Two lessons for leaders who want to drive profound growth

July, 2019
2019-07 Two lessons for leaders who want to drive shutterstock_100392335  vs2 530 x 300

Want your people to achieve more than you thought was possible? Then prioritise psychological safety and employee engagement, say Michael Parke, Assistant Professor of Organisational Behaviour and Dan Cable, Professor of Organisational Behaviour at London Business School.

You might have heard about Google’s growth ambitions. Back in 2013, founder Larry Page announced that the internet behemoth would be shifting from a 10% to a 10x mindset: a commitment to do things 10 times better than anything else out there. And that includes growing.

A 1000% growth and improvement target might sound daunting, but in fact, 10x thinking has been part of the secret sauce in Google’s stratospheric success. In an industry defined by non-stop disruption, relentless competition and the ever-present uncertainty surrounding what’s next, Page’s vision has proved to be a clarion call to innovators everywhere.  

Take Echo, Amazon’s intelligent, voice-controlled household app. A major challenge for Amazon’s engineers was latency, the time it takes for the app to respond to a query or a request. When the team presented CEO Jeff Bezos with their plan to reduce latency to just two seconds, they met with a surprising response. “One second,” Bezos told them. Echo needs to react to its user in one second.

A couple of years and a good deal of hard work later, Amazon had done the impossible. And in launching Echo, they’ve created an entirely new computing paradigm giving them an edge on major rivals like Apple.

“Profound growth: a process of achieving things that are far-reaching and that push the bar on what we thought was possible”

There are other companies out there today continually raising the bar and pushing the boundaries on seemingly impossible goals. Space X, Pixar, Deliveroo and Taxify, for example, have eschewed achievable goals for stretch goals that stir the imagination of their employees, rallying them around experimentation, innovation and trying to achieve the impossible.

Looking at these examples, it’s quite clear that we are moving away from business as usual and into a new dimension that we call profound growth: a process of achieving things that are far-reaching and that push the bar on what we thought was possible.

Although many organizations would love to achieve profound growth, it is predicated on having the right culture – having people who strive to continuously learn and improve, who are willing to experiment, to take risks, to make mistakes and to learn from them. And for this to happen, you need a culture that prioritises psychological safety and engagement.

So how do the Googles, Amazons, Deliveroos, Taxifys and others create safety and engagement to drive profound growth? And what are the lessons that you can take away for your leadership and your business?

Ask yourself this: are you cat fur?

Most mammals like to explore, experiment, and play. We know this thanks to the work of people like affective neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp.

One of Panksepp’s most famous experiments demonstrates how fear can repress the instinct to explore, experiment, and play. He monitored the interactions of a group of rat pups in the lab and noted that the animals would make around 50 invitations to play in a five-minute period.

Curious to see how fear would impact their playful instinct, Panksepp introduced a tuft of cat fur into some of their playpens. Immediately, the play dropped to zero in those pens. But the most striking finding was that even once the fur had been removed, the rats still didn’t play nearly as much as they had before. So what is the takeaway for business?

It’s important to understand that play is a vital mechanism that permits us to explore, experiment and grow. Fear shuts this play down. As a leader, you have to ask yourself how you respond to people when there’s a problem or a mistake. Do you come down hard on others, or are you supportive and try to learn with people who have made mistakes? Are you guilty of dropping cat fur in the playpen?

Research shows that teams with low sense of psychological safety are afraid of getting it wrong; they cover their mistakes, and they don’t share information which is vital to innovation. So how do you create psychological safety?

Jim Parker spent many years at Southwest Airlines as chief legal attorney before being appointed CEO. As General Counsel, Jim said that he regularly had a queue of people outside his office door coming to him with issues to resolve. When he became CEO, that queue disappeared: no one wanted to share their problems with the boss. This, said Jim, was no good to him as he need information if he was going to add value.

What Jim and other leaders who understand the importance of psychological safety know is that many hidden barriers exist—such as power and status differences—that prevent the free-flow and candid sharing of information. To combat these in order to drive profound growth, you need to implement three Cs: Consult, consider, and deliver closure.

At Southwest Airlines, Jim instituted a practice of consulting, or involving other people, hearing their problems and listening to their ideas. He considered the personal sense of risk they felt in sharing. And he ensured they felt heard – that they got the feedback they needed and deserved. The result? Under Jim’s stewardship, Southwest enjoyed an unparalleled track record of success.

Engagement: Getting your people in the zone

Ask yourself another question: am I creating an environment where people feel engaged to grow?

Profound growth happens when people not only feel safe enough to experiment and innovate, but when they feel motivated to hit and exceed their targets. This is where people bring their whole self to work, investing their physical, cognitive and emotional energy in succeeding in accomplishing their goals.

Athletes often talk about being “in the zone.” And engaged employees are the same: they feel pride, enthusiasm and emotional connection with what they are doing. Conversely, where engagement is low, people feel trapped in repetition and routine. Typically they end up exploiting the knowledge that they already have and feel too busy to learn more or truly reflect.

So how do you engage people better?

Getting your people into the zone begins with how you frame your business goals. Benjamin Zander, the English conductor, gave a Ted Talk in which he pondered how to make classical music relevant and engaging to more people. For Zander, this meant talking about music in a way that made “people’s eyes shine.”

Think about that in a business context. How do you set targets with your staff? Do you prioritise percentages, or do you share an exciting vision about the future? Do you connect goals with a higher order or purpose that people can aspire to?

Giving people a sense of ownership and meaning in their work hinges on them understanding how what they do brings value to the overall strategy of your organisation. Letting them know that you can’t do it without their contribution. Allowing them to interact with the people they affect through their job, so they can experience their impact first-hand.

Engagement is contingent on getting people involved.

MDVIP was a small personalised healthcare network with a problem. Doctors working within in the network were being treated as clients, not partners. Initiatives and projects were rolled out without their involvement or contribution, with the result that the doctors themselves were feeling increasingly disenfranchised.

To correct this, senior management had to rethink their relationship with the doctors, and see them as collaborators whose opinions and input would drive success. By calling doctors in to consult on initiatives, and setting up a regular communications channel to share information and capture feedback, MDVIP saw their network’s sense of engagement increase by 20%.

“The companies that drive profound growth are the companies that prioritise people development”

Engagement is also about purpose.

It’s one thing to hear from the boss that your work matters. But how often do people hear from their colleagues or their customer? How much do your people feel their work makes a difference to the lives of their beneficiaries? Bringing this into the feedback loop is critical in helping people see their value.

Whether it’s inviting the recipient of a scholarship to talk to your team, getting a customer on a video call, or even creating what is referred to as a reciprocity ring – having a structured meeting where your team meets and each member shares a problem or need and the team collectively solves them right on the spot – enabling people to see the concrete ways in which they change lives can distil purpose and engagement across your organisation.

The companies that drive profound growth are the companies that prioritise people development.

They are the companies that find the strategies, the mechanisms and the channels to support and engage people and help them to grow. And they are the leaders who continuously reconnect with their own sense of purpose – those who want to see shining eyes – and who themselves feel both psychological safety and engagement with what they do.

Reproduced with permission: Michael Parke and Dan Cable 10 June 2019 

To access further papers and related materials click: Dan Cable, Faculty or Research, London Business School    and  Michael Parke, Faculty or Research, London Business School