The Strategic Importance of Safety

Consider this story from Digital Tonto

In 2012, Google embarked on an enormous research project. Code-named “Project Aristotle,” the aim was to see what made successful teams tick. They combed through every conceivable aspect of how teams worked together — how they were led, how frequently they met outside of work, the personality types of the team members — no stone was left unturned.

However, despite Google’s nearly unparalleled ability to find patterns in complex data, none of the conventional criteria seemed to predict performance. In fact, what they found mattered most to team performance was psychological safety, or the ability of each team member to be able to give voice to their ideas without fear of reprisal or rebuke.

Who You Are and Who You Want to Be

For many of us, who we are — or at least who we think we are — is not necessarily who we want to be.

The reason? Time relentlessly moves forward, which all too often, does not allow us to perfect what we do. For that reason, we all move through time as imperfect “identity vessels”. We know that, given the right opportunities, we could have done better in some ways, perhaps even important ways. We can imagine what that would have looked like, but we can no longer achieve it. We would like to be the person who did achieve it, but we are not.

The problem may be more acute when decisions we have made restrict our freedom to act in the present. We may be on a career path that we find unrewarding. Or we may have damaged our health in ways that cannot be repaired. One can imagine many, many such restrictions. We are stuck, at least for the time being, with a less than perfect identity.

This is not a problem for some. They just move on, focusing on the future that is achievable. We call these folks “resilient”. We might also call them “stoics” – persons who believe in accepting the hardships of life as normal.

It is a problem for others, especially if they feel guilty about not being perfect. That problem gets worse if they believe that their imperfections will continue to cause failure. That produces frustration. The more intense the fears and frustrations, the more resilience and stoicism is needed.

There is another issue. The more deeply we feel guilt and frustration, the less we are able to enjoy the process of moving into the future. From a strategic perspective, this is nicht gut! Strategy requires creativity. Creativity requires imagination. Imagination requires an ability to see beyond the present. Guilt and frustration glue our eyeballs to something else.

For this reason, two religious concepts are useful. The zen idea of minimizing identity, and the Catholic idea of forgiveness. Each enables the individual to get beyond negative emotions that accompany imperfect  present identity.  Whether you adhere to either religion or not, they offer useful concepts from a strategic point of view.

By way of contrast, before we can imagine a better future self, we need a certain amount of confidence. Where does that come from? It comes from our belief in our present capacities. That is an engine for conviction – beliefs that generate decision and action. In other words, before we can move confidently into the future, we need to have a strong sense of identity, based on belief in our capabilities.

This is a bit odd – we need both to minimize the negative effects of our past imperfections and maximize belief in our present capabilities. How do we achieve both at the same time?

You see athletes doing this as they go through “slumps”. You might think of a batter in baseball who suddenly and inexplicably cannot get on base. Or in basketball, an outside shooter who starts missing open shots. Or whole teams who inexplicably start losing games that they believe should have been won. The players have to keep on playing – and it is called “playing through a slump”. The game goes on.

Some players attempt to get through this by adjusting their attitude. They might repeat to themselves”I can do this!” Of course, we know that trying to conform the self to what we want of the self to be is not so easy.  It is much harder when we are talking about a self in action.

We also know that humans have limited will power. We rather quickly use it up when we exert will. Anger is more durable. As an emotion it is “sticky” – it hangs around, and is transferable. So some players allow themselves to become angry or “aggressive” in order to get beyond their fear of failure and frustration over slumps. Michael Jordan confessed that he did this throughout his career, and it seems to have worked for him.

Another way is to nurture a belief that the game is bigger — or more important for some reason—  than the individual playing it. That individual can bear the struggles of being imperfect and still enjoy playing if he or she believes that being involved in the game is more important than being perfect in the game.

Which is better? Most would agree that elevating the importance of the game works better than solely relying on individual will. Does it work better than nurturing anger? Of course, the two are not mutually exclusive. But we might note here that nurturing anger requires development of anger management capacity. That can be a distraction as much as fear and frustration. I am not confident, for example, that Michael Jordan could channel his anger to become a great artist.

So we might focus for now on the challenges of investing in the game. For the game to be “bigger”, the game must have a positive quality to it. That is obvious in sports. It is less obvious in life. In life, we are often punished for mistakes. And we learn to punish ourselves. Fear of punishment can drain the pleasure of playing the game of life. And once punished, the person punished needs a tool to regain his or her sense of  the game – distance himself or herself from the event in favor of playing further.

This “distancing from the event” is often called rebellion. Youth is in an eternal state of rebellion, or so it seems. Are they merely casting off the limitations that they feel from their negative feelings about failure? Perhaps. This may be similar to the athletes relying on anger as a motivating tool. There are limits on what it can achieve.

Some argue that to help young people become more creative, education should be gamified. It should offer a positive environment for leveling up, or as we call it, learning. It would be interesting to see if this type of education could be institutionalized, and if so, what the results would look like. It might open up possibilities for folks to see life in a gaming context., or as we call it now, “life long learning”.

My key point here is to describe a certain dynamic – the dynamic that optimizes our capacity to move into the future with confidence. To play the game of life as well as we can.