A workplace investigation will not repair dysfunctional workplace relationships. A workplace investigation neither builds bridges, nor resolves interpersonal conflict. In fact, an investigation may make a difficult work environment even more difficult. So how do we put Humpty Dumpty back together again, if all the King’s horses and all the King’s people could not?
Google’s Project Aristotle
In 2012, Google undertook a multi-year initiative to answer one question: what makes some workplace teams soar while others fail miserably. The research team, which included organizational psychologists, statisticians, engineers and sociologists, studied the literature and over 150 Google teams. They found five (5) behavioural norms that all successful teams shared:
- Psychological safety: Team members feel safe to take risks and be vulnerable in front of each other.
- Dependability: Team members get things done on time and meet Google’s high bar for excellence.
- Structure & Clarity: Team members have clear roles, plans and goals.
- Meaning: Work is personally important to team members.
- Impact: Team members think that their work matters and creates change.
Of all the factors, ‘psychological safety’ was the most important. Charles Duhigg, in his book Smarter Faster Better: The Transformative Power of Real Productivity, has a chapter devoted to teams and the concept of psychological safety. He cites Dr. Edmondson as follows (at p. 64):
For psychological safety to emerge among a group, teammates don’t have to be friends. They do, however, need to be socially sensitive and ensure everyone feels heard. “The best tactic for establishing psychological safety is demonstration by a team leader,” as Amy Edmondson, who is now a professor at Harvard Business School told me. “It seems like fairly minor stuff, but when the leader goes out of his way to make someone feel listened to, or starts a meeting by saying ‘I might miss something, so I need all of you to watch for my mistakes’ or says ‘Jim, you haven’t spoken in a while, what do you think?,’ that makes a huge difference.”
Psychological Flexibility – Digging a little Deeper
In addition to psychological safety, teams also need ‘psychological flexibility’, a concept based on choices and values.
In ACT, psychological flexibility is defined as follows:
ACT… is about doing what works to get you where you want to go. It’s about choosing your direction and becoming increasingly able to move toward it through your actions, even in the presence of obstacles. Choosing a direction involves identifying who or what is important to you [i.e. values]. In ACT having the ability to choose to do what works in order to move toward who or what is important to you, even in the presence of obstacles, is known as psychological flexibility.
The question ‘who or what is important to you’ is another way to identify values. In a team setting, the values question is ‘what are our shared purposes?’ The conflict represents the obstacle. ‘Moving toward’ is the idea of choice – that is, choosing to take actions consistent with a team’s shared purposes to achieve important team goals, despite the presence of obstacles.
This notion of ‘psychological flexibility’ is exemplified in the work of Victor Frankl, an Austrian psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor. While a prisoner in the concentration camps, he wondered why some prisoners were resilient and better able to survive the despair and tragedy of their circumstances while others fell victim to their despair. The answer, he observed, came down to two things: values and choice. Even in these terrible circumstances people had the power to choose, for example, to relieve the suffering of others or to enjoy the warmth of a spring day instead of fixating on the hopelessness of their situation. No one could take this power of choice away. Frankl’s conclusions can be summarized as follows: ‘Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our freedom and growth.’
How ‘Psychological Safety’ and ‘Psychological Flexibility’ Informs My Work with Stuck Teams
Whenever I work with stuck teams, the following five (5) criteria informs my practice:
- Establish the conditions for psychological safety – Guide team members to choose ground rules necessary for creating a safe space for their work. Confidentiality is one such necessary rule.
- Never talk about the problem directly – This is the first commandment of ‘psychologically safety’ and ‘psychological flexibility’. The team is in a stuck place because of the problem. Talking about the problem keeps the team focused on why they are stuck. Stuck thinking is a symptom of a fixed mindset rather than growth mindset.
- Psychological Flexibility: Focus on workability – Assessing right/wrong, that is focusing on blame, is a stuck perspective and makes resolution more difficult. Workability is a flexible perspective which generates options by looking at what the team may do to achieve important goals and objectives. Success is measured by whether an action is workable in that it moves the team toward shared purposes and goals. Instead of trying to fix what is broken (as in trying to piece humpty dumpty together again) the team’s attention is shifted to what it needs to do to act consistently with shared purposes (values) and to achieve important goals.
- Confirm each team member’s right to choose – Team members can choose whether or not to do what is workable. With the power of choice, however, comes responsibility for the consequence of one’s choices. For example, choosing to do nothing is actually a choice to remain stuck which will ultimately have its own consequences, personally and at work. As Uncle Ben told Peter Parker: ‘With great power comes great responsibility.’
- Ensure that everyone speaks at least once, and that each person is heard – Generally speaking, people do not want to stay stuck in conflict. They prefer to move forward because conflict has negative impacts at work, at home and even on their personal health. Creating a safe space and a way to generate options for moving forward, that is not dependent on affixing blame, is an effective approach to solving the ‘Humpty Dumpty’ problem. At the end of the process, if people on the team start talking and if every team member’s voice is heard, at least once, the team will be well on its way to putting ‘Humpty Dumpty’ together again.
About the Author
Ronald Pizzo works at Pink Larkin in the labour and employment group. He has 30 years’ experience as a labour lawyer. He is also a certified mediator and coach. He is also certified in the Pro-Social Matrix Communication Process. He works with teams and workplace groups stuck in conflict and dysfunction.
Rozovsky, J. (n.d.). Re:Work – The five keys to a successful Google team. Retrieved December 10, 2018, from https://rework.withgoogle.com/blog/five-keys-to-a-successful-google-team/
 Duhig, C. (2017). Smarter Faster Better: The Transformative Power of Real Productivity. Anchor Canada, a division of Penguin Random House Canada.
 ACT is Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, a third wave cognitive behavioural therapy. For more information about using ACT in workplace interventions and various studies assessing the efficacy of ACT workplace interventions see https://workingwithact.com/
 Polk, K.L. et.al. (2016). The Essential Guide to the ACT Matrix. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.
 Frankl, V.E. (1992, 4th ed.). Man’s Search for Meaning. Boston, Mass: Beacon Press at p. 1.
 Attribution for this quote is discussed here: https://medium.com/@yesthatguy/between-stimulus-and-response-9811620c2bd9 and here: https://quoteinvestigator.com/2018/02/18/response/.
 Dweck, C.S. (2006). Mindset: the new psychology of success. New York, NY: Penguin Random House LLC.
 Ziskin, L. (Producer), & Rami S. (Director). (2002). Spider-Man: The Motion Picture. United States: Columbia Pictures Corporation, Marvel Enterprises, Laura Ziskin Productions.