Have you ever been in a meeting and your boss asks you a question about your ideas on a particular subject? After you share your thoughts, your boss has that look of disgust on their face and says, “we can’t do that because this is the way we have always done this,” or “we tried that in the past, and it didn’t work,” or everyone starts laughing and someone says, “their he/she goes again while rolling their eyes.” Negativity and dismissiveness hurt! When your boss responds this way, creativity stops and suppresses the rest of the group’s creative thoughts and ideas. No one wants to be humiliated like this in front of others.
Then it gets even better – you are in a meeting with the accounting and finance team, and they are reviewing your financial results for the last quarter. You are afraid to ask questions or make any comments because you don’t want to look stupid. After all, you don’t have an accounting or finance degree, so what do you know?
What is the real issue in both of these scenarios? The corporate culture does not allow you to speak your mind and ask questions without feeling insecure or embarrassed. In my 30+ years in the corporate world, I had experienced too many times when I was ridiculed because I said something that was perceived as stupid, or I should have known the answer. Is this behavior motivating, inspiring, or productive? Of course not, and yet, we’ve all experienced it at one time or another.
The good news is, you can create a culture where all ideas have validity, where ideas are accepted and discussed; and, where questions are asked without any judgment or the fear of embarrassment. Okay, quit shaking your head and thinking that will never happen, and saying, “there he goes again with his crazy ideas and comments.” As you continue to listen to this episode, do this – keep an open mind, and don’t pass judgment until you hear me out. Deal? DEAL!
There is one critical element in creating this new corporate culture, and that element is psychological safety. In a Harvard Business Review article titled, “High Performing Teams Need Psychological Safety And Here’s How To Create It,” the article defines psychological safety as “the belief that you won’t be punished when you make a mistake. Studies show that psychological safety allows for moderate risk-taking, speaking your mind, creativity, and sticking your neck out without the fear of having it cut off.” I know someone out there thinks that I am making this up and using HBR as a cover, but I am not. Psychological safety is a real thing. Google the term to learn more.
In a similar article by re:work titled “The Five Keys to a Successful Google Team,” the article starts off stating that “who is on a team matters less than how the team members interact, structure the work, and view their contributions.” In other words, the way the team collaborates is more important than who is on the team. In improv, the team is the sum of all of its parts not just the individual contributions.
The article goes on to state that there are “five key dynamics that set successful teams apart from other teams at Google, and the number one dynamic is psychological safety.” Psychological safety is defined as “can we take risks on this team without feeling insecure or embarrassed.” The remaining four dynamics are… well now – wait a second. I have a better idea. Google the article and read it to learn about the other four!
So, the question becomes, how do you increase psychological safety on your team? The HBR article states that “approach conflict as a collaborator, not an adversary when conflicts come up, avoid triggering a fight-or-flight reaction by asking how could we achieve a mutually desirable outcome and be curious to hear the other person’s point of view.”
I am no ‘brain expert’, but what I do know is that when you are harassed by your boss, or one of your coworkers with an over-developed ego, or one of the “whatever” coworkers, your brain goes into the fight-or-flight mode. In other words, we act first and think later. That has never happened to you, right? Well, when this happens at work, it debilitates our strategic thinking and kills our self-esteem. Are we now a productive member of the team or a disgruntled employee? Once again, you know the answer.
When I read both of these articles, my mind went straight to improvisation. For those who have been following my work, you are thinking “shocker.” (just a bit of sarcasm). There is a lot to unpack here, so let’s start with “the belief that punishment will not occur when you make a mistake.” In improv, we say, “there are no mistakes, only gifts, and happy accidents.” No one is perfect, and even those who don’t suffer from a lack of certainty make mistakes. Leaders and teammates need to respect each other, trust one another, and support each other when taking risks. Remember, there are risks in everything we do. Don’t punish but praise the person for taking the risk. There is another saying in improv, “Bad ideas are bridges to good ideas. No ideas lead to nothing.” If everyone justifies everyone else’s actions, there are no mistakes.
Then there is the fear of being embarrassed and feeling insecure. Once you put your ego out of the way, we stop judging others’ ideas – instead, we consider them brilliant and eagerly follow them! You see that great improvisers accept the ideas of the other teammates without judging them to be “good” or “bad,” always thinking, “This is now our idea.” When we do this unilaterally throughout our team and give people the freedom to speak their mind, magic will happen almost immediately.
One of my all-time favorite improv quotes describes psychological safety by saying, “There are gems in every idea. Embrace and build. Treat every idea as though it has the potential to change the world, and at some point, one will.”
Creating a safe place for the team to share their ideas under the umbrella of psychological safety may be easier to achieve versus asking a question during a financial meeting when you don’t have the financial foundation necessary to articulate a question. To avoid being perceived as stupid, we are more inclined to nod our heads up and down and agree than ask a question.
However, when you ask the financial question, you will more than likely receive an answer full of accounting and finance jargon, leaving you even more confused. So, what is the solution? Knowledge is the solution. Accounting and finance knowledge, to be exact. I addressed this in S4E8; I discuss what is financial leadership. The answer is taking an accounting and finance fundamentals course powered by Color Accounting.
In S4E8, I describe the Color Accounting process, the benefits, and provided three perinate examples. I would highly suggest that you listen to that entire episode to learn more. In the meantime, I have another case study to share with you, and it is entitled “We Could Save About $80K a Year.”
In early 2000’s, Mark Robilliard was facilitating a corporate workshop for team leaders and middle managers in a large multinational HQ in Sydney Australia. After becoming accounting literate using the Color Accounting System™, the final session in this particular workshop involved the participants having a quick review of their own work area and then discuss any thoughts on generating additional revenue or incurring less expenses. One of the participants (the Team Leader in the internal mail room) shyly raised their hand and nervously said “I think we could save about $80k per year if we changed how we do this process.” The CFO who just happened to be in the room almost fell off his chair and when he recovered his composure, he asked the team leader “How come you never brought this to us before?”. The answer was simple: “I just do my job – I didn’t know we should be thinking about the business too.”
What value would these type of business conversations have in any organization? Shouldn’t everyone be accounting literate and develop a ‘business owner’ type mindset?
Everyone in your organization should increase their accounting literacy because how much money would your organization save if they did their job AND thought about the business too. Novel idea, right?
How effective are your senior managers, managers, sales team, and back-office teams around finance? Do they perform with psychological safety in your accounting and finance meetings? Do they speak their mind and ask questions without feeling insecure or embarrassed?
In conclusion, the HBR article states, “if you create a sense of psychological safety on your team starting now, you can expect to see higher engagement levels, increased motivation to tackle difficult problems, more learning and development opportunities, and better performance.” So, what are you waiting for?
If you would like to learn more about how improvisation leadership creates a culture that fully supports psychological safety within the organization and/or more about the Color Accounting process, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.