Words are sortof important

wordsI recently stumbled across a blog post titled “After years of intensive analysis, Google discovers the key to good teamwork is being nice”. I knew that Google had initiated a longitudinal study called Project Oxygen in 2009 to identify key leadership competencies.  I knew that what they found was a validation of common sense – that effective leaders connect with their teams.  While the finding wasn’t rocket science, the validation was huge.

The Google study I was less familiar with – Project Aristotle – sought to understand what makes a high performing team. So I did a little reading – the blog writer linked to a NYT Magazine article about Project Aristotle.

The writer did a good job of highlighting the findings of the study. They linked to Amy Edmundson’s 1999 study about psychological safety, and linked to a terrific TEDx presentation where she shared her findings in plain English, unusual for an academic. It is a compelling presentation I have used extensively when developing teams.

In all, the post was enough of a teaser for someone to want to learn more.

Where I part ways with the writer is in the conclusion:

“Google now describes psychological safety as the most important factor to building a successful team.

In short, just be nice.”

If you read Amy Edmundson’s new book “Teaming,” you will not find the word “nice.” In fact, psychological safety, at its root, means that team members feel comfortable to say what they need to say, because they trust that their team will not shut them down, humiliate them or otherwise ignore their words.  It is about getting all of the issues on the table in an environment where the team members can focus on solving the problem rather than on being defensive.

I take issue with using the word “nice” in this context.  Here is why.

Today’s business world is far too quick to jump on easy answers. From vendors who have “the solution,” to leaders who read a book and think they can lead organizational change, we’re all about quick and easy.

Quick and easy: just be nice, and team will flourish. Really?

In fact, being nice could be taken by some as “don’t rock the boat.” That is a dangerous mantra for anyone who wants to be part of a high performing team.

Look, we all paraphrase and interpret what we read, as we describe it to others.  That’s what we bloggers do – paraphrase and put our own spin on the content. I’m doing it here.

But I think that there is a responsibility to make sure that the words we use to paraphrase are, in fact, analogous to the intent of the original research.  With so much “content” out on the blogosphere today, people are reading and taking advice from multiple sources.  By the looks of article titles in the business media, we REALLY are looking for quick fixes.  Take this ExecWatch curated site – each article has “5 ways,” or “9 things,” or some other easy formula for success. Heck, when I started a post with a number, the readership skyrocketed.

I’m not sure we are really doing a service to the readers when we try to make some that is highly complex, very simple.  We’re dealing with people in the business world – leaders, teams, employees – and the variables that go into the dynamics of working together are so complicated.

Psychological safety is a compelling concept. It is research based, and it deserves to be studied and tested, and tweaked and learned from. If you are willing to do that, it can make a huge difference in the life of teams.

Words are sortof important. Words have context, and taking them out of context can change the meaning. I think we need to be careful not to paraphrase and lose the original context. Just my $.02.

 

 

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