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  • Matt Turner

What do servant leadership & psychological safety look like?

I’ve written before about showing people how to do things, by involving them in the doing, is a nicer way to lead (and teach) than telling them how to do it… this short blog post is in a similar vein looking at aspects of servant leadership and psychological safety; I hope it helps.

Apologies if you thought this post would dive deeply into the heavy and multi-threaded mysteries of leadership, swerve maniacally past “command & control” and Tokyo drift to a stand still slap bang in front of servant leadership. It doesn’t. For those who feel tormented by the (over?) use of terms such as psychological safety and servant leadership I simply offer up an easy device to begin exploring what both of those things are.

What do psychological safety and servant leadership look like?

What do they look like? Well in truth they look like an enormous number of little things, aggregated together to create something culturally significant and there are some super books that describe many of those things in detail. What I have found useful over the years is this… if you want to know what something looks like visualize it.

About 10 years ago, in my first freelance role, I was charged with bringing six faculty IT departments together as a single shared service in a university that has one of the largest city centre campuses.

To help them, and to unashamedly help myself, I coached all of the dozens of teams in to working visually to help me see the volumes and nature of their work and their capabilities to deliver against the demand.

Each morning I would walk around as many as I could, to attend stand-ups in front of their Kanban boards. I’d see the little pink blocker stickies that signified they need help. They had reached the extent of their spheres of influence, and the baton needed passing to someone who might have more. This was the work they were setting me. “Unblock this for us” I would spend each afternoon attempting to do just that and report back to them.

I covered miles, and in the process went through 3 pairs of footwear in 15 months.

I also gained everyone’s trust, kept myself informed, and upped the alignment across all the teams - some said they hadn’t seen a manager in their office for years (at first they didn’t like it!)

This is how I introduced them to servant leadership by showing them how to set me work. I redefined the relationship they had with “management”. I turned a reporting line into a supporting line.

Why do I think they initially reacted so aversely to me poking my nose in? Well, it seems to me they had very low psychological safety which caused some teams to become so quiet I felt like a Shakespearean actor soliloquising on a silent Stratford stage (but my audience wasn’t hanging on my every word, they were wishing for it all to be over!); other teams responded furiously and I had to show patience and empathy as they exorcised years of pent-up frustration. A lack of safety breeds fear, and fear encourages a whole host of emotions in people. We can become defensive or offensive or simply go quiet (which is probably the most worrying of the three).

The practice of visualisation is useful in many ways. It externalises the work and makes it manifest. You can now point to it instead of carrying the burden of it around in your head. If everyone can see the problems everyone can share in owning it. Encouraging people to explain what is happening visually allows them to take themselves out of the picture and speak to the work. It gets people talking, and expressing themselves in ways that should feel increasingly open and honest, and before you know it, it is safe to say anything. It is even safe to show your boss that they need to do things for you!

A really lovely thing that I have noticed in reframing this technical/functional expert and management relationship is that it has very regularly improved the experience of the manager. Many often worry that they are over-burdening a team, or driving them too hard. This simple feedback loop, and the universal pink sticky help sign, has often revolutionised the positive dynamic in teams and helped the manager feel truly useful for the team they serve, becoming a part of the team instead of feeling like an “Other”.

It was my finest “Gemba” moment and brings back fond memories.

We didn’t call it Gemba though. Amongst ourselves we called it “wearing out the shoe leather” which became a great piece of advice I would share with many others over the years.

by Matt Turner, 03/11/22


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