Why culture change takes courage

Lately I’ve been writing about how we need to think about leadership in new ways. Forget the old model of heroic leadership and the Great Man Theory. We need leaders who foster a sense of safety and belonging so that all the best ideas can be brought to the table. Leaders who create an environment where people don’t fear saying the wrong thing or experimenting with new ideas.

People started writing me to ask: How can leaders do this?

I have many thoughts on this, which I’ll keep writing about, but I’m quite attached to one in particular. I embrace it cognitively due to research, and personally due to the transformational difference it has made in my own life.

What Makes Teams Successful

About a decade ago, Google launched a study called Project Aristotle to determine what made successful teams different from teams that falter. Was it demographic makeup, extracurricular socializing, gender balance? But, after examining “who” is on power teams, they still couldn’t figure out the magic ingredient for team success.

Next, they studied norms: unwritten rules, behaviours that were part of team culture. They determined that group norms are key to group effectiveness and then set about to see which norms were most important. Eventually, they saw that in the most effective teams:

  1. Individuals spoke in approximately equal proportion.
  2. Team members were tuned into one another, sensitive to each other.

In the academic world, these two factors are known as aspects of psychological safety. Amy Edmondson introduced this term in a 1999 article and defined it as “a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking.”

In other words, the most effective teams are psychologically safe, inclusive.

How to Create Psychological Safety

I was struck by the approach of a Google manager named Matt Sakaguchi. After ten months, he perceived his team as “a strong unit”. Therefore, he was surprised by a survey that revealed a general sense of discontent.

Sakaguchi got the team together, off-site. They started by sharing with one another. He went first and led in vulnerability. He shared that he had been battling Stage 4 cancer for several years, and a new spot had just been found on his liver.

Others started to share personal struggles, which led into conversations about small annoyances or interpersonal friction. They all agreed on new norms that, although they may not have known the term, would contribute to psychological safety.

Leading in vulnerability had fostered psychological safety.

Project Aristotle’s research hadn’t concluded that “getting people to open up about their struggles was critical to discussing a group’s norms. But to Sakaguchi, it made sense that psychological safety and emotional conversations were related.” Taking turns talking and showing empathy are what we do “when we need to establish a bond. And those human bonds matter as much at work as anywhere else. In fact, they sometimes matter more.” (1)

High-stakes workplaces

I put the last part of the quote above in italics because it echoes what Lieutenant-General Carignan recently said about the military:

“For a mission-oriented culture such as ours, there is a belief that tasks are to be done at all costs; that people’s wellbeing and operational effectiveness is a zero-sum game. This premise is false.

When applied indiscriminately, it contributes to toxicity within our units…we must have trust in one another to succeed in the challenging circumstances we so often face together.”

Sometimes human bonds do matter more. Sometimes they keep us alive.

The military has some language for this: esprit-de-corps, brothers-in-arms, morale, cohesion. Like psychological safety, these words speak to feelings, shared beliefs. The Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) acknowledges the importance of these concepts to the completion of missions.

Our Acting Chief of the Defence Staff (A/CDS) LGen Wayne Eyre reiterated this sentiment in a recent interview: “Operational effectiveness is based on cohesion. Cohesion is based on teamwork.” Teams cohere or, in psychological speak, form secure attachments when there is interpersonal safety.

From a New York Times article on Project Aristotle:

“No one wants to leave part of their personality and inner life at home. But to be fully present at work, to feel ‘psychologically safe,’ we must know that we can be free enough, sometimes, to share the things that scare us without fear of recriminations.

We must be able to talk about what is messy or sad, to have hard conversations with colleagues who are driving us crazy. We can’t be focused just on efficiency.”

I get the sense that General Eyre is absorbing a lot of modern leadership theory, like Amy Edmonson’s The Fearless Organization. In the CBC interview, he said, “The makeup of our teams are changing, especially as Canadian society changes. We can no longer have a cookie cutter solution to dealing with individuals.”

The A/CDS argued that we need to accept people in their uniqueness for them to truly contribute: “They need to have that full feeling of belonging, of being able to contribute to the mission, to be able to speak up and share their perspectives on what’s going on. To speak up when they see something that is not right. It’s just going to make us better.”

It basically sums up the research: operational effectiveness is achieved through psychological safety and inclusion.

Edmondson’s 1999 paper also describes psychological safety as “a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject or punish someone for speaking up…. a team climate characterized by interpersonal trust and mutual respect in which people are comfortable being themselves.”

These are the teams we want going into battle, or into the operating room, or flying our airplanes. These are the teams we want running our schools and our companies.

Contemporary Example of Brave, Inclusive, Vulnerable Leadership

The issue of toxic/exclusive vs inclusive culture is not unique to the military or other High Reliability Organizations (HROs). It’s everywhere we look: schools, churches, hospitals, charities, and private enterprises. Our whole society is tackling this one concurrently.

We are all vulnerable. The human condition is a state of being flawed and of struggle. Leading in vulnerability is saying that’s okay. You’re allowed to struggle. You don’t have to be perfect. We’ll accept you. We’ll hold you accountable for being your best self and living in integrity with our shared values. When you make mistakes, we’re here with you.

As I wrote in an article a few weeks ago, “We need to create the conditions in which it is safe to do the hard work of introspection that leads to personal growth.”

The most powerful way to make it safe is by example: demonstrate that it’s okay to be vulnerable, human, flawed.

We witnessed this last week in the interview with the A/CDS and Deputy Minister Jody Thomas. These two imperfect human leaders are working hard on a massive issue. Their words may not always come out right, but this is what it bravely leading in vulnerability looks like.

Acting Chief of the Defence Staff, Lieutenant General Wayne Eyre

People who have known General Eyre for a long time consider him to be an individual of strong moral character; a caring and compassionate human being. We don’t always get to see that side of him, especially in a culture that has been discouraging it for his entire adult life. Our A/CDS is extremely intelligent and a good fit for a military that pushes leaders to “be strong” by running fast and having the right answer.

As leadership coaches say: What got him here isn’t going to get him there.

What’s got our culture here isn’t going to get it there.

The current situation is demanding General Eyre to put aside the considerable strengths he has been taught to rely upon, and lead in a very risky way: not knowing the answer. I think he’s rising to the occasion.

In his public reflections, General Eyre bravely shared his emotional struggle: “I question what I didn’t see, I’ve reflected on this for a long time and I don’t know what didn’t register with me.” He spoke to his advantage blindness and took responsibility “for not making this institution good enough.”

No excuses, no examples of the times he tried. No objection that the system failed to prepare him to take better care of his troops. His ego (sense of self) is stable enough to eat the responsibility without crumbling to pieces.

And he added, “It’s profoundly uncomfortable. It affects our collective sense of professional identity. Well, that degree of discomfort has to continue if we’re going to make the change that is absolutely required.”

He acknowledged that although there are positive aspects of CAF culture, this doesn’t overshadow “the exclusionary aspects of our culture that absolutely have to be excised and removed.”

General Eyre’s behaviour here is often referred to as “leaning into discomfort” and it takes a lot of courage. His imperfections are on display for the whole nation (and world) to see, and he’s leaning into vulnerability.

He acknowledges how easy it would be to retreat into retirement, “understanding that I’ve got a diminished sense of moral legitimacy, given that I’m part of the generation and the generation that came before us, that didn’t make necessary change.” But he’s making the choice, he’s deliberately taking the risk of leading through a challenge that none of us is really equipped for.

Deputy Minister of the Department of National Defence, Jody Thomas

Likewise, our DM has invited us to hold her accountable, despite having a tough job in a tough climate.

She shared that “Madame Arbour wasn’t going to take it on if [the defence team leadership] were not going to take it seriously.” I take this to mean that Jody Thomas is all in. It’s brave to go all in, to put it all on the line. In public.

It’s brave to go all in, to put it all on the line. In public.

On the implementation plan, she was clear: “Our results will be tabled and made public…we expect Canadians to demand of us better and we will do better.” Those are hefty promises, and not political ones: she’s not an elected official. She truly invites accountability, and I believe she will answer honestly for any shortcomings.

Jody Thomas clarified that she wasn’t there when the Deschamps report was received; and that there was no civilian oversight for the Op Honour. At first this hit me as being defensive. After all, I’d feel defensive if people accused me of failing to do somebody else’s job. But are we looking for robot-leaders who never get defensive? Who smoothly deliver talking points? I’m not. Let’s measure the strength of our leaders based on their courage to tackle tough conversations in an open, honest, authentic way.

One thing she said really stuck with me: “It is incumbent upon all of us to call out that behaviour. At the same time, I mentioned that to Madam Arbour and she said to me, ‘right then, every time you call it out, you’re going to be told you’re weak, you’re too sensitive, you’re thin skinned’.”

I’m hearing the DM include herself in calling out the behaviour. She has similar work to the A/CDS (and most of us) in questioning what she hasn’t noticed. At the same time, she’s acknowledging how hard it is, how much cultural resistance exists. She might be the DM, but I’d say she’s no stranger to having men try to talk over her in meetings. It takes a lot of mental and emotional energy to hold all these competing views.

The shared human condition

Sometimes our leaders are going to slip back behind their old armour, they’ll sound robotic, they’ll repeat the same lines. I do that in the safety of my own home and with my family and friends; how much harder would it be to let down my guard in public.

Yes, the A/CDS and DM have chosen public roles; these are adult choices. But I’d argue that too few public leaders have truly provided positive examples. I think these two fine leaders would be the first to agree with you about all the mistakes they’ve made, things they’ve missed.

I have compassion for how difficult it is to lead by example: it’s quite heroic to lean into vulnerability, to admit faults, make mistakes, and take responsibility with the whole world watching. Their armour has gotten them through a harsh environment, and now we’re asking them to take it off and lead in vulnerability.

Well, I’m asking that of them.

Their armour has gotten them through a harsh environment, and now we’re asking them to take it off and lead in vulnerability.

We need tough conversations and painful introspection to get where we’re going. We need to hold opposing views that make us very uncomfortable and see the truth and validity on both sides. We have to believe victims and ensure due process for those facing allegations.

We have to hold space for those who have been traumatized, even when their pain comes out sounding angry, irrational, or venomous. We’ll need compassion for those in the powerful minority who have been blindly wielding power harmful ways.

We all have to be courageous during this time. We all have to sit in so much discomfort. We have to try out ways of being allies, and fail, and try again.

For people to feel safe doing this work, they need leaders to show us how it’s done. Leaders who admit they don’t know, who make mistakes publicly, invite criticism, and who are honest about their failures.

I’m grateful that, at this inflection point, the defence team is being led by two courageous, compassionate human beings.

One thought on “Why culture change takes courage

  1. Annalise, this is a timely and thoughtful article, with the powerful messages made more impactful by invoking your own observations and experience. I feel that we are all on an evolving cultural journey in which ‘old style’ leadership is increasingly being replaced with a more enlightened and human model, as clearly demonstrated by your examples of Deputy Minister Jody Thomas and Lieutenant General Wayne Eyre.

    May this journey continue to have a positive impact in the world of work, and in all aspects of society May you continue your own work of being a strong advocate, messenger, coach, and educator


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