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Why high-performing teams are the most uncomfortable

by Suzie McInerney

Two women sitting at a table talking

Leaders that strive to keep the peace and avoid conflict at all costs cannot build and nurture high-performing teams. A leadership style that permits and encourages tension within a diverse team has the potential to deliver – and deliver big. How can today’s leaders foster this environment?

The perfect leader of the past had all the information, all the answers, and were valued predominantly for their intellect and expertise. But in today’s fast-paced and uncertain world where it’s impossible to have solutions for every eventuality, it’s simply not enough to “know your stuff”. Gone are the days of the hero leader – now, you need a team of heroes to deliver innovation and value to your organisation.

Today’s leaders must facilitate great collaboration to draw the very best results from their teams, which is easier said than done. Research conducted by Six Degrees into the Future of Leadership revealed that a significant gap exists between what is expected of leaders and what they are actually delivering.

To help leaders work towards closing this skills gap, Six Degrees partnered with leadership coach Tom Harkin for the recent Closing the Leadership Gap event in Melbourne. Tom shared fascinating insights into how leaders today can best build highly effective teams, thus increasing output exponentially.

The secret sauce for highly effective teams

What makes one team more effective than another? Researchers for Google’s Project Aristotle interviewed 180 top-performing teams to identify the factors that impact effectiveness.

Whilst dependability, finding a sense of purpose and clarity were nominated as important qualities, the stand-out attribute in leading teams was found to be psychological safety. That is, the ability to have extreme candour with your colleagues and for an atmosphere of tension to not only feel safe, but welcomed.

Psychological Safety

Psychological safety is achieved when team members are willing and confident to take risks in the opinions they voice, challenge ideas and provoke debate in the knowledge that it won’t impact their careers or how they are perceived – no matter how confronting or controversial.

In order for this environment to be created, there must be a shared understanding within the team that this kind of engagement is invited and that people will be thanked for offering truthful commentaries… and for sitting through the inevitable discomfort that follows. Ultimately, embracing complete candour is the pathway to outperforming other organisations. Great teams reach the greatest heights because they can be uncomfortable with one another, enabling them to deliver their most profound, honest and innovative work.

Achieving this is rare because it’s a lot to ask. But it can be done with the right kind of leadership.

A leader’s role in creating psychological safety

Leaders have a fundamental part to play when it comes to achieving psychological safety. They must be bold enough to facilitate meetings with extreme tension, and allow conflict between their team members. In doing so they place trust in their team members and help them to unlock their innate potential.

Most leaders have a natural inclination to intervene in workplace disagreements. It’s understandable to want to keep everyone in the team happy and avoid tension. But, as Harkin says, we have to get uncomfortable or we’ll be robbed of our greatest work.

Rather than quelling the tension altogether, leaders should instead effectively manage the environment when heat comes into the room; encouraging and acknowledging it. An environment of psychological safety needn’t descend into chaos if leaders can supervise it in a structured way.

In holding that uncomfortable space, taking a step back, being permissive and allowing tension into the meeting room, leaders are doing their teams a huge favour.

A group of colleagues with a diversity of opinions and experiences is bound to come up against some friction. But someone with the leadership qualities to recognise and harness the potential in that will see the best results for their team and the business at large.

Teams that can be truly honest – with the right leader at the helm – simply blow the rest of the market out of the water.

Talk to Six Degrees Executive to find the right type of leadership for your organisation’s future.