The key to team performance zones

Over the past few years, I’ve helped many organisations with innovation programs and employee experience programs. Thew success of these projects hinders on the ability for teams to be able to work collaboratively together.

It’s no surprise that teams that work together achieve the best level of success. This is not new news.

But what can bring effective team collaboration to a grinding halt?

I’ve seen it many times. So in my work to drive more collaborative teams and collaborative leaders there is first an essential base that MUST be existent. That is psychological safety.

A 2012 study by Google showed that psychological safety is far and away the most important factor of a team’s success, yet many organisations lack the psychological safety required to be successful.

A few years ago, I worked with a client that was going through some major changes and employee morale was at rock bottom and retention was high. We’re talking near the 50% turnover accross the entire organisation.

Employees were no longer responding to surveys so the excustive team couldn’t get a gauge on engagement levels.

As I began speaking with employees in our employee experience focus groups one theme stood out, employees didn’t feel safe speaking up.

There were several reasons for this, including the fact that they felt their voices weren’t heard, their ideas were shot down or ignored, their suggestions for improvements fell on deaf ears, and yet they were expected to increase performance, meet tough deadlines, and help get the company out of the red.

Amy Edmondson, a Harvard professor, is the top authority on psychological safety.

She has spent the past thirty years studying the effects of psychological safety on work teams and has found that there are four zones that organisations fall into.

Team Performance Zones

1. Comfort zone

Teams have high psychological safety and low accountability. It’s a relaxed place to be and people will likely feel safe, familiar, and at ease. But while stable, there’s no push for creativity and growth.

2. Apathy zone

Teams have low psychological safety and low accountability. In other words, there’s a lack of motivation, support, and communication, with limited opportunity for growth and development. Individuals tend to no longer ‘care’ about their work.

3. Anxiety zone

Teams have low psychological safety and high accountability. A state of heightened stress, fear, or uncertainty, the anxiety zone signals that teams feel overwhelmed, unable to take risks, and are fearful of being judged or criticised.

4. Learning zone

Teams have high psychological safety and high accountability. Or rather, there’s a balance between challenge and support. It’s the optimal environment for innovation and growth as teams feel empowered to take risks, embrace challenges, learn from failures, and continually improve.

Zones can be optimized, within reason

But let’s look at these zones from a human centred perspective.

It’s unreasonable to think we live solely in one zone 100% of the time. It’s also unreasonable to think that we must avoid the less productive zones of apathy and comfort.

I think of my work with dev ops teams. In order to create continuous improvement to digital product developers often have to work at an incredible pace and stick to release deadlines.

This can put them in the anxiety zone.

Once the work is delivered the team may need some respite and go to the comfort or even apathy zone. It’s not to say they have checked out completely, or even for good. It’s understandable that the stress of delivering a big project and hitting deadlines can demand the need to pause and take a breath.

This is where leaders need to understand the needs of their team and the demands they’re facing. It may only be with the leaders permission that they feel they can take the foot off the gas temporarily.

Even F1 cars need the pit lane.

Another example can be drawn from law enforcement. With the work being highly stressful and emotive some downtime or leave is necessary in order to keep performing long term and avoid mental illness and burnout. Hence, the need for unlimited leave.

So the idea behind the performance zones is not to avoid everything but the learning zone.

It’s more about optimising and skewing the amount of time your team can spend in this zone.

Your team may need to feel like they have your permission and encouragement to treat work and projects as learning experience. No team or individual can get it right first time every time.

That simply doesn’t happen. What does happen in high performing teams is unleashing collective intelligence via effective collaboration.

This unlocks innovation and continuous improvement for your business. And for your team, they get more fulfilment from work and your retention rates plummet.

If retention rates are disrupting your ability to earn revenue or if you’d like some support to help your team through the performance zones to achieve their best work, then reach out.



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