Commercial Success and Culture: independent in the short term

Success is not a barometer for culture. Some investment leaders have dismissed culture assessments as pointless because they simply measure commercial success. They reason, “Successful firms exhibit strong culture; winning makes everyone happy. Losing lowers morale.”

But culture is different from morale. Thus, this rather cynical comment from a CEO, “What’s the point of a culture survey? When we’re winning culture is good, when we’re losing it’s bad.” The underlying assumption is that performance drives culture. In this view, culture is equated with morale.

While it’s true that good culture often creates high morale, it’s not true that commercial success creates strong culture. A firm with poor culture and low morale can win over the short term.1 Conversely, a firm with a strong culture and high morale can hit a rough patch and suffer setbacks.

Let’s explore the relationship between commercial success and culture.  Consider two firms we’ll call “Slick” and “Sludge.” Slick has exceptionally strong culture but poor results, Sludge has just the reverse. Slick and Sludge are both mid-size active equity managers. Slick has been a 20-year success story, with good performance and good asset growth. But after 20 years Slick’s investment strategy fell out of favor and, over a three-year period, they lost half of their assets. As expected, no one at Slick is happy about their downturn. Morale is challenged. But a culture survey taken during this difficult period revealed a resilient culture with a staff that is aligned and motivated.

Sludge shows the opposite story. They had a very strong track record in their flagship fund and assets were growing when they took the culture survey. Their results, despite commercial success, revealed a toxic culture.

Four diagnostics from their culture surveys capture the stories of Slick and Sludge. The four are:

  1. Values and behaviors that staff members regularly experience
  1. Amount of toxic behavior
  1. Measurement of success factors
  1. Representative comments from staff members about the culture

Values and behaviors: the current culture as experienced by the staff

According to employees at Slick and Sludge, they experience2 the following at work (Most experienced value at the top, then declining. Toxic behaviors shown in red): 09.16.20 LOL a

First, simply eyeball each list. Which one feels like it would be a more productive work environment?

The Sludge culture has five toxic behaviors that negatively affect the working environment. They are shown in red. By contrast, Slick has no toxic behaviors. Furthermore, three of Sludge’s values suggest a “sweatshop” experience: long hours/hard work, competitive/win/be the best, results oriented. Note: these values are not colored red because they are not inherently toxic. But when all three are combined under a harsh leader, they make for a toxic work experience. Many comments in Sludge’s culture survey reflect this: “A demanding environment usually raises the quality of one’s contribution; however, when requests are not respectful their cumulative impact is demotivating and discouraging.” Plus, “We experience of fear and distrust. There is a disrespect for the people that work here and for their intellect. The idea of ‘you are only as good as your last call’ is prevalent.”

Conversely, Slick’s culture is compassionate, generous, and respectful. Comments from their survey: “This firm is proactive in making sure employees feel safe, secure and have whatever they need to be successful.” And: “My colleagues and team leader trust me to do my work and perform my role without micromanagement, even if it is something that is new to me or stretches my skill set. The leadership team is curious and listens and invites me into conversations where they believe I have a skill set, expertise, or a diverse point of view to share. They listen openly and challenge appropriately, respectfully. I can have and have had tough conversations, asking and receiving freedom to execute my role as I have been trusted to do with a positive response.”

Toxic Behavior

A deeper look at the total amount of toxic behavior in each firm is shown below:

Slick Sludge
Toxic Behavior % of staff in agreement Toxic Behavior % of staff in agreement
Bureaucracy 1% Defensive Behaviors 31%
Slow Moving/Reactive 1% Gossip 27%
Blame 0 Territorial 25%
Defensive Behaviors 0 Blame 24%
Disrespect 0 Politics 24%
Entitlement 0 Short-Term Focus 24%
Gossip 0 Disrespect 22%
Manipulation 0 Negative 18%
Negative 0 Bureaucracy 15%
Politics 0 Entitlement 14%

Note the obvious: Slick’s staff believe that toxic behavior is virtually absent from the culture. Sludge’s culture is riddled with it. The primary driver of toxic behavior is fear. Indeed, the comments from staff members at Sludge indicate a very fearful environment. Despite their commercial success, the culture does not promote engagement, optimism, or confidence.

Measurement of Success Factors 

Successful investment firms tend to share certain factors such as the ability to attract top talent, loyalty of the staff, good communication, effective execution of plans, and ownership mentality (i.e. staff members think and act as if they are owners of the firm). As you look below at the data for the two firms, remember that the data were collected during a successful period for Sludge and a challenging one for Slick. Looking at just the information below, you might be tempted to conclude the opposite.

Factor Slick Sludge
Ability to attract top talent 97% 58%
Loyalty of the staff 100% 57%
Good communication 96% 28%
Execution of plans 100% 39%
Ownership mentality 100% 12%

Comments from Staff Members

The analytics on the written comments from each firm’s survey revealed the following:3

Factor Slick Sludge
Positive to Negative emotions 14.13 2.53
Psychological safety ratio (higher is safer) 4.44 2.22
Sense of belonging/affiliation (% of words) 7.54% 2.62%
Achievement oriented (% of words) 5.64% 3.96%
Anger (% of words) .13% .34%

Clearly the Slick culture is superior using Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs as a framework. The staff’s needs for safety, belonging, and achievement are better met than in Sludge’s culture. Overall, the Slick culture has a much higher ratio of positivity than Sludge. A sampling of representative comments below gives you a feeling for the data presented above.

Slick Comments: positive (95% of total pages) Sludge Comments: positive (25% of total pages)
The firm has an amazing culture! I like the analytical rigor at our company and this must be maintained.
This firm exemplifies what I would try to create if building a firm: nimbly balancing the priorities of being a high-achieving investment firm with creating a positive work environment and making an impact for humanity. Realize that any great culture isn’t always going to be fun 24-7-365….stress makes you stronger… This is an AWESOME place and I hope I die here…(Editor’s note: you may.)
I believe this firm values each person and their unique contribution, and, therefore, does its utmost to safeguard the person’s entire well-being. If you take the initiative to go beyond what is expected, it is usually recognized and rewarded

Page Break

Slick Comments: negative (5% of total pages) Sludge Comments: negative (75% of total pages)
As we endeavor to constant improvement, I believe we need slightly more focus on business creativity and nurturing the entrepreneurial spirit to continue our growth. There is too much micromanagement. Staff are treated like children (face time emphasis or WFH requests instead of trusting employees to be responsible). There is a clear demonstration of favorites and people are rewarded based on likeability rather than competence and/or performance. In a nutshell, its totally demoralizing and this has suffered from significant staff turnover over the last decade.
Accountability/Responsibility and Candor/Honesty/Open are things that I think our firm wants, but struggles with because we all try to be nice and sometimes being nice doesn’t result in those values/behaviors. from the top down there are individuals who are unapproachable & confrontational. instead of building up individuals and teams there seems to be a process of knocking them down
My preferred culture is based on inclusivity but with a strong customer service focus. individuals are regularly “beaten up” and put down, many times in a public forum.
Since the beginning of 2018, we’ve added 9 Partners and seen 5 Partners depart. It’s interesting to see how the culture is shifting with the turnover in Partners. I think we are great at what we do investment wise but could use help in the way we treat employees. There is a level or disrespect demonstrated by senior management which is the root of employee unhappiness.
Very fast-paced which can be hard to sustain long-term. Feeling very nervous that I may make a mistake.

Some of the most telling comments written by Sludge employees relate to the “Net Promoter Score” (would you recommend working at Sludge to a friend).

“The only reason to take a job here is because you have little or no choice in a tough job market. People are hesitant to refer new employees into the firm these days because of the general unhappiness.”

“You wouldn’t tell your friend to walk into this battlefield.”

“You would discourage friends from joining the firm.”

“I wouldn’t recommend any friend work here.”

Again, remember that Sludge was gaining AUM in this period and planned to double in size over the coming three years. On paper, they were a clear commercial success.

Page Break

The Upshot: Slick and Sludge

At this point, we know the upshot for Sludge. The poor culture and high turnover of talent led to concerns on the part of clients and prospects. AUM growth flattened and then declined as performance worsened. As expected with weak culture, eventually the chickens come home to roost. The same leadership that created the culture described above is still in place. Sadly, the culture shows no signs of improving.

The more interesting question is whether Slick’s outstanding culture will allow them to weather the storm and emerge successfully when the clouds have parted. Time will tell. At this point they are right in the thick of it. Meantime, the strong culture is giving Slick the best shot possible at resuming their long history of success. Employees are fully engaged and committed. My money is on them to win.

So, don’t confuse commercial success with culture. And don’t use poor performance as an excuse for weak culture: “Of course our culture is weak, our performance is down.” Like the pilot who always checks his parachute before takeoff, make sure your culture is strong before you hit any turbulence. It’s hard to build culture when all hell is breaking loose. Use the calm air to do it now.


JW Download in PDF

Able or Arrogant? The Dangers of Overconfidence

Warning: this blog may be offensive to narcissists. 

Is overconfidence standing in the way of your firm’s progress? Quite possibly. Many investment professionals are innately confident. Using popular personality assessments, the most common investment type is:1 

Personality Assessment Tool Most common investment Type  Attributes common to all three 
Myers-Briggs E/I NTJ Assertive Confident  Goal driven 
DiSC D (Driver) 

Of course, investors must be confident given the nature of their task: winning in hyper-competitive markets. Some might say they have to be overconfident given the daunting odds. The relevant question for all investment professionals is: Are you overconfident? Have you cultivated a “beginner’s mindset” or a “been-there-done-that mindset.” The latter can crush continuous improvement (CI). 

That’s a problem, because CI is recognized as crucial for success. It’s become a top value in both the investment world and the business world in general (38 industries).2 Here are measurements for existing and aspirational levels of CI.   

Values Survey Results Investment Industry 38 Industries Globally 
Existing Rank for Continuous Improvement  10 14 
Aspirational Rank for Continuous Improvement 

In each universe, the importance of CI goes up dramatically. People get it: the world is becoming more competitive, so to stay relevant you must up your game. You must learn and improve.  

Confidence is an important ingredient for CI.  But it must be blended with humility. Yes, the two can co-exist. You can be very confident of the research you’ve done on a given investment but still be open to feedback. After all, maybe you missed something. The danger is confidence without humility. This mixture creates arrogance. Underlying the arrogance is usually a streak of insecurity. All the personality types mentioned above have a strong need to appear competent, to appear as winners. They will often mistake humility as a sign of weakness. They see humility as an absence of conviction. In their view: humble people should take lessons in table pounding.  

The overarching problem is the “smartest-guys-in-the-room” syndrome. FCG encounters this weekly as consultants to the industry. Our offerings are dismissed by clients as something that “we can do internally.” Whether it is leadership development, business strategy, culture building, or investment enhancement, prospects and clients regularly tell us, “We got this.” But often they don’t. The research is clear on this topic: people unfamiliar with a given activity tend to be overconfident. For example, someone who has never played golf may view it as easy. After all, the ball is stationery and all you must do is hit it straight ahead. Simple. But as those who have played golf know, it is anything but simple. (For me, golf is a water sport…) 

I recently had a clear example of my arrogance. I used to play tennis at a high level: national tournaments, varsity in college, teaching pro.  When I resumed playing after a long layoff, I assumed that I would play well without any coaching. After all, I was a pro myself. Why would I need to hire one? Well, eventually I was playing so poorly that I succumbed to lessons. Utter failure to the ego. But within a short period, I got better. Improvement required humility.  

The question I put to you, dear reader, is: Has your ego gotten the better of you? Where are you resisting help? Where is your firm resisting help? In the area of culture, this phenomenon of overconfidence is almost laughable. Leaders who have been unable to develop strong, healthy cultures over long periods still insist that culture is a high priority for the firm. Furthermore, they have made it clear to HR that culture is a top strategic initiative. (Right, that will get it done.) Is this not like the underperforming portfolio manager who sticks with the same losing process? Or how about the leader who resists coaching even after their 360 reveals a “failing grade?” Failing students sign up for tutoring; failing leaders should sign up for coaching.  

So, here’s my tip. Look at your career and your firm through the lens of objective reality. (You may need a colleague to help you with this…) Ask yourself: Am I/are we succeeding on our own? Or, is it time to bring in help? The 80/20 rule can be useful here. Take the culture example above. If a firm can achieve 80% success using internal resources (vs. 100% going outside), then by all means stay inside. But too often—back to our theme—arrogance gets in the way of objective reality: “We may be failing at improving our culture, but nobody outside is going to do any better.” Implication: we ARE the smartest guys in the room. If we can’t solve it no one can. Arrogance wins again. (Ego high-fives itself) The answer is forming an objective view via measurement. In my tennis example, I was hitting almost 50% of my forehands on or near the frame of the racket.  After the coaching, I was down to less than 10%. Measurable. Review your work and take an honest look at where your ego is holding you back. If you’re anything like me, and I know I am, you’ll find something worth exploring.   

The best leaders we know ask for all the help they can get. And take it anywhere it’s available. So, instead of looking for reasons to dismiss outside help, look for areas where it could pay dividends. Find ways to measure improvement. And do so. Don’t let a smug attitude of “we got this” derail actual improvement. Or your career could take a turn for the worse: you might find yourself humbly asking the next customer, “Do you want fries with that…?”  

Humbly yours, 


Culture Tradeoffs: Choose or Lose

Tradeoffs exist with all businesses. Short term vs. long term, centralized vs. de-centralized, and flat vs. hierarchical are common ones. Some tradeoffs are especially relevant to investment firms, such as “investment centric” vs. “sales centric.”  FCG has identified eleven investment tradeoffs which all investment leaders must confront and manage. Note, the goal is not to “solve” the tradeoff issue but rather to manage it successfully. In the example above, there may be times when a sales centric culture may want to shift to a more investment centric culture. And vice versa. The tradeoffs don’t involve a “right” answer. (“More taste, Less filling.”)  Some successful firms choose sales centric, others investment centric.1 (Often, however, their definitions of success differ.) 

The eleven tradeoffs that FCG assesses in our culture survey are as follows: 

 Choice A                                   Continuum                                   Choice B 
1 Leaders are mostly focused on asset gathering (sales-centric) Leaders are mostly focused on fund performance (investment-centric) 
2 Our culture is collaborative internally Our culture is competitive internally 
3 Our reward system has large differences between high and low performers (meritocracy)  Our reward system has small differences between high and low performers (favors equality and community) 
4 Our culture emphasizes relationships, connection, and a sense of belonging Our culture emphasizes achievement, goals and winning  
5 Employees are trusted to do their work Employees are managed to get work done 
6 Motivation is achieved by extrinsic factors (“carrots and sticks”) Motivation is achieved by intrinsic factors (purpose, autonomy, continuous improvement) 
7 Leaders seem focused on the short-term results Leaders seem focused on the long-term results 
8 Focus of employees is mainly on their compensation Focus of employees is on nature of the work; job satisfaction 
9 Leaders seem to favor transparency and openness of information  Leaders approach information on a “need to know” basis 
10 Our team is direct on discussing tough issues, even if it creates friction Our team is diplomatic in discussing tough issues, sometimes avoiding the problem 
11 Leaders believe that time in the office will lead to better outcomes  Leaders believe that focus on results (i.e. autonomy) will lead to better outcomes 

While tradeoffs don’t involve a “right” answer, they do require leaders to identify, choose, and manage them. For example, in number 2 above, if leaders are trying to create a collaborative culture and the survey shows many employees feel it is competitive (internally), then there’s a problem. That’s the situation with the firm below: 

The blue bars represent employees who experience collaboration. But the gold bars indicate that 62 employees (summation of the gold bar votes) do not experience the culture as collaborative. (9 people weren’t sure.) Thus, the leadership of this firm must ask themselves, “Is it okay that nearly 40% of our employees don’t experience a collaborative culture?” Not unless those people enjoy frustration.  

By contrast, look at the same tradeoff for a highly successful firm. 

Note that nearly all the employees experience the culture as collaborative. If the first firm wants to claim victory around collaboration, they will need to improve. As stated above, though, the job is never done. The second firm has experienced hiccups along the way—where the collaborative score dipped—but the issues were addressed and resolved quickly.  

In the virtual world, the most relevant tradeoff may be Face Time vs. Results Only. In the former, culture emphasizes time in the office. In-person collaboration (when possible) is considered superior to remote collaboration. Results Only is a newer approach in which leaders believe that workers will engage and produce more if left to their own devices. They can choose where, when, and how to achieve results. (“Every day is Saturday.”2) Again, neither approach is definitively better.  

Here’s the point: a firm should align around a single approach. Leaders should define the culture clearly, one way or the other. If they don’t, conflict arises. For example, Results Only employees in a mixed culture may show up at noon (presumably with their work done) only to be met by snarky comments like, “Glad you could join us today.” In a clearly defined Results Only work environment, these comments—and the mindset that creates them—disappear. They’re irrelevant. Time in the office doesn’t matter. Leaders should agree on the overall philosophy so that they can state clearly how the culture works. In the charts below, the first firm has completely shifted to Results Only. (Note: even before COVID occurred) The second is split between the two approaches and is dealing with the friction described above. 

Results Only Culture: 

Split Culture: Results Only and Face Time existing simultaneously: 

Each of the eleven tradeoffs described above detracts from a strong culture if not clearly defined and implemented. Consider communication: the “Direct” vs. “Diplomatic” approach to debating issues or providing feedback. Ray Dalio at Bridgewater has created a very direct approach. He says, “If you think it, say it.” (My marriage would have ended years ago…) Almost one third of new hires leave in their first two years. Their egos can’t take it. Conversely, many successful firms practice the diplomatic approach, which aims at candor but in a gentler fashion. The approach that does NOT work is combining the two. Direct people get frustrated, diplomatic ones get offended. (“Your work sucks” does not go over well in a polite firm.) Friction erodes productivity.  

The middle of the continuum can work for some tradeoffs. For example, a firm could be equally committed to sales and investments. But the evidence should back up this claim. Some firms claim that they are investment centric, but if you speak to investment people they say, “No way. Sales people are revered in this firm. The good ones make twice what we make.” Obviously, this situation creates friction. (Investment professionals grouse about their second-class status and sprinkle salt in the sales coffee pot.)  

Summarizing, leaders are faced with unavoidable tradeoffs. To handle them effectively, leaders must collect data, analyze them (data is plural, just FYI…), then make decisions about where they want the culture to be on the continuum. Finally, they must communicate the decision and work within the culture to make it a reality. If you say the culture is collaborative, then make it so. If it’s Results Only, then turn ‘em loose. If you favor direct communication, be prepared to lose some people.  

Don’t expect water and oil to mix. Choose or lose. 

See you Monday, 9 am CDT to discuss these ideas. Here’s the link: Join Zoom Meeting   

Measuring Culture: 9 Factors (or 4 simple questions…)

Typical “Finalist Presentation” Exchange: 

Buyer: “Does your firm have a strong culture?”  

Finalist: “Absolutely. It’s our competitive advantage. We pride ourselves on it.” 

Buyer: “How do you know it’s a strong culture?” 

Finalist (in disbelief): “Haven’t you seen our ad campaign?!”  

Buyer: “But isn’t your ad campaign a little biased?” 

Finalist (eyes rolling): “Well if you’re going to push me on it. There was an article in a trade magazine that praised our culture.” 

Okay, a bit exaggerated, but every finalist tells the buyer, “We have a great culture.” When FCG hears that response our knee-jerk reaction is, “Interesting. How do you measure it?” Awkward pause. Then the save, “We do an engagement survey each year.” (Smug satisfaction that he recovered.)  

Sorry, engagement surveys are NOT culture assessments. The former is useful but not for measuring culture. For example, engagement surveys don’t tell you if a firm is “investment centric” or “sales centric.” They don’t provide information about the core values of a firm: existing vs. aspirational. They don’t tell you about the biggest gaps between what a firm’s culture has currently and what it needs for future success.  

FCG designed a survey specifically to measure the health and effectiveness of investment cultures. 9 factors indicate the strength of a culture. They are: 

  1. Existing Cohesion: are staff members rallying around the same core values? 
  1. Alignment of Values: existing to aspirational. Does what we have match what we want? 
  1. Sludge: how much dysfunctional behavior exists (blame, gossip, disrespect, etc.)? 
  1. Effective Decision Making: does the culture support good decision making?  
  1. Loyalty of staff: does the staff feel a loyalty beyond their paycheck? 
  1. Top Talent: can the firm attract and retain top talent?    
  1. Sludge in Top 10 Values: has any of the dysfunctional behavior become widespread? 
  1. Culture Hierarchy (Maslow): does each level of the cultural hierarchy get sufficient attention? 
  1. Culture Tradeoffs: is the staff aligned around the tradeoffs that all investment firms face? (example: “investment centric” vs. “sales centric”) 

Firms that excel in all these factors we deem “Focus Elite.” In 2013, FCG produced a white paper describing the eight “Elite” firms called, “Linking Strong Culture to Success.”  (Fortunately, these firms have excellent track records of success. If that weren’t the case, culture consulting would be an even harder sell…) For more on these elite firms, including their names, see our white paper.1 

The 9 factors listed above are mostly self-explanatory, the key is developing a tool that measures them. FCG has developed—wait for it–just such a tool. (Shocker) And while our tool is rigorous, there is a much simpler way to measure strong culture. (Please don’t tell my colleagues that I am giving away the secret for free. They’ll tie me up and force me to watch Sensitivity Training videos.) The simpler metric is to focus on four questions that evaluate the Culture Hierarchy levels. All good cultures meet the psychological needs of their staff members on these four levels (from our friend Maslow, remember college psych?).  

People—which presumably includes your staff members—have the four basic needs shown in the graphic. If these needs are met, people feel engaged and motivated. If asked, “Does your firm have a good culture?” they will undoubtedly say “Yes.”  

The graphic also includes the commonly stated values that firms express in their culture statements. (Column two) When FCG reviews culture statements, we look to see that there is at least one value for each level of the hierarchy. For example, if a firm’s culture plan ignores the Mastery/Development needs, you can be sure that many employees will be frustrated. Currently, the younger members of the workforce are especially eager to grow and develop. FCG often helps leaders design opportunities to meet these needs. (The first step is to help the aging leaders move away from the viewpoint, “I had to make it on my own. We’re not going to coddle these people.” Not helpful.) 

The four statements in the right-hand column cut to the chase. For example, the question, “Do you feel safe to ask questions, speak openly, and take risks?” will tell you if the culture is meeting the basic safety needs of the staff members. (Have people score them on a scale from 1 to 5.) A healthy culture would show strong scores for each level.  

The practical question becomes: how do you address lower scores? If people don’t feel safe in your culture, then you will suffer from the “SCARE” acronym, namely people will NOT: 

  • Speak up 
  • Challenge 
  • Ask questions 
  • Risk 
  • Experiment 

So, how do you create a culture where people feel safe? That question is addressed separately in our CFA article, Living in a Virtual World: 10 Tips for Culture.2  Back to our question about measuring culture.  As they say in the movies, “We can do this the easy way, or the hard way.” The hard way actually isn’t that hard: FCG’s culture survey mentioned above. (More shameless advertising…) But the easy way is readily available to all: ask the 4 questions and see what you get. As usual, KISS wins the day: Keep It Simple, Stupid. 

Now, if you find yourself being asked, “Does your firm have a good culture?” you have a snappy answer: 

“Yes, we’ve addressed the four basic psychological needs that all people face—described in Maslow’s work, The Hierarchy of Human Needs–and adequately provided for them. Therefore, our staff members feel exceptionally engaged and motivated to perform at high levels.”  

Plus, I’ll give you $10 if you can say this to someone with a straight face… 

Stay calm and culture on. 


P.S. The material in this article is from an FCG Webinar called, “Measuring Culture.” The slides and recording are available for free. Just email Laura at  

And tune in every Monday morning at 9 am central for Jim’s weekly Webinar on Culture. (Again, ask Laura for Zoom information) 

Good Cultures Don’t SCARE People

Boo! Scared you. Halloween may have been a favorite holiday for us, dressing up and frightening people. Not so good in the workplace. The now-famous study by Google (250 attributes across 180 teams) found that Psychological Safety was the common team factor in high performance. Google Study Safety provides the following benefits, individuals will 

  • Speak up 
  • Challenge  
  • Ask questions 
  • Risk 
  • Experiment 

So, if you don’t scare employees, you get the benefits of the acronym: SCARE.  

Fortunately, there are some safety guidelines for leaders and team members to follow. (In addition to “Stop, drop, and roll”…) The guidelines involve knowing what provokes fear in people. By knowing what triggers fear, you can work on avoiding those behaviors. Basically, people feel fearful when one of the following is threatened: 

  1. Security: physical (cancer diagnosis), financial (job loss, stock market collapse), identity theft, etc. 
  1. Approval: your ideas are rejected, you are rejected, important people disapprove of your behavior, etc.  
  1. Control: constantly interrupted while working, requirements and structure of work continually changing, no voice in major decisions that affect you, etc. 

Depending on the severity of the threat, reactions can vary from worried to scared to terrified. The solution involves: 1) be mindful of not creating fear in others by triggering one of these reactions, 2) learn to manage them within yourself so that you are less affected by them. (It’s possible to remain calm when any one of the triggers is threatened, but it takes practice.)  

What FCG has found with clients is that the new virtual world requires heightened awareness around safety. Specifically, these tips are useful in reassuring team members who are working remotely: 

  • Security: Many people want order and predictability. Reassure them on as many fronts as possible ($, job, benefits…). Provide additional structure, clarity, information. Over-communicate. Thinkthey want to know as much as possible.  
  • Approval: Many are relationship oriented, missing contact with people. Safety is knowing people care. Frequent and deeper check-ins. Ask questions you wouldn’t normally ask: “Is your family okay? How are you holding up?”  Active listening. Appreciate them: show them that they are valued as important members of the team. Think: they want to know you care. 
  • Control: Many have lost much control, so they may be anxious about that. Empower them and give as much control as possible: agendas, time of meetings, delegation, decision rights. Acknowledge that they have lost control, you “get it.” Thinkthey want as much control as possible.  

In normal times, life triggers us. In these abnormal times, life triggers us even more. Help each other avoid becoming triggered. How? Forewarned is forearmed. For example, if you are a relationship-oriented person (Star Trek: “Bones” or Counselor Troi) and are about to Zoom-meet with a logic-oriented person (Mr. Spock or Data)  

then prepare yourself. You probably won’t get much “approval,” i.e. appreciation, emotional stroking.  So set expectations accordingly. On the flip side, if you ARE that logic-oriented person, then use that big brain of yours to figure out which team members probably need some stroking. And give some.  

When you or a teammate does get triggered invoke your curiosity and ask, “What got threatened: security, approval, or control?” Frequently people know the answer right away. Research shows that when you can identify the emotion—or in this case the trigger—you can lessen the impact. With practice, you can learn to choose curiosity over defensiveness (fear). Techniques include deep breathing, asking yourself a question: “What just happened? Why did I get defensive?” or allowing the situation to be exactly as it is (“it is what it is”) and then letting it dissipate. (“Let it go”) Progress is measured by how quickly you can shift from the defensive reaction back to feeling open and curious.  

Summarizing, safety takes place on both sides of an interaction. Be aware of the three triggers—security, approval, control—and try not to “step” on your teammates. Conversely, know yourself well enough to understand your triggers so that you can be less reactive. In this virtual world, the need to understand and practice good “safety hygiene” is crucial to high performance. When you don’t feel safe, you disengage, drop out, and don’t care. Google is right: Psychological Safety underlies effective teaming.