When is the last time a colleague asked how you were doing? And when is the last time you gave or received an honest answer to this question? Did you really care about the answer you got or do you mainly ask people how they are as a formality?
There is a growing body of research into how psychological safety and trust are fundamental for high-performing teams in the world of business and in sport. But in order to develop this psychological safety, leaders are tasked with showing their team members that they really care about them as an individual.
In the elite sporting domain, the relationship between coach and athlete is extremely important. We’ve found that coaches are able to get the best performance out of their team when they have developed high levels of trust and highly supportive relationships. The athlete-coach relationship thrives when the athlete feels that the coach is deeply invested and committed to them and truly cares about their performance and goals.
Why does psychological safety matter for performance?
When psychological safety is successfully established in a team environment, employees feel able to freely express their opinion without fear of judgment or rejection. This extends to being able to try new things and make mistakes without being punished — these conditions allow individuals and teams to flourish and inspire creativity and innovation.
However, when psychological safety is not present within a team, it can restrict the team’s performance. This is because threat state environments can trigger our fight or flight reaction which dampens creativity, increases adversity to risk, and means we are more likely to fall back on existing behaviours and processes than to innovate and progress. These sorts of environments are also inefficient for productivity because many individuals within the team will lose hours, if not days, a month focusing energy on relationships with colleagues or recovering from challenging meetings rather than working strategically towards the team goal.
Caring more: how to dial up your care for colleagues
The ability to feel and show care and empathy towards your team members is a reflection of your emotional intelligence. It may come naturally to you or you may find it easier to feel and express care for some individuals more than others. The good news is, emotional intelligence (unlike IQ) is a trainable skill that you can consciously develop to enhance your leadership style.
As Daniel Goldman explains, there are essentially three kinds of empathy and they all take place in different parts of the brain. There is cognitive empathy which is about how you see things and think about the world. Emotional empathy is when we relate to how others are feeling because we feel it too and finally empathic concern which is when we care about the other and we want what is best for them.
Many of us feel the final one most acutely for family members, friends and loved ones but some of the best leaders are those that are able to extend their empathic concern to colleagues as well.
One of the techniques recommended by Goldman to build your muscle for caring is to start by thinking of somebody you’re grateful for and who cared about you. Then wish safe and happiness for yourself and the people you love. The next step is to try and gradually broaden this circle to people you know, work with and even those people who you struggle more with. If you can do this daily for 10 minutes then you can being to strengthen the circuitry for caring and actually become more caring.
As with any behavioural change, through practice and repetition, we are able to change the neural pathways in our brain to embed the newly learned behaviour until it becomes easier and eventually even instinctive.
Practical steps to start integrating more care into your daily practices
Next time you have a KPI meeting, team check-in, or onboard a new team member. Try asking some open questions about who they are, what they care about, who they want to be, and what they want to get from their role. It’s very easy to focus development conversations on the organisation, the individual’s skill set and what you can mutually gain from each other. This is a decent start but is unlikely to be highly motivational for the individual and misses a trick because it does not demonstrate the leader’s deeper level of care for that individual.
How well do you really know your colleagues and direct reports? Are there any relationships that you could nurture more by proactively seeking out opportunities to learn more about those people? Even better, can you role model a situation where you can demonstrate your care for that person and consciously start cultivating a psychologically safe environment for your team?
What processes, behaviours and cultures do you currently promote within your team that contribute to psychological safety? Are there any changes needed to make way for a more productive environment?
“All of us are better than any one of us” (Goldman)
Business leaders and individuals who want to build highly effective relationships at work and in life are already prioritising emotional intelligence within their skillset.
Building trust, working to increase how much you care, and proactively finding opportunities to show that care are all important steps that individuals can start taking today to develop a psychologically safe and high-performing environment.
We coach business leaders to unlock performance advantages in themselves and their teams. We empower individuals and teams with methodologies born out of the world of elite sport to develop positive habits and turn up more often as the person they want to be.
Get in touch with one of our coaches to find out more.