TAG! You're It

Mar 12, 2021


Making the call, asking a question, or speaking up... Do you thrive in a Learning Zone? Or suffer in the Apathy, Comfort, and Anxiety Zones?

“By the time we are in grade school, it is second nature,” says Amy Edmondson of our desire to be safe. So many things are at that age, even clinging to home base while playing Tag was routine. We chased classmates around at recess, converting competitors from the chased to the chaser, yelling “TAG! You’re it!” Home base, usually represented by a tree or piece of equipment, was the only zone of safety in the entire playground preventing panting school kids from getting tagged, and ultimately losing the game. 

As adult professionals, we are still prone to seek out home base or a safe zone. Today, it’s better defined as the confidence to speak up. As Edmondson puts it in her Tedx Talk: Building a Psychologically Safe Workplace, no one wants to look ignorant, incompetent, intrusive or negative. As a result, we as a community of co-workers develop coping mechanisms: don’t ask questions, don’t admit weakness or to mistakes, don’t offer ideas, and don’t critique the status quo.

For example, a team member refrains from asking questions because no one else seems confused or a direct report fails to correct a leader for fear of being chastised. When we are more focused on managing impressions, we don’t learn in, innovate for, or contribute to a better organization.

“Here’s where the data gets a little weird!” ~ Amy Edmondson, author of The Fearless Organization

Better teams report more mistakes because they are willing to admit problems and address issues! Edmondson’s Psychological Safety Matrix or grid shows low safety and low performance on the bottom left and high safety and high performance on the top right where high-performers are very motivated and extremely accountable

Leader’s want to avoid the Apathy Zone (bottom left quadrant) where team members don’t feel safe about speaking up and lack motivation and accountability. The Comfort Zone (top left quadrant) is too safe, and members remain demotivated and unaccountable. Staff will find themselves in the Anxiety Zone (bottom right quadrant) when they don’t feel comfortable speaking up, yet they are very motivated and accountable. Leaders establish a Learning Zone (top right quadrant) supporting high-performing team members by creating an environment of high safety, high motivation and high accountability.

Here are three ways to create a Learning or Performance Zone:

  1. Seek Knowledge: Label problems as opportunities for learning. If we are learning, we are justified in seeking explanation and understanding.
  2. Acknowledge Fallibility: Allow yourself, especially, and the team to be wrong or lack answers. If we are stumped, we must explore opportunities for growth.
  3. Model Curiosity: Ask questions and invite team members to share. If we are genuinely curious, colleagues are emboldened to experiment and innovate.

Edmondson ultimately defines the Psychologically Safe Workplace as an environment where we are “freeing people up to really engage and not be afraid of each other.” In a competitive workplace where people are chasing the next promotion or chasing people out, team members just want a home base, a safe zone for learning, innovation, and growth. Who creates that safe zone at work? At home? TAG! You’re it! Start by seeking knowledge, acknowledging fallibility, and modeling curiosity for the purpose of learning, innovation, and growth. 

Sources: Tedx Talk: Building a Psychologically Safe Workplace, by Amy Edmondson; Harvard Business Review: The Competitive Imperative of Learning, by Amy Edmondson (includes a great graphic of the Psychological Safety Matrix).

by Michelle Sugerman • Leading Synergies, LLC • © All Rights Reserved

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