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What can COVID-19 teach us about how we need to treat teams?


It turns out, a lot.  We have all seen and heard of the empty shelves in aisle 19, but have we stopped and thought why?  


Last week I was in a leadership seminar with master-trainer Aubrey Warren and social psychologist Dr Lauren Shaw and someone asked the question – ‘why do we panic buy?’.  The answer is simple – people feel the need to do something, anything when they face uncertainty.  In this example, it’s to prepare for a perceived future scarcity of what started as toilet paper and now includes tissues (a substitute product) and other groceries.  It’s our attempt to take control of a situation which is beyond our control.  Control is one of our fundamental psychological needs according to self-determination theory.

Why do we feel the need to be in control?  The reason is to build psychological safety.  Google cracked the code in 2012 with their workplace study – Project Aristotle.  They learned that psychological safety was the cornerstone for building high-performance teams.  Even before Google stumbled upon the importance of psychological safety, Harvard Professor Amy C Edmonson had been writing about it since the late nineties. 

Psychological safety fosters innovation.  It’s about providing a safe place for people to take ideation risk and to tackle difficult problems.  If you read my post about “Yes, And” you’ll recall it takes 3,000 ideas to create one commercially viable idea, so why wouldn’t we want to build innovative teams that ideate?  It’s a numbers game after all. 

Teams crave psychological safety and if we aspire to build high-performing teams then it is our responsibility to foster the culture.  How can we do this?  Amy C Edmonson offers a TED talk on it but it distils down to three things:


  1. Framing work as learning problems, not execution problems.

  2. Leaders acknowledging their own fallibility.

  3. Model curiosity and lead by questions.


Now is the time to look out for your teams, to build their psychological safety and foster innovation as working effectively as a team is essential to combating the effects of complex challenges like COVID-19.  

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