In most workplaces, there are ugly truths about which you cannot speak. 

I take that back. You can speak about them. But if you do, you might get fired. In which case, you'll regret speaking out. So it's easier--if a bit less accurate--to tell yourself you can't speak out. 

The wisest companies have always recognized this conundrum--and tried to change it. Barry-Wehmiller, a $2 billion capital equipment and engineering consulting company based in St. Louis, built its acclaimed employees-first culture of trust largely by reacting fast to worker frustrations. The key was making employees comfortable about venting in the first place. How can you do that? One method is to cultivate an atmosphere of psychological safety. Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson's research on psychological safety emphasizes the importance of "embracing messengers." That is, you should reward and celebrate those who come forward with bad news, questions, concerns, or errors.

"In psychologically safe environments, team members feel encouraged to ask for clarification, to point out critical errors, and even to share new and challenging ideas," write professors Adam Galinsky (Columbia Business School) and Maurice Schweitzer (Wharton) in their recently published book, Friend & Foe: When to Cooperate, When to Compete, and How to Succeed at Both.

As you can ascertain from the title, the book is designed to help anyone navigate the complex straits of interpersonal interaction. When do you catch more bees with honey, and when do you have to get tough? 

For business leaders, this question is seldom easy. You're the boss for a reason. You're accountable for results. Yet you also grasp the need for psychological safety. You don't want your team afraid of sharing bad news. Friend & Foe shows how leaders can build high-trust environments without relinquishing the power vested in them by their station in the hierarchy. Here are three practical suggestions from the book: 

1. Empower less-powerful parties to speak up--even in high-pressure situations.

You're probably familiar with the power of checklists to help surgeons or business leaders execute challenging tasks. 

Galinsky and Schweitzer cite an example in which--for more than one-third of the patients--doctors were skipping one of five crucial steps on a sterilization checklist. The checklist was a great idea, in principle. But what good was it if doctors didn't hew to it? 

In this particular case, note the authors, Johns Hopkins Hospital expressly "authorized the lowest-ranked members of the surgical team--nurses--to intervene if a doctor skipped a step on the checklist." The nurses were also encouraged to speak up, share concerns, and ask questions, whenever they saw the need to do so during a procedure.

This simple step made the doctor-nurse status difference less of a barrier to two-way communication. But it didn't destroy the status difference; surgeons were still the leaders in the room. The hierarchy was preserved, for the benefit of both doctors and nurses--and for the benefit of the patients. 

2. Consider how names and titles influence feelings. 

Galinsky and Schweitzer note the research of Varda Liberman from the Interdisciplinary Center in Israel. Liberman found that what you call a particular game can determine whether participants cooperate or compete.

In her study, she told half of her participants that a particular game was called the "Wall Street Game." The other half were told they'd be playing the "Community Game." It was the exact same game with the exact same rules governing cooperation and competition. But guess which group of participants displayed more cooperation?

What's stunning about her study is not simply that the "Community" group was more cooperative than the "Wall Street" group. It was the margin: 72 percent of "Community" participants cooperated toward a positive outcome, whereas only 33 percent of "Wall Street" participants cooperated. The takeaway? The name of anything you oversee as a leader matters immensely to how your employees perceive it. And the way they perceive it is bound to inform their behavior.

Consider how differently you behave when a two-person conversation is an unnamed interaction in a hallway, versus how you behave when the conversation is framed as an "interview" or an "annual review" or a "quarterly evaluation." Even adding an adjective like "informational" has the power to change someone's mood and approach toward an interview. 

All of which may seem so logical, so obvious, you hardly need two professors to point it out. Yet most companies continue to stultify free-and-easy feedback from employees by giving coldly hierarchical names to processes that are supposed to be mutually beneficial. 

3. Showcase your needs and frailties. 

In leadership lingo, it's become fashionable to display one's vulnerabilities, in order to cultivate a high-trust climate of psychological safety. Galinsky and Schweitzer share several applicable examples of how leaders can do this in small, useful ways. 

One of their former executive education students, a psychologist named Tom, built trust with new patients by dropping his pencil, telling a bad joke, or spilling his coffee. "Highly competent people can make themselves appear more approachable by committing a praftfall," write the authors. "A small blunder makes them seem a little vulnerable, and this vulnerability makes them seem approachable and warm."

Another tactic--if you don't feel like spilling your coffee--is to seek advice from a colleague who is beneath you in the hierarchy. "The person below you in the hierarchy will be delighted to be acknowledged for their opinions and thrilled to have their expertise acknolwedged," write the authors. 

In other words, you'll make the employee you seek advice from feel valued and appreciated. 

And the more often you do it, the closer you'll come to cultivating a culture where palms-up honesty is a norm and a standard. 

Published on: Oct 13, 2015