I was speaking with a senior executive about 2 years ago on an Executive Search project we were conducting for a CTO position. They were very engaging and when we were exploring how they manage their organisation, they said this:
‘I have come to the realisation that I am comfortable with my level of incompetence’.
At first, I didn’t quite understand them, but they further explained that it is the one thing that differentiates them from other senior leaders. They are open and transparent about what they are great at and what they aren’t. This has come as a result of years of becoming more self-aware of their areas of competence and where they will have greatest Leadership Impact (and where they won’t). It was also a sign of accepted vulnerability, which in turn promoted a Leadership behaviour that equipping their team with very high Psychological Safety.
There are two behavioural concepts here that have been widely written about – Vulnerability and Psychological Safety.
The vulnerability element has been touched upon in various books and thoughts around authentic leadership, servant leadership, “leaders eat last” and the list goes on. Dr Brene Brown has a Netflix special, “Brene Brown: The Call to Courage”, which focuses specifically on vulnerable leadership. She defines vulnerability as taking action when there is ‘uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure”. She goes on to further say that “When we build cultures at work … there is zero tolerance for vulnerability”. The same can be said for ‘building’ leaders. We are always trying to equip them almost as machines that show no emotion, driven by data and are all-knowing and competent in everything. Rarely do we see leaders admit they don’t know everything and as such create organisations around them to plug the gaps in their competence and knowledge that they are aware of. In many cases, there is even a total denial; or worse, no conscious understanding of their competence gaps at all.
Dr Brown’s CEO, Gali Cooks recently wrote about vulnerability, saying this:
“When people take the time to reflect upon and understand their own internal experiences—to “know thyself”—they unearth fertile ground that is the bedrock for learning and growth. The more you know about yourself—what drives you, what triggers you, what strengths you have, what weaknesses you struggle with—the better able you are to communicate those factors to your team and surround yourself with people who can complement your attributes, energy and behaviour.”
This brings us nicely to the second concept, that of Psychological Safety.
What is it? In the workplace, it is a goal that allows people to flourish (and bring their whole self to work) without fear of retribution for mistakes or setbacks, to be who they are, thereby promoting vulnerability and fellowship among team members.
Amy Edmondson, a leading authority and the first to coin the term Psychological Safety, explains that it is a key catalyst to clearing blocks to innovation, collaboration and risk-taking. Google conducted research on all of its teams to find out what were the ‘secret’ ingredients of the most successful teams. They interviewed over 200 employees and observed 250 attributes with more than 180 teams. The research highlighted 5 primary drivers of success: Impact, Meaning, Structure & Clarity, and Dependability and the number 1 being Psychological Safety. Those teams that embraced mistakes, failing fast, having crucial conversations and speaking up were teams that moved quicker than others and produced better results more often.
The Leaders job—whether at the top of an organisation or somewhere in the middle—is to create a safe space for people to speak up, make mistakes, and bring their full selves to work.
Let’s come back to our leader. They made it very clear that they have become very comfortable with their level of incompetence. That meant they were very clear with their team and the organisation they lead on what they know and understand and what they didn’t. It meant when they hired or pulled together their team, they knew exactly the areas of competence that needed to be fulfilled by someone else – who would then plug their competence gap. The culture they created in their organisation was one of direct feedback, sparring and always looking at ‘even better if’. In this case, they said the CTO function is NOT about understanding the Cloud, network infrastructure, or software – it is about understanding how they can get people and organisations moving together at pace and moving information around the organisation quicker than their competitors. The only way they could do that was by everyone understanding what they are great at and being comfortable with what they aren’t – but understanding that is fine and knowing where to get appropriate help in these areas. It was also about raising feedback and thoughts all the time without fear of retribution.
We look specifically to help Leaders across an organisation become aware of their areas of strength and leadership impact and the areas of leadership risk and lower levels of competence
At 6 Group, we have been working with clients for over 10 years now with our proprietary formula and process to assess the Capability of people and organisations. We look specifically to help Leaders across an organisation become aware of their areas of strength and leadership impact and the areas of leadership risk and lower levels of competence. Crucially we are able to map that against the strategy, behaviours and values of the organisation they work in. Once this is done, we also work with organisations to create leadership teams and transformation teams that are competently complimentary. That forces leaders to operate to their areas of strength and create an interdependent culture of competence and success.
If you would like to learn more about how we can help your organisation promote a psychologically safe culture where people can become comfortable with their level of incompetence, then please contact James Beazley, MD 6 Group on email@example.com
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