ideas matter. And that’s when the learning happens, too. Learning organizations thrive in uncertain conditions, because they created a culture of openness.

Start employing tools such as the AAR in your team. Bring the learning to life, and build the openness to where everyone feels a sense of ownership. The “psychological safety” that results will amaze you – and blow away your competition. We can help, too.

Enjoy the journey!