Psychological safety : we have a choice

Psychological safety was researched for many years before it hit the headlines with Google’s Project Aristotle. In asking “what makes an effective team?” the key enabling factor was psychological safety. But we have a choice — we can create psychologically safe environments with or without effort. What do you choose?

HT for the image :

Definition : Psychological safety is “a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes.”

I’m sure you’ll have been in a conversation or a meeting at some point in your life where you wondered whether to speak up, whether to ask the question, whether to offer the idea you had, whether to say I don’t know, or whether to say it didn’t work. read more

Humans vs Bots – how a human team can gain competitive edge over the bots

We’ve all seen the headlines.  The bots are coming for our jobs.

In recent research*, the skills managers reported they need in the next 5 years significantly underestimate the importance of people.  But people skills are exactly what we need to differentiate ourselves from AI.  The top 3 skills the managers reported needing were:

1.       Digital and technological expertise (42%)

2.       Creative thinking and experimentation (33%)

3.       Data analysis and interpretation (31%)


And the people skills came in at 6th place.

The thing that sets us apart as humans is that we have vast capacities to be creative and experiment – but this stops when we’re in an environment where we don’t feel safe or valued.

It’s easier to feel safe when we’re surrounded by people like us but this isn’t where the strongest teams operate and it isn’t where the best ideas come from.

So flip that, surround yourself with a diverse team – some reflective people, some who drive the agenda, some who have creative flair, some who pay attention to the practical details.  This is when interpersonal problems arise because opposing styles trigger fear in us.  We don’t understand them.

The paradox is that these differences are exactly what you need for creativity, agility and innovation.

So as a leader, how do you maximise the full potential of your team?  How can you be stronger as a team than you are apart?

Leaders we talk to know that this is what they want to achieve but don’t know how to go about it.  They want the business to grow and evolve but fear losing their original vision and entrepreneurial edge.

A critical way to embrace this paradox and benefit from it is to fully understand each member of your team – what their strengths are, what energises them, what frustrates them – developing their ability to talk about this in an open and conscious way, growing mutual appreciation for what each person brings.

This process enables the team to establish conscious team “norms” – norms are habits or codes of behaviour that become the accepted way to do things.  All teams have norms but they’re usually unconscious and aren’t always helpful for creating the safety for brilliance.

Sometimes an agreed norm can be as simple as allowing everybody the chance at the start of a meeting to say how they’re feeling and what’s going on, or it might be agreeing to co-create agendas in advance.  Whatever your agreed norms, the part which often gets lost is the continued practice of them.  The norms slip from the helpful and conscious back to the unhelpful and nonconscious, especially when the pressure’s on, and the team’s success slips with it.  Regular team reviews are essential.

Our top tips for establishing helpful and conscious team norms:

1.       Everybody inputs into what’s working and what’s not

2.       Agree norms that address what’s not working

3.       Each member takes responsibility for maintaining them

4.       Regularly check how they’re working

5.       Celebrate the successes that come from them

6.       Adjust them if you’ve experimented and they’re not working

Do this in your team and you’ll maintain your competitive edge over the best bots in town!



Zoe and Helen work with top teams enabling them to harness their collective power. Get in touch to find out how we can help you maximise the differences in your team.


Read more about what we do here.


*(Accenture Survey reported in HBR Mar/Apr 17)

When teams really thrive

I read this article tonight.

Possibly the most common situation at any level of leadership : Overloaded leaders because half their time is spent solving problems that aren’t theirs to solve. Resulting in teams who don’t believe they’re capable because every time the leader solves for them it tells the team they can’t.

And with the best of intentions : to be helpful to the person in need, to get the thing resolved quickly to help the business be successful.

But instead it helps the business be unsuccessful.

As the leader your time is spent on issues which don’t belong to you. Your time is sucked into being the parent in the childrens’ squabbles. You aren’t adding the value you should be with the role you’re employed to do. And neither you nor your team are working as effectively as you could be. Which leads to everyone feeling deflated; lacking motivation through lack of achievement; energy-sapped from feeling stuck in the weeds, underdeveloped because all the challenging stuff is whisked away instead of being trained or coached through.

And it stems from a need for control.

We all have a need for control – some have it more than others but we all have it. Your ability to control (plan, manage, organise) is likely what got you success and into a leadership position in the first place. But what got you to here isn’t what you need now. It’s not what’s going to move you or your team forward.

But this is REALLY hard to let go of. Shifting to deliver through others rather than through your own fair hands takes you a step away from the action. And if you’re not in control of the action does that mean you won’t be seen to be doing a good job – because you’ve learnt in previous roles that being in control is what’s had you do a good job and led to your promotions. And it’s all around you.  It seems to be the thing that people get paid, promoted and recognised for.  You don’t hear leaders being praised for creating an amazing team to deliver a project – you hear of leaders who delivered the project.

You’ve not tested this “deliver through others” way before and you likely don’t have many role models around you.  What if you don’t do a good job and the work fails.  What does that mean for how your performance will be seen?  What does that mean for your performance review and pay rise and bonus and ultimately your ongoing career? These are the kind of fear-based thoughts which keep people stuck in the control loop.  

Or you might have ego-fuelled thoughts because you’ve done this job for years, you know all there is to know, you can show these newbies how it’s done. Look at me showing how I know it all and can do it all!  And by showing this knowledge and expertise I get recognised by those above me because that’s what gets valued.

Either way, this is the story that plays in your head:

I keep control – I perform – I’m safe

But in the meantime, what’s actually happening:

I keep control – my team don’t learn – their confidence drops – they feel disempowered and like they add little value – they disengage and turn off their brains – the work standard and ideas generated drop – so you take more control to counter this – which feeds the ever-decreasing spiral….

So instead focus your control on controlling the development and progress of your team. Become obsessed by the satisfaction of seeing them take another step towards being empowered, confident and capable individuals. Be the leader who coaches, facilitates and mentors.  Be the leader of the team that everyone wants to work in because they know they’ll be given clarity of purpose, and space, and care for their development.

All the while holding the image of the place you’re heading to – because this way of leading is playing the long game. Anyone can take control and get short-term wins. It’s the truly successful who see how things could be and who behave consistently in a way that they know is going to get them there.

In the words of David Marquet – drop the authority to the level of information. If you never do, there’ll always be something to solve for someone somewhere and you’ll never be able to go home and eat dinner.

And if the thought of working like this doesn’t light your fire you have two choices –

  1. don’t be a leader, or
  2. be a leader who accepts mediocre as the best performance you’ll get from your team.


If your organisation is struggling to make this shift I work with CEOs, MD and Directors in 1:1 coaching and team coaching.

Is Your Team a Team? : The key to keeping your team on the same track

Jon was a confident leader. Passionate about his business and his products and had a clear vision of the kind of culture he wanted to create: famous in the market for creating a workplace that people look forward to getting to every day and which got talked about as the place to be, all of which meant his teams consistently exceeded what customers expected.

As the business grew, so did his leadership team, including investors with different priorities to Jon. Tensions started to appear and he could feel divisions where there used to be none, which also began filtering into the wider business. The vision was fading and he needed to bring it back on track.


Jon’s experience is not unique. Especially in fast-growth businesses where investment is needed to scale up. Investors bring a whole new dynamic as team members, with apparently competing interests, need to find a way through together.

Research* shows this reality for top UK teams:

47% believe there are important issues to discuss which are hidden due to high inhibition and lack of trust.

30% recognise fundamental divisions exist in the team over their view of the future.

By not discussing the important issues, divisions will occur because the ability to understand each others’ perspectives widens until there can come a point where the relationships are irretrievable.

The issues might be about expectations of the role each person should play, expectations about the skills or attributes each person should bring which don’t match the reality, different views about the direction they think business should be going, breakdowns in communication, frustrations about the way the work is being done, and meetings which sap time and life out of the day….

Fear of some kind or other is usually at the root of not speaking up about the issues. Even for the MD or CEO who might be worried what will happen if they open the can of worms, concerned about whether they’ll be able to handle what comes out, and what impact it will have on their reputation if they’re not able to handle it. This stuff takes skill and courage.

There is another way.

When a team becomes courageous and have these hidden conversations they grow and develop in transformative ways. When we feel safe to take risks we can share our perspective and feel valued for what we bring. This then enables the team to generate ideas, learn, helpfully disagree, create possibilities, which then sets the team up to be innovative and meet challenges head on – aligned in what they’re doing and why they’re doing it.

Using the Aligning Teams Approach with Jon and his team enabled them to have these courageous conversations and appreciate each other’s perspectives and strengths. They aligned behind a common vision and set off as a powerful collective to make it a reality.

A key part of Jon’s team’s success now is credited to him having the courage to stand up and say they needed help from outside the team.

Zoe and Helen work with top teams enabling them to harness their collective power. Get in touch to find out how we can help your team stay on the same track.



Read more about what we do here.

*Source – Andrew Kakabadse, Henley Business School, January 2016

Client’s name changed at their request.



The Chinese Buffet Effect

As I write this I feel like David D’Souza who’s an expert at these analogies with life (as an example, you can read about Chicken and Business Plans here). I hope mine hits the mark. It’s not rocket science, or brand new information (HT Phoebe), but it’s something I re-noticed while working with a leadership team this week – and I don’t think I’d ever previously made the broader connections of this effect in other activities.  Plus I love Chinese food!!

So here’s what started it. The leadership team I was working with were creating their collective underpinning beliefs for effective meetings, and then the tangible actions they’d display to live those beliefs.

What they noticed was that, in the two distinct sections of the morning, they worked more effectively and efficiently in the part where they had more structure to their discussions, where they had time limits applied to how long they spoke or discussed for, and when they began by getting all their ideas out on the table first to then distil, prioritise and refine.

And lo, the Chinese Buffet Effect was born.

Imagine you’re at a Chinese buffet restaurant. You’ve looked at the dishes available and taken what you want to eat. Then towards the end of your meal the chef brings out a new dish. By this point you’re already full or nearly full and you find yourself with two options – decline this new dish – even if it is the one you love the most! You’ve had enough already. Or push on through and indulge in the final dish so you leave feeling so full that you don’t know what to do with yourself.

What would be ideal is if the chef had brought out all the meal options from the start so that you could have chosen the right amounts of each one based on your favourites and appetite.

The same applies to so many aspects of work:

Meetings to generate ideas – get them all out on the table (thank you chefs!), choose which you want to go with (your favourites) and keep to the time available to make decisions (your appetite).

Personal time effectiveness – write out all the things you could possibly do with the next hour, prioritise the things that will make the biggest difference (your favourites) and decide how long you can spend on each (your appetite).

Creating a marketing, training, or any other similar plan – generate all the possible ways you could communicate, train, etc and then prioritise the activities that will make the biggest difference (your favourites) within the restraints of time and budget available (your appetite).

Create an agenda (for a meeting, group learning, regular 1:1, coaching, mentoring) – get out all the things that people could talk about (favourites) and then prioritise what’s most important for these people in this meeting and within the time limits available (appetite).

As well as being an effective way of working individually, when others are involved you also get the chance to hear from multiple perspectives which leads to greater engagement and commitment to the plan.

Plus rather than keeping on eating, and eating, and eating – adding more and more topics or ideas in – which saps your energy as your belly (or brain) swells, you start with everything you need on your plate and eat your way through what’s there, getting to a point of decision or closure – or leaving the restaurant.

And there’s a balance with this – you can’t stand in the restaurant until your favourite food comes out – you could be waiting a long time if they’re not serving it that day. So also know when to cut your losses. Know when to say – we’ve spent enough time getting the options / topics / tasks out on the table, there’s a “good enough” selection – we now just need to start distilling, prioritising and refining – or eating!

When else could you apply this Chinese Buffet Effect in your own or your team’s life?

When will you give it a go?

Bon appetit!

#cawconf16 : GSK Accelerating Difference

Next for me a case study from GSK with Sally Bonneywell, VP Coaching.

GSK – pharma, vaccines, consumer healthcare – large, complex and with a long history of M&A activity over the years.  recently sold oncology to Avartis and bought their vaccines business.  It felt like we were “taking out our heart” and that had to be allowed to be heard because that was people’s reality.

Tag line – putting patients and consumers first.


GSK’s coaching centre of excellence founded in 2010. Today, 5 internal exec coaches, 5 coaching directors, 650 Job Plus coaches (line managers who’ve been trained to be coaches for clients aswell, separate to their team). External Exec coaches in Top 20 Markets.

In 2016 there were 1500 coaching assignments, 10 group coaching projects, 20 team coaching projects.

They have a sticky leadership pipeline – lots of women join and get stuck typically at Director role.  Currently it’ll take 21 years to get to parity in the leadership gender diversity and they don’t want to wait that long.

Goal of coaching for women – not about “fixing the women” it was “we’ve got talented women, how do we give them best opportunity to succeed” – women chosen based on their potential, their ambition and they had the circumstances to allow them to fully participate.

The female leaders have a sponsor who is often the line manager’s manager, who can hold the manager to account, who can open doors, who can travel with them, more a mentoring role.

Had dialogue with line managers and sponsors to keep all stakeholders engaged and needs being met.

Overview of women’s coaching journey :

1:1 coaching :

18 months long, with Job Plus coach, 12 x 1 hour sessions, Triad meetings with line manager, participant and coach at beginning, middle & end, HR join at the start and end, Job Plus coaches given support from a programme perspective.

Then group coaching :

6 sessions, 6 hours for the first then 4 hours. Coached by a pair – one internal & one external executive coach. Covered – Foundational session; Self confidence, self belief self esteem; Power, presence & impact; Becoming a challenger; Developing your authentic leadership style; Integrating all the learning – an ending for a beginning.

Coaches held briefing & debriefing calls before & after every group session.

Format for each session => Intention. Stories. Themes. Resources. Actions.


The Outcomes : Personal impact, Impact on self with regard to others, Collective impact as a group.

Not all line managers are as good as others.  Some needed some help.  What was really important was to not let a women go through this whose line managers were dismissive of it.  And they made sure there were other connections, not just the line manager.  The programme also helped the women go to their line manager with requests for what they needed and improved their relationships with them.

They talked about better integration between personal and work lives, and being able to be more of themselves.

Often they were the only woman in the leadership team or at that level so being able to come together collectively gave them connection to each other and to the wider system.

80% of the women in the programme became involved in giving back to the world in some way.

They found it really helped to have 1:1 coaching running alongside Group Coaching.  Not new news but the relationship with the coach was very important.   GSK believe in holistic coaching so the leaders on the programme could use it as top level, task focussed, or they could go deeper.  Up to them.  However they found the Group Coaching enabled them to go deeper for themselves.  And the interplay between these two types of coaching allowed them to discover and explore in 1:1 or group as they chose.  Amplification effect on the 1:1.IMG_0512

One women said that the more coaching she had, the more time she had – the power of time and space to think well to act well.

Loyalty increased with many, and some stepped into their power and chose to leave.  Not the purpose of the coaching but it made sure the right people are finding the right places for them.  Plus gave the org the chance to say, why are they going, what more could we do to keep them or someone like them in the future?

Q’s –

  • Job Plus Coach training – what is that? – classroom training, practice clients, supervision, observed coaching sessions, conference days.
  • Challenge of balancing coaching with day job – yes it’s a challenge, especially as we de-layer and cost-cut. It’s completely voluntary and it feeds them, they enjoy it often more than day job, and most line managers see the benefit of those who are Job Plus Coaches because they become more effective leaders as measured through 360 feedback.
  • Assessing readiness to be coaches for Job Plus? – yes, as they go through training they’re assessed – self, peer & facilitators / supervisors (an internal & an external).  The most experienced Job Plus coaches work on this programme. When they start they’re on 6 x 30 minute sessions.
  • Cultural / global challenges? – yes common topics and overall format but content was reliant on the group, the group coaches, and the different country’s cultures. Briefing calls would allow connection to purpose of the session and a chance to share tools / models / theories both ways.  Also a website for these to be put on which all women can access – fewer books, more articles, TED talks, you tube clips.  Also collection of themes.
  • Internal & external – what do you see as org benefit of both? – External for experience, expertise, objectivity of things we can’t see, comparison to other orgs, level of expertise is high (because we select for that). Internally – we know the system, the nuance, the pressures, the context.  When you put the 2 together as an internal & external and it works well, symbiotically.  We find we need both.  We’d never say we don’t need external.
  • Female programme – male & female coaches? – yes, didn’t engineer it.  We gave people a choice if they really didn’t want a man for 1:1. We never had 2 men in group coaching, sometimes 2 women, sometimes 1 and 1.
  • Benefits to the women, how measure benefit to their teams & managers? – employees fill in a global survey eery 2 years, everyone in the org. Analyse it & shown that since women been on this initiative we look at the satisfaction of the teams with these female leaders – seen a statistically significant change over time. Correlation is not causality but it’s been great to see that connection.
  • Would you do this for managers generally? – yes, this is one programme. We’ve got about 10, as well as team coaching.  Of all the coaching, about 400 sessions will be at exec level. At line manager level, we’ve got dialogue in place e.g. 6 men and 6 women having debates and discussion about a career in GSK.  There’s only so much you can do but yes, we’d use this mechanism more when we can and systemic coaching is definitely where the shift in culture is going to come from.
  • Are people clear on the difference between coaching and mentoring? – yes, for us mentoring is advice giving, often more to less senior. Coaching is an equal power footing, non-directive, building self-reliance.  And we continue to educate people in this.  Job Plus Coaches don’t coach from their own area of the business to keep them out of content.
  • What are the “Circumstances” needed for a woman to participate? – not all about mobility but getting clear & having the conversation about your personal circumstances and ability to get involved.  Might be that it’s not now, maybe later.  Is there anything you need from me or the org to help you take part?  Sally’s stepped in before to get line managers to support someone to clear things out of the diary and enable them to take part.
  • Do you see more senior women are less reluctant to go on all-women groups? – positioned systemically with men & women in the conversation. It’s not preferential treatment for women, or promotion because you’re women. It’s talent management and development.
  • Did you find deliberate measures or feedback about it changing male attitudes? – yes, dialogue very powerful. Equal numbers of men & women, for a day and overnight too. Men checking things out with the women in their lives and confirming what they’re hearing from their female colleagues. Seen some fundamental shifts such as “when I recruited last time I made sure I had good balance of men & women..”  Big impact on the men with daughters & them not wanting that for their own children.
  • Use of tech? – phone, skype, face to face.  F2F when we can.  Group coaching where possible, if flight < 2 hours we brought people together.  If > 2 hours we did intensive 2 days of coaching together then virtual group coaching for 2 hours at a time.  Then 2 days intensive again at the end.
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    #barefootwinterconf Reflections

    Last week I attended the Barefoot Winter Conference at Prestwold Hall (beautiful location – and yes I’m slightly biased because it’s where I got married!).  This post is a collation of my thoughts and reflections from the day which I know will help me learn and absorb, and which I hope will have some nuggets of interest and insight for you.

    On the practical conference front, it was a brilliantly run event with good amounts of time for each workshop – all of which were interactive, learning sessions – no sages on stages chalking & talking.  And a good long lunch for quality network time.  A definite focus on quality not quantity all day.

    Keynote – Prof Roger Steare – on values-driven orgs, leadership and ethics

    Since the 2008 crash stories have continued to emerge of unethical practice in organisations.  Read about Roger’s keynote in my Storify and how we helps organisations back to ethical decision-making.


    Workshop 1 – Clean Language – Revealing Mental Models through Metaphor 

    This session was with Sue Sharp and Tamsin Hartley from Clean Learning.

    I chose this session for what might seem odd reasons.  I’d once been coached by someone who’d just done a Clean Language course and I really hated it.  So, because I believe it’s good to challenge our assumptions, I went along with the intent to learn more and open my mind to the possibilities of how I could use it in my practice.

    What was great was that the session was involving and interactive from the start.  Lots of play with the approach, group discussion and conversation.

    To give some context, the purpose of Clean Language is to find out how people work and think to raise their awareness to that and understand themselves (and others if a team thing) better.  Its purpose is also to remove assumptions from our own language which could (inadvertently) influence a client’s response.

    A (made up) example of a clean language interaction could follow this flow –

  • For this meeting to go as you would like, it will be like what? > It will be fun and interactive and we’ll get through everything on the agenda.
  • And you will be like what? > I’ll need to keep an eye on the time while also checking everyone’s OK, and I’ll need plenty of energy.
  • What kind of [energy] is that [energy]? > It’s the kind of energy that bubbles away. It doesn’t spike up and drop down, it’s infectious and consistent.
  • Bubbles. Infectious. Consistent.  And is there anything else about that [energy]? > It’s natural.  It’s not forced.  It’s a natural result of wanting to be there in that conversation with those people.
  • Natural. Not forced. And where is that energy? > It’s in my heart and my head.  A sense of happiness and a buzz.
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