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Why ‘Sweaty Palm Conversations’ Are Essential for Teamwork

Do you feel safe enough to challenge your boss?

When people think about safety at work, we tend to think about physical safety, things like masks, and safety harnesses.

But if you want to create a high-performing team you also need psychological safety.

High performance depends on teammates being able to share opinion, admit mistakes, and even being able tell the boss that she’s made a mistake.

When a leader says, we don’t have conflict on my team, it draws a red flag. That might be true. But evidence tells us, what’s more likely true is that people don’t feel safe addressing conflicts.

Ineffective teams often avoid conflict. Exceptional teams welcome conflict because they know it means that teammates:

1. Care enough to have deep opinions
2. Feel safe enough to bring up conflicting ideas
3. Have confidence they can address differences productively

Mike Robbins, the author of We’re All In This Together says, “Psychological safety is a shared belief that a team is safe for risk-taking. People on teams with psychological safety have a sense of confidence that their team will not embarrass, reject or punish them for taking risks.”

A 2017 Gallup study found that only 3 in 10 employees strongly agree with the statement that their opinions count at work. Robbins writes, “Gallup calculated that by moving that ratio to 6 in 10 employees, organizations could realize a 27 percent reduction in turnover, a 40 percent reduction in safety incidents and a 12 percent increase in productivity.”

As a leader, it’s important to recognize, for many people the natural default is to assume it’s not safe to challenge ideas or speak up at work. This might not have anything to do with your behavior as a leader or your company culture. People come into the workplace with all kinds of biases and beliefs. If your parents told you, never contradict the boss, that’s going to be your default until the boss helps you create a new belief.

In our recent LinkedIn Live interview, Robbins said, “If you want to create safety you have to be willing to embrace sweaty palm conversations. A sweaty palm conversation is that conversation you don’t want to have, but the one you need to have if you’re going to move forward. Robbins says, an early mentor of mine told me, “Mike what’s standing between you and the relationships you want to have with people are a few sweaty palm conversations.” A willingness to step into discomfort is a hallmark of high performance. Leaders can help their teams proactively address difficult issues by acknowledging their own discomfort. When a leader says, “We need to have a sweaty palm conversation, I’m nervous and not sure how to handle this, but it’s important so let’s try” that leader gives their team permission to do the same.

Candid conversations require trust. Robbins asserts, “People need to believe that everyone on the team – including the leader– shares the purpose or they won’t trust you.” When Robbins wrote, We’re All In This Together, before the COVID crisis, based on his research and work with highly effective teams, he had no way of knowing that phrase would become a national mantra.

As we now find ourselves both saying, and realizing at a profound level that we are in fact all in this together, creating an environment that brings out the best in a team is crucial.

The best teams are more than an assembled group of high performers. The best teams are high performers who can trust each and who aren’t afraid to challenge the status quo. If you want your team to perform, make it safe for them to disagree.