I have to confess to a guilty secret and plead the winter lockdown boredom in mitigation: I am a little bit addicted to the political thriller Netflix series “Designated Survivor”. I love the simple joy of a well-crafted, though somewhat cheesy drama, safely removed from the day-to-day reality of the pandemic. If you are at all familiar with the series you will have seen the Designated Survivor, Tom Kirkman (played by Kiefer Sutherland) unexpectedly become the US President, relying on his Chief of Staff Aaron and Special Advisor Emily to assist him in understanding the options available when confronted with the many dramatic cliff hangers on which the series relies. This makes for great TV as Aaron and Emily often totally disagree with each other and the audience feels the tension rise and sees the President look from one to the other and wonders: who will he side with?

As I’ve been watching this play out over several episodes, I have reflected that, if this really did take place, surely it could be incredibly helpful? For someone in a senior position to have radically different viewpoints voiced in front of her or him, might be exactly what was needed to facilitate good decision making. The benefit of being able to understand the polarised options before deciding on reasonable action can’t be a bad thing, Yet the human preference is to avoid conflict and public disagreement, and so the back and forth openness demonstrated by Aaron and Emily in the White House is sadly rare.

Aaron and Emily have an excellent longstanding relationship with the President, whose whole character is centred around being honest and approachable, so they are never punished for speaking out or offering innovative ideas. In fact, we often see the opposite as both are praised for their contributions.

Yet most of us have experienced something very different. From the outright, “You are just being ridiculous” to the more subtle, “We haven’t got time for this today”, it’s often the case that we participate in meetings where we are not expected to contribute in any way. When this happens often enough, we cease to feel comfortable speaking up or sharing ideas, with considerable consequences as seen in both major disasters and everyday failures.

It strikes me that the dramatic growth in interest in developing  a “speak up” culture suggests that hearing different voices and perspectives across the power continuum is now being better appreciated. Yet promoting a “speak up” culture is only a small part of the work to be done because the response to those who speak up is the most powerful and resistant part of the dynamic. As the expert on psychological safety, Professor Amy Edmondson,  says in The Fearless Organisation,“Speaking up is only the first step. The true test is how leaders respond when people actually do speak up.”

So what might you do to increase psychological safety in your team and get the benefits of conflict to support improved decision making?

Ask more questions

When asking questions with the sincere intent of seeking to understand others’ perspectives, the questioner becomes more approachable. Even if you don’t agree with the answer, you will have learnt something and the responder will respond positively to your curiosity.

Tell more stories

Unless specially requested, don’t give advice and tell people what to do. Instead share experiences. Help them reach their own conclusions and draw on their own existing knowledge. This shifts the power dynamic in the right direction so that you both become problem solvers together.

Hold regular After Action Reviews

The AAR process is designed to increase the quality of listening, to ensure that all can be heard and that all can contribute to solving the problems. AAR breeds the right environment for differences to be valued and decisions to be made with the full picture in mind.

Watch Designated Survivor!

Call it leadership “homework” and watch what Tom Kirkman does to create psychological safety.