Kathryn Britton, MAPP '06, former software engineer, is a coach working with professionals to increase well-being, energy, and meaning in their work lives (Theano Coaching LLC). She is also a writing coach, facilitator of writing workshops, and teacher of positive workplace concepts at the University of Maryland. Her own books include Smarts and Stamina on using positive psychology principles to build strong health habits and Character Strengths Matter: How to Live a Full Life. Full bio. Kathryn's articles are here.
So what happens when something goes wrong? Where is the focus? Are people pointing fingers, or are they asking questions and figuring out what they can learn? Dr. Jody Gittell of Brandeis University argues that joint problem-solving (which can start with not derogating failures) is related to the extent of the high-quality communication at the company.
The Need for High-Quality Communication
- High-quality communication is frequent, timely, accurate, and facilitates joint problem-solving, rather than blame.
- High-quality relationships are characterized by shared goals, shared knowledge, and mutual respect.
But effective coordination can be hindered by local goals that may eclipse shared goals, differences in status that undermine mutual respect, lack of knowledge about each others’ tasks, lack of understanding about who needs to be informed when something changes. All of these are opportunities for improvement in the way an organization functions.
So, What Happens When Things Go Wrong?
Organizations that achieve high levels of reliability do so by learning from failures. What enables some organizations to learn from failures, while others engage in blame and avoidance of blame?
Dr. Gittell and Dr. Abraham Carmeli from Bar-Ilan University in Israel studied the relationships between high quality relationships, psychological safety, and learning from failure. Psychological safety is the perception that you can speak up about something going wrong or report a mistake without fear of harm or embarrassment.
In the first study, they surveyed about 100 participants in finance, electronics, and software industries. In the second study, they surveyed 128 graduate students in Israel who also had full-time jobs in a variety of industries. Both studies showed that learning from failures is more likely when people feel psychologically safe. People are more likely to feel psychologically safe when they experience high-quality relationships characterized by shared goals, shared knowledge, and mutual respect. Gittell and Carmeli also showed in the second study that the reason that high-quality relationships lead to learning from failures is because people feel psychologically safe.
Ways to Build High-Quality Relationships
High-quality relationships are thus important to the quality, efficiency, and reliability of highly interdependent work. As with motivation and engagement, organizations cannot directly cause high-quality relationships to occur, but they can establish conditions that make them more likely. When leaders of an organization, for example, understand that psychological safety makes it more likely that an organization will become more reliable by learning from failures, they can work on establishing conditions of safety. When they understand that high-quality relationships are characterized by shared goals, they can find ways to help people understand how their individual tasks contribute to the overarching goals of the organization.
In her discussion of relational coordination, Gittell talks about the roles of 1) boundary spanners, 2) supervisors, and 3) routine in the formation of high-quality relationships within an organization.
1) Boundary spanners are people whose working relationships go across organizational boundaries. They are often responsible for transferring information between their own groups and the outside world. Gittell argues that good boundary spanners have relational skills that help them read emotions and respond to contextual cues. Thus, in addition to moving information across the boundaries, they can effectively influence the outside world on behalf of their organizations and influence their own organizations to accept external demands. Effective boundary spanners tend to have contact with many people inside and outside of their groups. They move across physical spaces and talk with many people, thereby contributing to shared goals and knowledge. Their efforts contribute to connections based on mutual respect among participants in different groups.
2) Supervisors with small spans of control — relatively few people to supervise — are more likely to manage with coaching and feedback than through autocratic decisions. Supervisors with relational skills add value by building connections not only with the people they supervise, but also among the people they supervise. For example, in their feedback, they can help participants understand how they contribute to shared goals and given them greater shared knowledge about each others’ work.
3) Routines are a way to capture knowledge gained from previous experiences. According to Gittell, “By using routines to codify best practices, individual capabilities can be transformed into organizational cababilities.” She also shows how routines can become facilitators of connection because they help people understand how their tasks fit into the whole and how other people’s tasks also contribute, thus building shared knowledge.
Boundary spanners, supervisors, and routines are some examples of organizational structures that can impact high-quality relationships among individuals and groups, and thus have an impact on the reliability, quality, and effectiveness of the coordinated efforts involved in just about every aspect of organizational life.
Gittell, J. H. (2003). A theory of relational coordination. In K. Cameron, J. Dutton & R. Quinn (Eds.), Positive organizational scholarship: Foundations of a new discipline (pp. 279-295). San Francisco: Berrett-Kohler.
Carmeli, A. & Gittell, J. (2009). High-quality relationships, psychological safety, and learning from failures in work organizations. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 30, 709–729.
Gittell, J. H. (2009). High Performance Healthcare: Using the Power of Relationships to Achieve Quality, Efficiency and Resilience. New York: McGraw Hill.
Gittell, J. H. (2005). The Southwest Airlines Way. New York: McGraw Hill.
Another Life Saved courtesy of SarahMcD ॐ
Photos from a pinhole camera courtesy of Plutor
Mum Scaling a Cow Gate
courtesy of magnusfranklin
Concept of Operations, Use Cases to capture Work Scenarios courtesy of Ivan Walsh