The following is an experiment performed about 20 years ago by Doctor Edward Tronick of Harvard University. It was an experiment between a mother and her one year-old child.
For one minute the mother actively engaged her child, smiling, responding to sounds, touching her face, giving her kisses. Then when the one minute was over, another minute timer started. The mother was instructed to not touch the child, or respond with any facial expression. Basically to space out and ignore the baby. At first the baby tried to engage the mother with sounds and reaching out to touch her face from her high chair. Then as the seconds went by the child’s face went from confusion to panic, from tears to silence. In the space of a minute the child had recognized that she was unable to engage and connect and had therefore gone silent and inward — no longer feeling safe to engage.
The experiment was called the still-face experiment and often causes a sense of devastation to the viewer to see the child’s despair at the lack of reciprocated response.
Why do I tell this story? Because we, as adults, react exactly the same. We spoke last week about a circle of safety. The result of an unsafe circle of safety is much like the result of that video. Your team members will be confused why they aren’t being heard, eventually they will become hurt, angry and in the end they will either act out more, or go silent because the circle is unsafe for them. Why does America suffer from so much employee dis-engagement? Makes one wonder.
A team where everyone is heard, empathized with and understood, is like putting gas in the tank of a high performing race car. The result is magnificent. When your team feels safe in the circle you create, they have energy and confidence to solve problems, help each other and innovate new solutions that make your life as a member of that team and as the leader, exponentially better. When your people feel safe, heard, useful and empowered. They will go to the moon and back for your team.
We’ll talk about this more in future posts, but much like the contrast of reactions between the mother and child, you’ll find similar contrasts in how empathetic and safe your circle is for your team.
I work with enough of you to know that the above might bring a “Karl, you are talking about utopia, not what I deal with at my hospital every day. With my nurses, or my surgeons, or my direct reports, this is just not possible”.
I will grant you that it is not easily possible, but it is very possible. You just have to believe in those possibilities and have a solid framework of how to get there. This approach works…it’s just that the alternatives are easier, and starkly less productive.
The fantastic read, that we have referenced before, “Leaders Eat Last”, was the base source for this post on trust and circles of safety.
Written by Emma and Karl Pister