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Are you working in a Cloning Factory?

While running a mentoring workshop at the beautiful Wellcome Collection in London last week I came across this work by Mauro Peruchetti, Cloning Factory (2002)

The work conjures up the spectre of an identikit society and it got me wondering about identikit businesses.

What’s it like at your place of work? Are you encouraged to be an individual or to follow the herd and keep your head down? What happens if you think or behave differently – does the culture you work in seek to leverage or squash your diversity? If you’re in a leadership position how are you creating or developing a team where being different is something to be celebrated?

Psychological safety is an important concept in any business that wants to really build a culture where individualism and diversity is genuinely valued. Psychological safety is defined as being ‘able to show and employ one's self without fear of negative consequences of self-image, status or career’ (Kahn 1990)

I was once employed in an organisation which, as a brand, is known for being creative, risk taking, challenging and trail blazing – all things that I embrace and somewhere where I thought I could bring all my experience, knowledge and creativity to make a real difference.

Sadly what I discovered was a team that were fearful of making mistakes, a group of people who would throw each other under the bus to save themselves, a senior manager who valued control more than trust. Working in such an environment creates an interesting dynamic where people tend to operate from a place of survival. Here’s what I noticed:

· Creativity and entrepreneurial thinking are set to one side in favour of safety so new or innovative approaches are rarely offered

· Relationships are shallow and cautious resulting in a team that lacks trust in one another and trust is fundamental to high performing teams

· Communication becomes about covering your back and that takes up time that could be more productively used

· Mistakes are opportunities for public humiliation rather than great learning so people simply don’t risk making mistakes

So, when we create an environment where there is a lack of psychological safety we ultimately create an environment where people mute themselves, become less effective and do what’s always been done because that’s safer than taking a risk and doing something new. Like Peruchetti’s work we create an identikit society within the business – a place where it’s better to blend in than to stand up or stand out. It’s not a place where people can thrive so great people move on to somewhere they can and your business stagnates in the hands of the people who are fitting in and staying safe.

How do you create psychological safety?

1. Be a human being – none of us are perfect. As a leader you need to be able to be vulnerable and authentic in your interactions. If you don’t know the answer say so, if you are uncertain about a decision invite people into that decision making process. By showing your own vulnerability you enable others to do so too.

2. Mistakes have to be learning opportunities. Check out The Church of Fail for one organisations way of celebrating mistakes.

3. Communication from you must be open and honest – you must be courageous enough to tell the truth to your team members. If they’re not doing well you need to be able to address this in a grown up way and you need to be consistent and clear in your expectations.

4. Leave your ego at the door and encourage others to do so too. If you need to bolster your own self esteem and have your ego stroked in order to feel good about yourself then chance are you’re not creating psychological safety.

If you want to leave a legacy of great leadership then you don’t want to be leading a group of clones. Become a leader who encourages and celebrates diversity of thinking, mistakes, individualism and risk taking.

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