In his latest TED talk on leadership, Simon Sinek highlights how great leaders make us feel safe. He opens by telling a powerful story of the risks that those that in the military take, the sacrifices that they make for each other and the powerful connections that this creates between colleagues. He summarises this by saying that the military award medals to those who sacrifice themselves so that others may gain whereas in business we give bonuses to leaders who sacrifice the livelihoods of others so that they may gain. So what is it that explains this behaviour? Are those in the military somehow different to the rest of us or is something else at play?
The answer is yes and no. Those in the military aren’t essentially different to other people from a genetic point of view but the environment in which they are trained and developed (and to some extent the one in which they are raised) shapes their behaviour to such an extraordinary extent that they act in ways that we civies would consider ourselves incapable of. Our environment isn’t the only thing that shapes our behaviour but it exerts a very powerful influence.
One of psychology’s most famous experiments highlights this fact beautifully. Dubbed the ‘Good Samaritan Experiment” John Darley and Dan Batson sought to identify what shaped helping behaviour in others. They took a number of seminary students and asked them to deliver a speech (on among other things the story of the good samaritan). On the way to delivering the speech they met a person in obvious need of assistance. What impacted how much help each student provided? The strongest predictor was not their attitude to helping others, or the content of their speech but how late the felt they were in delivering the speech. Those who were told they were running late by the experimenters were far less likely to help than those who felt they had plenty of time.
The lesson for leaders is clear, the context and environment that we create for our people can have a significant impact on their behaviour. If we foster an environment of fear, competition and suspicion of others (consciously or otherwise) people will act in ways that seek to protect themselves and their interests. Collaboration does not typically occur in environments where trust is low. The challenge is that trust and collaboration are feelings not instructions. You cannot instruct people to co-operate or trust each other. You can only hope that these behaviours will manifest when the conditions are right.
Amy Edmonson in her TEDx talk makes a similar point. Leaders who can create psychological safety for their people increase learning and productivity and reduce mistakes. As leaders we have the largest responsibility for creating the conditions for our people and it starts with role modelling the behaviours that we want.
Originally published here.