Two Keys to High-Performing Teams

HCLI Research
Published 22 December 2017

Our workforce is afraid and disengaged, and traditional training is not working. How do we build a truly smart workforce?

Have you ever been in a team meeting, and not felt that your idea or comment was going to be well received by the team? Have you ever felt uncomfortable asking a question to your team or in a group setting?

Our brains are constantly scanning for whether we are safe. This was useful in primitive period when it was a real risk that we could be eaten at any time, so we were on constant alert to decide whether a fight or flight response was needed. In today’s workplaces, when our amygdala is hijacked with fear, we shut down our ability to think clearly.

So how do we feel safe to express an opinion, ask a question or make a decision in today’s volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world?

I first came across the concept of Psychological Safety when I read about Google’s Project Aristotle research on what makes high performing teams. When our workplace feels challenging but not threatening, we can diverge and converge and make better decisions. As Paul Santagata from Google writes in a recent HBR article, “oxytocin levels in our brains rise, eliciting trust and trust-making behaviour. This is a huge factor in team success, and in Google’s fast-paced, highly demanding environment, our success hinges on the ability to take risks and be vulnerable in front of peers.” Santagata outlines six ways he creates psychological safety with his team and they are relevant here in Asia. The most challenging aspect for Asian leaders is to ask for feedback, which requires vulnerability, because of our conditioned fear towards being perceived as uncertain in our decisions and behaviours.

The prize, however, when we are able to create psychological safety is not just teams that are performing at their best. According to Paul Zak, a pioneer in the field of neuroeconomics, when comparing employees at low-trust organisations, people at high-trust companies report: 74% less stress, 106% more energy at work, 50% higher productivity, 13% fewer sick days, 76% more engagement, 29% more satisfaction with their lives, and 40% less burnout.

Many companies already understand that the other driver to growth is diversity – of perspectives, experiences, cultures, genders, and age, because this drives innovation. However, some companies that have adopted diversity initiatives do them with a “tick the box” mentality. This, like many learning and development programmes, focuses on measuring diversity metrics (e.g., number of women in leadership positions) and maybe some unconscious bias training. These initiatives fall short of delivering to the true potential because they are missing the “I” in “D&I” – inclusivity.

The accountant in me asks why do we continue to spend resources on a half-solution?

It is no different than when we spend resources on face-to-face workshops, but we do not adequately support our learners with embedding the new knowledge into new skills and behaviours, despite knowing 80% of what they have learnt they will forget within one week if they do not start applying their knowledge. Or look for candidates who have the paper qualifications, and not do enough testing to ensure they actually have the skills. Similarly, diverse new recruits facing a “non-inclusive” culture will eventually leave or quietly underperform.

A recent study by CultureAmp and Paradigm indicated very weak correlations between how an organisation values diversity or builds diverse teams and employee engagement. In the end, the same factors consistently appeared as having the most impact on employee engagement:

  • I feel like I belong at my company
  • I feel respected at my company
  • I feel satisfaction with the decision-making process
  • I feel I can have open and honest two-way communication

Belonging has a strong correlation to commitment and motivation at the workplace, directly translating to employee retention, pride, and motivation. This study outlines the six ways to foster belonging, and my favourite tip is to be intentional about inclusion. This includes avoiding groupthink, and allowing people to challenge themselves to be courageous to own an idea by writing down the idea/opinion, put it up on a wall, group them, and then have an open group discussion.

However, being intentional is not easy for many of us. It is so easy to be on autopilot. It is easy to just be so focused on getting through the agenda, without being intentional on being inclusive or the quality of the conversations.

So what is the solution? Well, the practice of mindfulness—adopted by teams at Google[1], SAP, and Aetna– has shown increases in attention/focus, improved cognition, emotions, behaviour, and physiology resulting in improved performance, relationships, and wellbeing.

So what is mindfulness?

Mindfulness is a method of shifting your attention inward to observe your thoughts, feelings, and actions without interpretation or judgment. A mindfulness practice often begins simply by focusing on your breath, noticing when your mind wanders, and then bringing it back to your breath.

However, the gold is not in mindfulness alone, it is only if with the increase in self-awareness we then act to develop emotional intelligence skills like empathy, conflict management, and influence. Here are some examples you can start with today:

  1. Laugh at your own mistakes.
  2. Notice when the team is stuck and then suggest you do something fun to re-energise.
  3. Explicitly state you want to find common ground, and acknowledge the intention of each member of your team to contribute and solve the problem at hand. Acknowledge the different points of view that could lead to a more potent solution.
  4. Listen mindfully and respectfully to each other. Treat each listening moment as an opportunity to learn something new.
  5. If you are the leader, hold back on giving your opinion until everyone has had a chance to speak. This should avoid the echo chamber problem.

I used to be afraid that doing more mindfulness practices would reduce my “edge” – I was scared of being so calm that I would not be able to communicate the passion that drives me in my work. Thankfully, I have had the privilege of meeting many mindfulness practitioners who are leaders in the business world. When I have listened and observed how they communicate, I notice and am inspired by how they are calm, articulate, warm, and deeply alive. If you are still sceptical, look around in your organisation, and find people who have these traits. Ask them what do they do to have developed these traits.

I am by no means an expert practitioner in either mindfulness or emotional intelligence (EQ), but like everyone else, I am deeply human and a work in progress.

“We are not thinking machines that feel; rather we are feeling machines that think,” states Antonio Damasio, Neuroscientist. To truly be a Smart Nation, we need to be lifelong learners – to unlearn what we have learnt that does not serve us any more, to re-learn our humanity, and to be agile in what and how we learn to stay relevant.


[1] In 2007, Singaporean and veteran engineer Chade-Meng Tan assembled leading experts in mindfulness, neuroscience and emotional intelligence to develop an internal course for his fellow Googlers. The Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute programme has since reached 20,000 people in more than 100 cities.

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