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Providing Top Cover Part 2
Welcome to Polymathic Being, a place to explore counterintuitive insights across multiple domains. These essays take common topics and explore them from different perspectives and disciplines and, in doing so, come up with unique insights and solutions. Fundamentally, a Polymath is a type of thinker who spans diverse specialties and weaves together insights that the domain experts often don’t see.
Today's topic is the second of two parts on providing Top Cover. The first essay covered the concept of creating stability and consistency in execution to protect your teams from the chaos of many organizations. This part will cover providing psychological safety and standing up for your team when they come under criticism. We’ll investigate the right way to stand up for your team and how to enable people to bring their whole selves to work to maximize productivity.
In Part 1 of this series, we looked at providing Top Cover in the form of a protective bubble around your team to stop the chaos of processes and execution. That’s an essential first step but to truly unlock a team’s potential you need to provide the second form of Top Cover; psychological safety.
I can only count on one hand (barely) the number of leaders I’ve had that have truly established psychological safety. It’s a phrase that is used a lot and one that I’ve put more and more weight behind, not in a coddling and triggered sort of a way, but in the true form of allowing people to confidently voice disagreement, challenge the status quo, and think differently than myself or anyone else.
One leader, in particular, was a former Airforce Colonel, let’s call him Will, whom I worked with at an Aerospace company. I’d just left a caustic leadership structure where the Director ‘solved’ the problem by laying off the entire team and opening new positions. He ended up being let go due to an ethics complaint I filed based on fraudulent metrics but that’s a whole other story. To say I joined Will’s team with some baggage was an understatement.
And dealing with stakeholders, when you are trying to affect change, is guaranteed to cause some level of disagreement and controversy. In one particular case, a stakeholder was exhibiting some of the worst behaviors I’ve ever seen and rejected any attempt to reconcile to a common viewpoint. Long story short, I got back to the office and let Will know that I had a bad interaction. His response:
“I know, they already called me.”
My stomach plunged, I didn’t know what to do and all I saw was ‘coaching’ heading my way. Instead, Will looked at me and said:
“Mike, if you’re not pissing people off, you’re only average.”
I was dumbstruck. If you know me, you know that’s rare. He continued:
“I know what you’ve been asked to do is hard, and I know that these people are resisting, let’s take a look at what happened and where we need to go from here.”
That’s psychological safety.
Providing Top Cover
There’s a leadership trait that I see all too often that I’d like to focus on here. It’s the assumption of guilt instead of innocence. It’s reactive instead of proactive, and it ignores the larger systems perspective.
For example, let’s say I have an interaction with Bruce that doesn’t go well. We could address this one of two ways.
“Mike, what’d you do to Bruce, he’s upset, that’s not cool.”
“Mike, Bruce is upset, what happened?”
Clearly, #2 is at least open to the presumption of innocence. If I can’t explain why Bruce is upset, and I don’t at least have an idea of what we need to do next, then that’s a great opportunity for some leadership assistance.
I’ve found when dealing with my teams that, if I listen to them, they actually have a good idea of what’s wrong even if they don’t know what to do. This is the first step of psychological safety: Don’t assume they don’t know or that what happened was a mistake, don’t assume the complainant is right, and don’t assume anyone has looked at the larger system.
I’ll work to illustrate this point with a few examples.
Why’s Bruce Angry?
Systems Thinking, by its nature is going to challenge a lot of assumptions. The divergent thinking and the solutions that show that the ‘good ideas,’ aren’t good are crucial to actually solving our increasingly complex problems.
Think about it, is addressing Functional Stupidity, The Successfully Unsuccessful, or many of the other topics we’ve explored together going to result in people being grateful for the insight or defensive of their own behaviors and foibles?
When Bruce got angry, I knew why he got angry. It’s because his analysis was predicated on assumptions that were documented but absurd. What his technical solution solved was a problem that just did not exist in the real world. Even worse, assuming it did exist and developing the solution would actually exacerbate dozens of other problems. So I pointed that out, enlarged the system, and provided new assumptions to work from. I wasn’t an ass, but I also wasn’t going to let bad assumptions stand.
Yet my leadership responded as if the offense Bruce took was worse than the repercussions of the analysis. (Which likely were millions of dollars and Soldiers’ lives) But this missed a second point. I knew he was angry, and I knew why AND I had a plan for how to deal with it. But first I needed him to go through the 5 Stages of Grief and he had just gone from Denial to Anger.
I had a plan to get him through and yet the anger was enough for my leadership to push back on me because “We can’t have an angry stakeholder.” But how is anything going to get better if we never allow the status quo to be challenged? To date, they’ve invested millions of dollars and I just heard that it got rejected because it solves no real problem. (see Functional Stupidity)
The key to this example is to know, as good leader Will showed, sometimes people will get upset when they are shown to be in error. This is not only natural, but it’s essential for actual change. The key is the plan for how to shift them to a new area. Starting off with the assumption that the ‘offender’ is wrong is not the way.
Forming, STORMING, Norming, Performing
Many people in the business and leadership world are familiar with the Tuckman's stages of group development. The classic Forming, Storming, Norming, and Performing. This is the model ALL teams go through. Anyone who thinks they skip storming will never actually get out of storming. It’s an essential step to acknowledge and face so that you can move more quickly into norming.
I had a team member, we’ll call her Jane, who I got a nasty e-mail about. According to this other manager, she was obstinate, contrarian, and difficult and was disrupting their ‘high-performing team’.
That last statement raised a red flag immediately.
The team was new
Jane had just joined
No team starts as high-performing.
I realized the issue was likely less Jane, and more the team, and specifically this manager. I had a quick phone call with the manager and found out more. First, they had no idea about the Tuckman Stages. Second, they only heard this from one of their team members. Third, they’d never talked to Jane.
So I did a quick walking meeting with Jane to keep it informal and figure it out. She was super nervous and worried so I just asked her what was going on. She knew exactly what was happening but not why. Yes, she was being contrarian and difficult but she felt like she was being disrespected because one of her expectations of the team was constantly being stepped on. It’s actually the foundational story of an axiom we developed with my team.
Unspoken expectations are guaranteed to be violated.
I asked her whether the person in question knew what she expected. Her response was, “Well, I’d never have done that to him!” Which led to a second axiom for the team:
We expect from others what we expect from ourselves.
In a world of increasing diversity, why on Earth would we expect everyone to have the same expectations as us? This is where it becomes so important to embrace the Storming phase because that’s where we uncover and can document all those expectations.
Jane and I set up a plan of action and how to express her expectations and how to work through the storming phase. I offered to only step in if needed and I coached her whenever she wanted. Two weeks later I called the other manager again and heard only glowing feedback.
The thing is, it wasn’t just Jane. In fact, 80% of the problem was the other 4 people that reported to that manager and that manager’s fault. They all blithely assumed that there’d be no storming, that conflict was to be avoided, and that diversity was to be minimized through groupthink.
I have a friend we’ll call Amy who works at a major tech firm in the US. It’s a prestigious job but there are a lot of layoffs happening this year and so anxiety is high. There’s a term called ‘Unregretted Attrition’ which basically means you find any excuse to justify laying someone off without a severance or Reduction in Force which you have to report to investors.
Literally any concocted rational will do.
As you can imagine, this is not a great time for psychological safety. It’s even worse when the manager tosses you ambiguous but ‘uncomfortable’ feedback right before the weekend and you hear nothing for four days.
A leader needs to be clear and precise with feedback, especially in these times. I worked with Amy for 6 days as she panicked, literally worrying herself sick. This is why it is essential for leaders to provide Top Cover by clearly knowing what the feedback is, the context, and the severity and to specifically hold the party making an accusation accountable for accuracy.
Let me restate that last point. I will hold you accountable for your feedback to a higher level than I will hold my team member accountable. I will ensure your feedback is accurate, actionable, and contextualized. It also takes two to tango and I’ve only rarely come across a case where that isn’t true. I owe it to my team to have something that we can use to make the necessary adjustments even if it includes adjustments to the person making the complaint.
A great book on this topic is called Crucial Accountability: Tools for Resolving Violated Expectations, Broken Commitments, and Bad Behavior. And yes, as often, that crucial accountability has to be directed at the person providing feedback to ensure I separate the gold nuggets from the rubbish of poor leadership.
One element in this book that’s essential is to separate the facts from the stories. Stories are those things we tell ourselves about what happened.
“Amy is rude.”
The facts are the details of what actually happened.
“Amy raised her voice.”
“Amy stood up at the table.”
The key to good leadership is to separate the facts from the stories of the person lodging the complaint, and then provide a clear context, without leaving anything hanging, for the person receiving the complaint. In this case, Amy is passionate and trying to express a point she feels no one is listening to her on. So, who is rude? Those that were shutting down the conversation or Amy, trying to be heard?
You’ve got to provide your team with psychological safety so they can feel confident in engaging in the increasingly challenging ecosystems as well as tackling the increasingly complex problems that we need to solve.
Providing Top Cover is partly creating stability and partly creating psychological safety. I’ll add a caveat here that this psychological top cover isn’t coddling or protecting. It’s ensuring that we understand the entire system, that we’ve analyzed the issue from multiple perspectives, that we have the curiosity to explore the topic, and that we are on the side of our team.
Way too many leaders will jettison an employee at the first sign of any disagreement or trouble. Yet this is weak. Exceptionally weak. A leader should stand with their employee because that employee, and their success in working through this issue, is more reflective of the leader.
When you provide Psychological Top Cover and you work to grow and improve your team, you find that you’ve unlocked such a crazy source of empowerment and talent that you’ll watch them move mountains. That’s what I experienced with a team of 16 very young, very inexperienced, and very diverse engineers. I was constantly fielding calls, complaints, criticisms, and frustrations. We had arguments in the team, and we had interpersonal and performance issues regularly.
Yet we focused on the storming, I held proactive accountability to those giving feedback, I learned from my team the nuances of what was happening, and we transformed the business. We literally solved wicked problems that had stymied teams of highly experienced engineers for decades. We achieved data analytics models that no one had thought of. We progressed through a digital transformation that had stagnated. We got cyber analytics completed that was heading toward disaster.
When you create stability and psychological safety you provide the right Top Cover that unlocks incredible innovation, achieves true change management, and transforms systems that had been ossified for decades. Not to mention creating a space for people to learn, grow, stumble, fall, and get back up with confidence.
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