The Psychological High Ground: The Surprising Key to Accelerating Change

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In his book Work Rules!, Google’s former head of People Operations, Laszlo Bock, details an interaction he had with a fellow human resources leader about Google’s collaboration spaces. His friend was intrigued by the idea of “Zen” rooms furnished with lava lamps and comfy couches, and the ways in which these furnishings stimulated creativity and innovation. Rather than focusing on the physical spaces themselves, Bock instead focused on proposals to increase transparency and trust within the organization. When the friend dismissed every idea he brought forward, Bock cheekily conceded defeat, saying, “Good luck with the lava lamps.”

Lava lamps aren’t bad in and of themselves. The focus on lava lamps represents a human tendency to fixate on physical objects that symbolize the environment that they are trying to create. In the Department of Defense, “lava lamps” often take the form of razor-thin laptops, seamless internet connections, expansive whiteboards, 3D printers, and open workspaces. In fact, over the past year, collaboration spaces, known as Spark Cells, have popped up across the Air Force with a number of these items. Some have produced outstanding results and others haven’t accomplished much. Why is that? The reasons are many, but we can tell you confidently it has nothing to do with lava lamps — or whiteboards, or 3D printers.



In 2012, “people scientists” from Google set out to find what made successful teams successful, terming their effort Project Aristotle. They left no stone unturned — they studied the ratio of men to women, the ratio of introverts to extroverts, how often teammates shared meals, how much time was spent together outside of work, shared hobbies, and so on. Google, like the Air Force, had assumed that the most successful teams were made up of the most successful individuals. But after more than a year of studying over a hundred teams, who was on the team didn’t seem to matter. What did matter to successful teams were two behavioral norms. First, members of successful teams spoke in nearly equal proportion to their teammates. Second, members of successful teams had “high social sensitivity,” meaning they were skilled at reading the feelings of teammates through observance of both verbal and nonverbal cues. These two traits are aspects of what psychologists call psychological safety.

Psychological safety has nothing to do with “safe spaces” or coddling people. It’s a well-established concept in battle that the group who occupies the highest terrain has a distinct advantage. Having the high ground provides people with a sense of security because it’s difficult to sneak up on or ambush these positions. While the primary advantage of the high ground is physical, it is accompanied by a psychological advantage that is likely of equal, if not greater, value. Leaders need to seize and maintain the psychological high ground to provide their subordinates with an environment in which they feel they can contribute without fear of judgment or ad hominem attacks by either their teammates or their leadership.

America’s adversaries present enough of a threat without American leaders contributing to it. A fear-based environment drives people to make the least threatening choices possible, which in most cases is to do nothing. That is not the road to change and innovation. So, stop looking for Type A extroverts and lava lamps, and spend more time investing in an organizational climate that enables the sense of psychological safety that lets people dare to be great.

A Psychological Safety Deficit

When Air Force Spark Cells are effective, it’s not because of any lava lamps, but because they are psychologically safe spaces where airmen have the freedom to experiment, the freedom to innovate, and the freedom to fail — so long as they learn. This is what psychologist Carol Dweck refers to as a growth mindset. Dweck demonstrates that effort — not task completion or perceptions of talent — is what best facilitates progressive growth. When people view challenges as an opportunity to improve instead of as a measure of their worth, they are less afraid to take risks. On this point, psychologist and Wharton Professor Adam Grant details in his book Originals how “the most eminent creators typically produce a large quantity of work that’s … considered unremarkable by experts and audiences.” He goes on to list a number of famous inventors, artists, and experts in their field who are only well known for a fraction of their work. Edison received 1,093 patents in his journey to creating the lightbulb. Picasso crafted over 18,000 pieces of art, yet only a fraction of these receive acclaim today. Maya Angelou is perhaps best known for her memoir I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, but fewer people know that she wrote six other autobiographies. Each of these world-renowned and inspiring creators were able to innovate because they understood that quality does not breed quality (that is, one great idea rarely leads to the next), but rather that quantity provides the best opportunity for quality to emerge. They were able to generate great ideas because they felt secure enough to generate many ideas, most of which could be perceived by a wider audience as complete failures.

In the absence of psychological safety, the concept of failure is extremely threatening. According to research by David Rock, co-founder of the NeuroLeadership Institute, “much of our motivation driving social behavior is governed by an overarching organizing principle of minimizing threat and maximizing reward.” In other words, a perceived threat to status in the workplace (e.g., your boss shutting down one of your ideas in front of your peers at a staff meeting) activates the same parts of the brain that process basic necessities as captured by Maslow. Even successful innovators are not immune to feeling threatened. Whereas most people are overcome with fear about taking the first step, successful innovators can be overcome with fear that their previous accomplishments will be unmatched and therefore a future failure would signal a downward trend in performance and tarnish their legacies. Put another way, when people feel as though their status and worth in the workplace are being threatened, their brain’s natural chemistry triggers a fight or flight response, leading them to either become defensive or disengaged — neither of which are conducive to an environment of innovation. If the Air Force is to truly embrace its new Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Brown’s imperative to “Accelerate Change or Lose”, it should first address culture. The Air Force doesn’t have a lava lamp shortage — it has a pervasive psychological safety issue.

Dr. Peter Drucker, the father of modern management, once famously stated that “culture eats strategy for breakfast.” What he meant by this is that no matter how rationally sound a strategy or doctrine might be, it will always be trumped by the culture of those who execute it. Simply put, a culture that favors risk avoidance will almost assuredly prevent the Air Force from achieving Gen. Brown’s desire to “accelerate change.” One cannot just make demands when the conditions aren’t right and expect results any more than one can step out in the middle of a hurricane and demand the clouds to part and the sun to shine. So how can this be fixed? How does the Air Force foster an environment of psychological safety where airmen are not afraid to voice their diverse opinions, experiment, and fail in order to progress forward? It takes more than words, no matter how impassioned or well-reasoned — it takes leadership action and an evaluation system that measures and rewards the desired behaviors.

Five Steps to Better Teams

The same people scientists who highlighted the importance of psychological safety in high-performing teams at Google also put together a one-pager on the five ways to foster it. That in turn fosters an environment of inclusion, belonging, collaboration, and innovation. There are implications for commanders and leaders at all levels.

First, leaders should engage with their people. Stephen Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, writes that “most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” When this happens, it becomes obvious to the speaker that the listener is not engaged in the conversation. This often leads to the speaker feeling as though what they have to say — what they have to offer — is of little value to the recipient. When a subsequent opportunity presents itself, rather than engage in conversation the team member is likely to disengage to avoid feeling like a failure. To foster an environment of psychological safety, it is important to eliminate distractions, offer verbal and non-verbal cues to demonstrate active listening, and approach the interaction with the intent to learn.

Second, leaders should seek to understand before attempting to be understood. Our past experiences tend to shape the way we approach future challenges. Leaders typically get to where they are because they were successful problem solvers in the past. When confronted with a challenge, the temptation for leaders is to jump into problem-solving mode. What they should do instead is seek the perspective of others and resist the urge to dismiss ideas out of hand as ineffective or inefficient. The military is comprised of people of different ages, genders, races, ethnicities, religious preferences, socio-economic backgrounds, and so on, with each of these bringing with it a unique perspective. These unique perspectives breed unique contributions. Those ideas may lead to unexpected breakthroughs. Some of those ideas will not work out as planned and when that happens leaders should take the opportunity to facilitate learning. Assigning blame and holding “I told you so” sessions will only ensure that people will not offer suggestions in the future. Focusing on learning will enable the growth necessary for the team to get better with every iteration.

Third, leaders should make an active effort to develop personal connections and create a sense of belonging. As humans, we long for connection. Not just a work connection, but a personal connection. We desire to feel as though we belong and are fully accepted for who we are — our values and our passions, along with our quirks. To foster a sense of belonging, it’s important that the work environment functions on the principles of inclusion and equity. Innovation coach Krys Burnette defines equity as the “constant and consistent recognition and redistribution of power,” while inclusion is the belief that the “thoughts, ideas, and perspectives of all individuals matter.” Expressions of gratitude further enhance the sense of belonging and the strength of the connection between leaders and followers. Leaders should show appreciation for the effort put into every idea, not just celebrate the best ideas. Reinforcing the value of the effort helps to keep people engaged and contributing.

Fourth, leaders need to mentor, coach, and influence instead of direct. Positional authority matters very little when it comes to influence. In fact, Google’s research indicated that it wasn’t necessary for the formal leader of the team to be the one that drives the group towards an environment of psychological safety. All it took was for one individual, even if it was a non-supervisory individual contributor, to lay the foundation of mutual trust and respect for the team that ultimately leads to collaboration and innovation. But just as one individual can build up a team, it takes only one individual to tear it down. Leaders have a responsibility to reinforce behaviors that help to grow the team and quash behaviors that damage the team environment. More than anything, leaders are responsible for creating the conditions in which the team can succeed.

Finally, the service needs an evaluation system that assesses the work climate and holds leaders accountable in a timely and meaningful manner. The Defense Equal Opportunity Management Institute’s Equal Opportunity Climate Survey, a time-consuming survey aimed at measuring workplace climate that is administered to all members of an organization annually, may be better than nothing, but it is a lagging indicator and rarely results in substantive action. The survey can be confusing, and it takes a significant amount of time to complete properly. To help ensure that leaders are accountable to their organizations, there needs to be a 360-degree component to evaluations. It could be as simple as a few yes or no questions such as “I feel comfortable voicing my professional thoughts and opinions,” or “I believe my supervisor cares about my personal and professional development.” Leaders would then get a percentage score that speaks to the climate that they have created. Several companies in the private sector have found ways to do this without turning the assessment into a popularity contest (such as Amazon’s Connections platform). It’s time for the military to field an evaluation system that better reinforces its espoused values.

If the Air Force is to truly accelerate change, it needs all of its people and the unique perspectives they bring to the mission. Leaders should be more inclusive than ever before. They should accept risk where appropriate and instead of discouraging failure encourage effort and learning. The service should encourage leaders to seize the psychological high ground that maximizes the contribution of every member.



Jeremy Buyer is the Chief of Workforce Development for Headquarters Air Force’s Talent Management Innovation Cell. In this role, he researches, tests, and implements various policy changes related to officer talent management, such as the establishment of six developmental categories for Line of the Air Force officer promotions, the transition away from below-the-zone promotions, and the establishment of merit-based line numbers.

Jason Lamb is the Technical Director for the Space and Missile Systems Center’s Talent Management Team. He is perhaps best known for a series of articles about leadership and culture he wrote under the pseudonym “Col. Ned Stark” while serving in the Air Force.

Image: Airman 1st Class Keith Holcomb