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How Psychological Safety and Accountability are Inextricably Linked

Copyright Marie-Claire Ross Pty Ltd

In a highly popular Tedx video, Amy Edmondson, a Harvard Business professor, talks through her research on the impact of accountability and psychological safety in teams.  She discovered that when high levels of psychological safety and high standards collide it leads to high performance.

Her theory has been the genesis for these four zones of team performance based on work I have done with teams over the years.  Except in my work, I found that accountability was a better terms for organisations. These zones are unpacked in more detail in my book, TRUSTED TO THRIVE: How leaders create connected and accountable teams. (download a free chapter here).

Let me step you through the model above.  Essentially, both psychological safety and accountability are modelled and managed by the team leader. How a leader models and rewards behaviour creates the culture in which a team operates:

Achievement Zone – This occurs when a team leader creates stretch goals and challenges direct reports to improve and strongly believes they can achieve.  A lot of leaders approve small incremental improvements to goals.  But a leader in this zone treats employees like athletes pushing them to continually improve – breaking their best records, not by a few degrees but through dramatic improvement.  Employees work in a supportive environment where they work together to break their records every day.  This only works when the leader leads by example, works hard to ensure they are trusted by the team and encourages team members to trust one another.

Anxiety Zone – Teams in this zone are high-performing and can often be lauded throughout an organisation for their work ethic and focus on results.  But they are psychologically damaging environments as the focus is on outputs, rather than people.  Employees are worked hard, criticised profusely and have little support from their leader or teammates.  Typically, it’s a competitive environment where staff are pitted against each other due to the false belief that this will make them do better work.  Stress and burnout are major issues in this zone.  Employees often complain about ‘feeling bashed up’ when they present ideas at meetings.  This zone is common in high pressure environments such as IT, legal, finance and medical.  Interestingly, some purpose-driven organisations can often be found here because they reward behaviours that are aligned to the purpose.  However, they often confuse rewarding achieving purposeful outcomes as being a success indicator, rather than the right behaviours to achieve them.  Meaning that toxic behaviours can run rampant as they run under the guise of purpose, therefore masking the real impact to staff wellbeing. 

Abatement Zone – In this zone, leaders are often uncomfortable improving themselves and subsequently pulling people up for poor performance.  This comfortable and mind-numbingly boring (but happy) place is when leaders create psychological safety, but don’t hold their employees accountable for excellence. This is the confusing employee engagement result that points to high employee engagement in a team, despite poor productivity (and other teams totally frustrated with their lack of performance).  In this environment, employees have no incentive to stretch themselves, be proactive or creative.  Performance here is abating.  Employees believe they’re doing a good job but have no desire to improve or even think differently.  Usually leaders in this zone are the ones stressed out (usually when the CEO puts pressure on them to improve), as team members will escalate problems to their boss to solve, only work 9-5pm and lack the motivation to move beyond their task list.  It would seem that working in a comfort zone is a great place.  But it’s where ideas go to die, people coast, problems don’t get solved and where groupthink reigns supreme.  Interestingly, trust is also low in this team because team members can’t rely on each other to do a good job (but tend to not get upset by it, unless they are young or ambitious).

Apathy Zone – When leaders create low psychological safety and low accountability, you will often find that employees are in conflict.  This can be one of the riskiest teams to work in which results in employees not working too hard.  Either because they are afraid of doing the wrong thing or they are too exhausted and burnt out.  This is the result of authoritative, emotionally volatile leaders that are closed off to their direct reports who unwittingly create a psychologically unsafe team culture.  This zone is incredibly low in trust and team cohesion.

Team Cohesion and Performance

Getting teams into the achievement zone requires leaders who have the skills to not only creating a mentally healthy, supportive environment but who aren’t afraid to push people out of their comfort zones.  It’s not easy.  But it does require leaders who work on improving their interpersonal and intrapersonal skills, allowing their technical skills to lessen in importance as they allow others to shine.  In other words, they have the self-awareness and skills to build trust in their team – so employees trust them to do the right thing and can trust each other.
If you want to learn more about how to get into the Achievement Zone, you'll find lots of tips in the book TRUSTED to THRIVE: How Leaders Create Accountable and Connected Teams.
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