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The Secret Sauce for Great Teamwork Isn’t Secrecy

Almost a century has passed since the White Sox threw the World Series in 1919, yet we still feel reminiscent shock and awe when we stumble upon the story that stunned a nation. Eight players formed a bond of secrecy, a bond that would ban them from the game for life.

When I think about what must have gone on behind closed doors for the White Sox, I can’t help but reflect on team dynamics in other arenas. Take business for example. We are often in a pressure cooker, willing ourselves to perform consistently over time, which takes a toll on a team. In some organizations, secrecy is often thought of as a benign strategy to hide mistakes and give the impression of seamless performance.

Author and Harvard Business Professor Amy Edmondson has learned the opposite from her research. Edmondson explains that “The best teams admit errors and discuss them more often than other groups do. What distinguishes the best performing teams is psychological safety, which facilitates a ‘climate of openness.’”

When Edmondson pointed to safety as a root cause for better teamwork, I was struck by the connection with a consistent theme that surfaced during interviews I’ve conducted with current and retired CEOs. In several of my conversations, each CEO attributed their success to the ability to create safety for straight talk with leadership teams.

Each leader explained that creating an open climate is paramount and can make the difference between managing a bottom line with accurate input or making decisions based on white washed feedback. Some CEOs gather essential intel through empowerment and approachability, while others stressed being present and genuinely acting on feedback. To paraphrase one CEO, “We asked, we listened, we acted on input, and that created trust.” Personally, I found that a willingness to be vulnerable at Prologis created a measure of safety our team needed to express themselves honestly.

Once you’ve created that desired level of safety, incredible opportunities exist to thoughtfully reflect on how you can pivot and improve. Anjali Sastry and Kara Penn, authors of Fail Better: Design Smart Mistakes and Succeed Sooner, explain that smart leaders innovate with a key idea in mind: “Ensure that every failure is maximally useful.” Without a safe space to discuss errors openly, failure becomes a sore spot and something to be avoided rather than viewed as a chance for improvement.

History has shown us how damaging secrecy can be within teams of all kinds. In contrast, substantial research and many of today’s CEOs have demonstrated how an open climate not only allows teams to provide leaders with critical feedback about mistakes, it creates room for innovative solutions and a growth mindset.

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  1. Len McCreary

    Creating a safe environment where people feel free and even appreciated for providing meaningful feedback to correct problems as quickly as humanly possible is critical. …and on the surface, often scary.

    It can feel like you’re inviting people to start pointing out or even creating problems. The opposite of gratitude, focusing on all the things going wrong.

    Perhaps the scariest transparency barrier for many industries is the one that comes with our increasingly litigious society. If a doctor makes a mistake – or tries a revolutionary new procedure, and a patient dies, the doctor may well face a lawsuit. Anything said can and will be used against the doctor in a court of law. So why would the doctor document or verbalize or teach colleagues what was learned? I’m not in the healthcare industry, so perhaps that fear is blown out of proportion, as well.

    Reply to Len McCreary

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