Safety in Numbers: How Leaders Can Help Teams Thrive

No one thrives when they feel insecure. It only takes one negative, aggressive or apathetic person to drag down an entire team, causing productivity, creativity and innovation to plummet.

In my last post, I introduced the three qualities that all highly functional teams share: safety, vulnerability, and purpose. This week, I’ll discuss how leaders can create a sense of safety in their teams that prevents derailment even in the presence of uncooperative members.

In his book The Culture Code, Daniel Coyle emphasizes that safety is the foundation upon which feelings of the belonging are created: “The key to creating psychological safety…is to recognize how deeply obsessed our unconscious brains are with it. A mere hint of belonging is not enough; one or two signals are not enough. We are built to require lots of signaling, over and over. This is why a sense of belonging is easy to destroy and hard to build.”

The signals that Coyle refers to above include things like eye contact, body language, energy, turn taking, vocal pitch, and mimicry. They are the subtle, non-verbal cues that tell us whether or not we are accepted by and connected to others.

Coyle cites research that indicates there are five characteristics of successful teams:

  1. Everyone listens as much as they speak
  2. High levels of eye contact
  3. Equal communication between all team members
  4. Presence of back-channel and side conversations
  5. Periodical meetings to share information from outside of the team

You may notice that none of these characteristics have anything to do with the individual strengths or skills of members; rather, they reflect an atmosphere of mutual respect and consideration.

You may also be under the impression that getting a team to function this way is a matter of pure luck. While it’s true that some people will naturally get along better with others and vice versa, it often only takes one person to begin engaging in belonging cues for the rest of the team to follow suit.

If you are a team leader, start paying close attention to the nonverbal signals you send during meetings. Do you maintain good eye contact with every team member? Do you encourage everyone to speak equally? Are your tone of voice and body language energetic?

A coach can observe your interactions with your team and provide valuable feedback on how you can improve and create a stronger sense of safety. If you’d like to start a conversation, you can reach me via my website, LinkedIn and Twitter.

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