Cultivating A Performance Culture Of Respect

There are few things more important for a leader than fostering a culture where people feel safe to contribute their ideas. In a psychologically safe workplace, people feel free to take risks without fear of any negative consequences for speaking up. I’ve seen firsthand the lengths involved in identifying, preparing and promoting talent when I ran a management assessment center. To spend plenty of resources for that purpose and then not use the talent is a terrible waste.

Amy C. Edmondson has written the latest sine qua non about psychological safety in the workplace. If you didn’t know, Google’s study on what makes the best teams was influenced by Edmondson’s early research. Google ranked psychological safety as the first and far and away the most important of factors vital for team success. But getting it right can get messy.

If you as a leader insist on high performance standards but neglect psychological safety, employees will want to speak up about quality or safety concerns, but they’ll feel anxious because they know that their observations and general input to make something better will be ignored or ridiculed. Their contributions, most of the time, aren’t welcomed, so they don’t offer input, and so on it goes. I’ve seen examples of this, and as an executive coach, I’ve heard of many more from my clients who share their stories. There have been situations where a senior leader demanded ambitious goals thinking it would take ambitious efforts, and then modeled bad behaviors such as a raised voice, throwing things and humiliating others with their words. The leader wanted to stretch the elastic band of possibility in an uncertain market, but their actions kept people silent, dampened people’s drive, encouraged cautiousness and promoted fear.

On the other hand, lowering performance standards and relaxing consequences isn’t the way to go about it either. When you do this, all you get is a “nice” culture at the expense of one that promotes challenge and innovates. Letting go of holding people accountable reduces people’s motivation to take risks and set ambitious goals. It reduces engagement.

If, however, there’s a high bar for performance and attention to promoting sensitivity when people take interpersonal risks, the environment will be productive, and people will feel open and ready to disagree. The Goldilocks principle is at play when this combination is exactly right. In a psychologically safe workplace, there’s challenging work to do in ways that are mutually respectful so that when people fail and recover, they do so without reprisal.

But let’s be careful not to oversell psychological safety. It doesn’t have the muscle to go all the way to motivate people to collaborate with one another, and that’s key because collaboration is how work gets done. Psychological safety is a hygiene factor, not an engine. When it’s absent, boy do we notice.

The Dynamism Of Trust And Collaboration

We also need to notice how psychological safety interacts with collaboration. What’s important for leaders to recognize is that trust is foundational. We can’t cultivate purpose without it.

We know that having a view beyond ourselves, to the group, the team, the enterprise and the higher mission opens our appreciation of what we are working towards and gives us the energy to work interdependently.

Collaboration without trust isn’t genuine or effective. The stepladder to effective collaboration begins with trust, so it’s disappointing that executives in a large study rated building trust very low in relation to the other factors of instilling purpose and generating energy. This news is hard to swallow and suggests that we still will be facing a trust deficit for some time.

I feel good about the leaders I know who read about management concepts with the intention of raising their leadership game. However, I’ve noticed as we hunger to learn, we can inadvertently overemphasize a useful concept like psychological safety, believing it can deliver more than it can. We can also slip up by overlooking the importance of trust in creating effective collaboration. Understanding and applying both go a long way towards creating a flourishing culture at work.


This article was published first on Thank you to Rodion Kutsaev for the photo.

How To Successfully Argue For A Co-CEO Role

Maybe you’ve heard of co-CEOing, two people sharing the same role at the top of an organization. Sure, some founding entrepreneurs are choosing to run their company as co-CEOs but so are others. It’s a small trend that some people are hoping will catch on. If you are searching for a stable governance model and persuasive arguments to a board of directors, there are good reasons to consider this approach.

I spoke with 2 co-CEOs about how they lead an organization together. Jocelyn Mackie and Dr. Karlee Silver are former executive clients of mine. They worked as colleagues for the past 6 years, much of time reporting directly to the CEO. I was introduced to them worked after I coached the CEO and founder who gave them the opportunity to grow and develop with a coach’s help. They now co-lead Grand Challenges Canada (GCC), an ambitious global innovation platform that has been securing low cost and high impact innovations.

If you want to share the CEO role for your organization, their experience can offer up a few persuasive arguments:

1. Good decisions come from divergent thinking. I’ve seen how more deliberate thinking happens when two equal voices work together to create better decisions. Bringing two heads together is even more vital now with the increased pressure to have a broader outlook and creative approach to solve problems.

2. Responsibilities are clearly defined. Jocelyn leads the operations, finance, communications and legal teams and Karlee leads the investment, programs, knowledge management and the innovation marketplace teams. Each works to her areas of experience and strength. There’s joint decision-making on strategic items of top importance to the organization which include strategy, board and primary funder relationships, and shaping organizational culture.

3. Shared and equal accountability. I believe co-CEO model could work without both individuals sharing accountability for the organization’s successes and failures.

4. Greater reach. You can be at 2 places at once with competing priorities because there are 2 of you.

5. A track record of collaborative decision making. Working together for years has groomed Jocelyn and Karlee to be receptive to one another’s ideas and willing to adjust their thinking so that they are reliably able to reach an agreement.

6. Sustainable working lives. In my experience, newly promoted leaders often seek to have work-life balance. Sharing the role means one unplugs over their vacation and family emergencies that come up, while the other takes charge. It’s seamless. The future of work is shifting towards alternative schedules to include life’s priorities, such as a healthy lifestyle and more time for family and friends.

7. It’s less stressful at the top. Having someone to share the burdens of strategy and fiscal responsibility could be less stressful on you.

8. Different backgrounds mean more expertise. Each have different backgrounds: law and business for one and science and programs for the other, which is beneficial for their organization. It’s a great advantage to have two CEOs with different backgrounds, because it’s a challenge for one person to go broad and sufficiently deep in what is demanded from a single CEO in this age of complexity and churn.

Because the co-CEO model hasn’t yet achieved widespread acceptance, people may contest that it can’t possibly work. That’s why it’s worth developing your positioning to address these challenges, too. Here are a number of objections and useful things to consider:

Objection: There will be confusion and chaos if there is no tie-breaker.
Consider: How will you make decisions when each of you has a different view?

Objection: Only someone who will do it all should assume the role.
Consider: Can you demonstrate confidence that you can do the role in its entirety but benefit the organization by having the two of you?

Objection: Collaboration is a nice idea, but only 1 person can fill the vital role of CEO.
Consider: Find other examples of where it’s worked and prepare success stories where collaboration won the day.

Objection: A CEO is always the leader out in front.
Consider: Leadership is multidimensional. Leaders operate not just out in front but in tandem with other leaders where the interplay of leading and following happens organically and authentically.

Objection: It will be twice as expensive to have 2 people in the role.
Consider: What smart economics can you identify to have two people occupy the role? Where are the efficiencies you can propose in the organizational design?

Two Women as Co-CEO’s

Having 2 women in the role is making a difference. Karlee regularly calls out the lack of gender mix on panels on the international stage and both want to work towards greater diversity in Grand Challenges Canada to reflect the people in the countries where they make a difference. They feel pride in innovating a collaborative model that positions the organization well for the future. In Canada, a women-led international development organization is in tune with the country’s feminist international assistance policy (FIAP) based on an understanding that women have unequal access to opportunities. Having two women lead an organization overall is viewed well.

You might want to consider the advantages of sharing the top role with someone else. For CEOs everywhere, the leader role is a lonely one. Two isn’t just far less lonely; it can also provide for more agility to have two senior leaders with distinct backgrounds get the best strategic thinking for your organization.

Thank you to Luke Schobert for the photo.

Why Some Resist Collaborating Across Silos (it’s not what you think)

We’ve had a love-hate relationship with silos. How else can we explain their persistence? Silos can be nasty. Unchecked, they promote narrow thinking, duplication, and poor coordination. They can be interminably slow, and frequently contribute to poor alignment and accountability challenges.

One of the reasons for their endurance is that they benefit people. They add an appearance of control and certainty in a world of ambiguity. And they also add closeness and trust in our working lives. Silos fulfill our desire for a sense of belonging because we share a good deal with others who are with us in our silo, and if things are working as they should, high trust relationships develop. To make silos work far better, we know that collaborating across boundaries to coordinate efforts, solve problems and build networks is vital for higher quality integrated solutions and alignment. The overall benefits are that the organization adapts, performs and innovates. Yet for some, reaching out to others they do not know is a risk.

The Unpersuadables

There is something at work that is more visible today than even a year ago in this disruptive global political landscape. It’s about a particular mindset. It comes down to whether or not we feel that we can influence others. Not everyone is open to being influenced, and this can create a logjam. It stands to reason (and borne out by research) that those who have a fixed view about the non-persuadability of others are themselves unwilling to change their minds, and so likely to engage less in discussion and debate. Think about that for a moment. Those who hold this mindset are motivated to initiate engagement only if they feel it’s an opportunity to advance their views by standing up for them, but they don’t seek out opportunities to engage if they expect that others will try to change their mind.

It’s indisputable that influencing is a leadership competency. You can’t lead if you don’t have the tools to persuade others to come along. Yet people who believe that they and others have fixed attitudes and ideas that can’t be influenced are naturally more likely to be pessimistic about collaborating. All leaders want to persuade and influence. What’s surprising is that there are some who are unaware that they are perceived as un-persuadable by those who work with them. They are motivated to have others hear their view and strengthen and protect it. Clearly this is problematic for individuals, teams and organizations.

Merging Lanes

As a refreshing alternative to this problem of positionality, Give & Get for enterprise, a unique reciprocity circle, is a means of bringing people together across silos for mutual gain. In it we engage people by asking for their input and we circumvent the snag that positionality presents. There isn’t the opportunity to defend or push a viewpoint because it’s not the design or the intention. We also make it easy to cooperate with others by curating an independent group of participants instead of hoping people will seek others out with a view that is different than their own. And we connect and inspire by exposing participants to reciprocation where they get immediate evidence of how everyone benefits when people share. Reciprocity is among the oldest of human needs and it’s difficult to resist.

Working with those for whom ideas are entrenched is difficult because they see the world in terms of right and wrong. And they themselves miss out by forfeiting opportunities to influence others and truly lead. It’s a lose-lose game for everyone. Give & Get enables those with this mindset to join others and experience mutual interest as an approach in action. At the heart of it, one positive contribution is met in kind with another and this pulls everyone in without leaving anyone out. Reciprocity makes it possible for collaborative relationships to happen as a natural follow up of a person’s initial actions of generous giving. Further, it offers the opportunity to influence far more than one’s own initiatives and to be part of something bigger.

We have a lot at stake in this age of disruption where there’s an urgent need for innovation fuelling our interest in interdependencies over compliance, collaboration over autonomy, diversity of thought over siloed thinking, experimentation over perfection, and agility over predictability. We can increase the appetite for collaboration if we curate Give & Gets with the right individuals across the organization to promote inclusion and make it convenient, enjoyable and effective to influence and be influenced. It’s how we connect silos. The kind between groups and the mental kinds of our own making based on our beliefs about belief itself.