How Safe Is Your Strategy?
I can’t imagine October 3rd 2021 will be a day that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and COO Sheryl Sandberg will soon forget.
That evening over 8 million people tuned into news program “60 Minutes” to hear former Facebook employee-turned-whistleblower Frances Haugen accuse the social media giant of “prioritizing profits over public good” while sharing internal documents that outlined that “We (Facebook) have evidence from a variety of sources that hate speech, divisive political speech and misinformation on Facebook and the family of apps are affecting societies around the world.”
While her revelations were shocking, they were hardly news for anyone who has watched the rise of these “weapons of mass distraction and division” as Scott Galloways has called Facebook. After all, Facebook is no stranger to controversies, ranging from the Cambridge Analytica scandal to the belated decision to remove former President Donald Trump from the platform.
What has fascinated me is the descriptions of the tensions and frustrations inside the Facebook culture over this period. The Washington Post has covered this well and offers the following:
The overall picture portrayed in these scathing farewell missives, many of which have been obtained by The Washington Post, echo accounts from dozens of current and former employees interviewed in recent days and over the past several years: Facebook is obsessed with growth, unwilling to undertake systemic reforms in the face of documented harms and ready to accommodate the politically powerful.
While whistleblowing and leaks to the media from concerned or disgruntled employees are an extreme scenario for any organization, they do highlight one of the fundamental realities that Executives often forget about culture.
Your business strategy is only as effective as the willingness of your culture to execute it.
If your culture isn’t committed, then your strategy is nothing more than a great Powerpoint.
Your employees also don’t have to appear on “60 Minutes” to cause a 5% share price drop as Facebook experienced the day after Haugen’s appearance3. Each day they can show their lack of commitment in numerous ways from absenteeism, lack of decision-making to all the various behaviours that transform companies from nimble and agile to bloated and lumbering.
Harvard Business School Professor Amy Edmondson4 has shot to (well-deserved) international fame with her treatise on psychological safety and its profound impact on organizational success — or failure.
To overly simplify Professor Edmondson’s work, to create organizations of optimal performance we must create work environments where our people feel “safe”.
Safe to ask questions. Not terrified of appearing stupid.
Safe to debate the status quo. Not terrified they’ll appear negative or rocking the boat.
Safe to acknowledge mistakes. Not terrified to appear weak or unknowing.
Safe to suggest new ideas. Not terrified they’ll fall victim to Hippo Syndrome.
Create that environment and the full passion, creativity, enthusiasm, and commitment of your people is possible.
NetFlix attributes much of their runaway success — Squid Games anyone? — to two core beliefs. A robust feedback culture and an obsession with hiring fully-formed adults. Adults who feel that they have psychological safety and the autonomy to bring their very best ideas to the table.
And, if the last five years have taught us anything — #metoo, #blacklivesmatter, #truthandreconciliation and even #thegreatresignation — it is that our organizations have been woefully missing the crucial safety that Professor Edmondson advocates.
Our people and talent have been poorer for it and, I don’t think its surprising, that our organizational performance, innovation, agility, and resilience has been equally poor for the lack of it.
I’m equally worried that many organizations see the chasm between an under-investment in the psychological safety of their people and their under-performance in the market and try to correct the imbalance with some quick, PR-worthy, heavily-marketed, Band-Aid efforts.
Please, please, please don’t do that!! That’s nothing more than Culturewashing and your current employees, and the talent you’re trying to attract, see right through it.
Sadly many Executives still see this type of investment as nothing more than Corporate Koombayah and coddling the strident voices of Gen X and Millennials. Nothing could be further from the truth.
I see this in way simpler and more binary terms.
Ensure the psychological safety of your people
Earn the full commitment of your people
Enjoy the benefit of a fully executed strategy
Yes, that is a simplistic, perhaps even childish, view of the world but I’d ask you what happens when you change the first word in the sentences above?
Deny the psychological safety of your people
Stifle the full commitment of your people.
What happens to your brilliant strategy then?
To quote from Prof Edmondson’s 2014 TedX talk:
As long as there’s uncertainty and interdependence, it’s absolutely vital that you have psychological safety.
Take a look around at the world your business is operating in, Dear Reader.
The world your strategy has to succeed in.
Is it Uncertain? Hell yeah.
Is it Interdependent? Without question.
So, I ask again, how much (psychological) safety exists in your organization?
More importantly, without that safety, how safe is your strategy?
1) For a detailed description of the Facebook story and perspective on the rise of surveillance capitalism, read this article from The Guardian
2) For the full “60 Minute” episode featuring Frances Haugen, find it here.
4) Amy Edmondson’s book “The Fearless Organization” is a spectacular read and must have book for any operating in the leadership and culture space.