Sunday, March 17, 2019

An idea to create a net of Psychological Safety for demo presenters

Not so long ago, Google researchers set out on a project code-named Project Aristotle - a tribute to Aristotle’s quote, "the whole is greater than the sum of its parts". Their goal was to answer the question: “What makes a team effective at Google?

The key findings from Google's research can be found here. For the rest of this article, I want to focus on one of the 5 findings that this study brought forward about building an effective team, Here goes:

Psychological safety: Psychological safety refers to an individual’s perception of the consequences of taking an interpersonal risk or a belief that a team is safe for risk taking in the face of being seen as ignorant, incompetent, negative, or disruptive. In a team with high psychological safety, teammates feel safe to take risks around their team members. They feel confident that no one on the team will embarrass or punish anyone else for admitting a mistake, asking a question, or offering a new idea.

In other words, Psychological safety is about how much risk team members perceive and what consequences they believe they may face when asking a question, suggesting a new idea, or owning up to a problem (in essence, the team members’ ability to trust others on the team)

The core question is: How can a leader build the feeling of Psychological safety in the work environment ? I was faced with this question sometime back. While leading a high profile Innovation program, i anticipated a situation where people wouldn't feel comfortable receiving the feedback for their demo pitch presentation practice session in a public setting in presence of other teams (with people of varying seniority).

One may argue why would i have wanted to give feedback on pitch presentation in an open setting. There were a few reasons:

1. Giving feedback openly helps in creating an multiplication effect i.e. smart teams learn from the feedback being given to other teams and improve even before getting on practice stage.
2. Secondly, I believe that the hallmark of an open culture is where people can convey and receive any sort of feedback openly.

To deal with the situation, I took inspiration from my past association with Toastmasters club. Toastmasters International is a US headquartered nonprofit educational organization that operates clubs worldwide for the purpose of promoting communication and public speaking skills. A few years back, Toasmasters club was installed in the organization. I was one of the few participants from the first batch and completed the entire duration that had some interesting communication/presentation challenges. 

For all the goodness that Toastmasters club brought in, one of the things that stayed with was the way the feedback was given during Toastmasters sessions. From among the Toastmasters in the audience, different roles were designated for capturing the feedback from each speech, some of which were:

  • Ah-Counter: The purpose of the Ah-Counter is to note any overused words or filler sounds.
  • Grammarian: The Grammarian helps club members improve their grammar and vocabulary.
  • Timer: A Timer is responsible for monitoring the time of meeting segments and speakers.
  • Evaluator: Evaluators provide verbal and written feedback to meeting speakers.
So every speech was dissected by each of these judges and feedback conveyed right after the speech, in front of everyone. As i experienced, it worked wonders as speakers got immediate feedback and very specific, actionable insights.

While thinking to solve the problem that i was trying to solve about creating the psychological safety of demo presenters during practice sessions, i thought about how did the process work so well during Toastmasters sessions. Further thinking led me to believe that part of the reason it worked was because speakers were told upfront about the culture in the speaking room and the rules of the whole setting.

The mere act of upfront communication, followed by quality reinforcement led to not only the right setting of expectations but also creating that often elusive safety net for presenters that led them to believe that 'It's ok to make mistakes'.

I followed the similar approach of laying out the rules of the demo pitch presentation sessions upfront and send it over email and promoting using all other means like pasting on the walls while ensuring that people get the message.

What rules did I create ? They are as listed below:

Did these work ? How did i measure the effect of creating these rules ? Unfortunately, there was no objective way to measure other than counting the number of participants (which showed a positive trend since). But anecdotal feedback about bringing this revealed that people liked an environment where they weren't being judged and they loved the stage where they could experiment with demo presentation approaches and get better.


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