Is It Safe to Participate?Apr 24, 2022
Written by Ed Cook
The amount of each team member’s participation is a meaningful predictor of the success or failure of the team and the company culture. Participation means being part of the team, not just showing up. The same root word for “part” (as in being part of) is at the heart of “participation.” Putting on a name tag (or a team jersey) does not equal participation. Active engagement is participation. The much-derided "Participation Trophies” are not awarded in the working world because they have nothing to do with Participation. They are “showing up” trophies.
Participation is active
For a team to have success each member must contribute something to the team. Otherwise, they are a drain on the energy and resources of the team. Even if they are silent, the drain, however subtle and slow, is there. Team members will wonder if they have offended the silent team member. They will spend time trying to connect with them. They will do these things until there is an improvement or until their patience is exhausted. Managers need to watch for this dynamic and facilitate the participation of the reluctant team member. This is one of the core functions of a manager and it too is an active process for the manager.
Participation is one of ten dimensions that we have identified through our Joy Research as indicators of the level of Joy at Work which is a measure of company culture. Lack of Participation decreases Joy at Work, meaning the workplace culture and the culture of the team are damaged.
Participate - an employee’s willingness to invest their unique capabilities and energy to contribute to achieving the group’s goal.
- The Change Decision
Of the ten dimensions of Joy at Work, Participation carries the highest level of personal risk. To participate is to offer up one’s ideas and energy. That means failure is possible and also the potential for diminished respect. Participation is easy to detect and attribute to an individual based on what they do. Participation is obvious. A person risks being diminished, ostracized, or dismissed if their participation is not valued by the group.
Participation Indicates Psychological Safety
To participate means to feel safe. This is true on the elementary playground or the company breakroom or on a group video meeting. The team member will certainly think, “I’m not going to participate until I feel it is safe to do so.” Or at least, safe enough. For managers, “safe enough” is the key. It will never be possible to make it completely safe, but it is possible to make it safe enough. Safe enough to try, to take risks, and to offer up ideas and energy that make the team successful.
Most learning is not the result of instruction. It is rather the result of unhampered participation in a meaningful setting. Most people learn best by being "with it," yet school makes them identify their personal, cognitive growth with elaborate planning and manipulation.
One of the techniques managers can use to make it safe enough to participate is the Leadership Bubble. The idea is for the manager to create boundaries so that the team member can make mistakes without damaging themselves or the team. But the boundaries need to be broad enough so that the team member can make some mistakes. It is through mistakes that learning occurs. Make the bubble too tight (micromanager) and the team member won’t learn and may not want to participate. Make the bubble too wide (absent manager) and the team member will feel unsafe and again may not want to participate. For managers, this should be an active process that is regularly discussed with the team member. Getting their feedback will help the manager make adjustments.
The broad goal of the manager is to create psychological safety in the team.
Psychological safety is a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.
There are many techniques that a manager can use to create psychological safety, but one of the core ideas is nurturing trust. Another of the ten dimensions of Joy at Work, Trust flows from the manager. It is something given, not earned. Managers must actively participate in the process of nurturing trust with their team.
As with all aspects of management, knowing where you are, and if you are getting anywhere, is critical. That means measurement. The question is: What are the signs that indicate how your team is doing? A balanced way to do the measurement is in three layers:
- Self-Reported: What people self-report about their progress.
- Observable: Behavior you see objectively.
- Existing Metrics: Trends on the existing company metrics.
This does not need to be very formal. Nor are many metrics needed in order to be able to make a data-driven assessment of the level of participation on the team.
A manager can simply ask: “Do you always feel comfortable participating on the team?” This is a great question to ask in a 1-1 meeting with a team member. To get a truthful answer from the team member the manager will have to ask that question regularly and, more importantly, take action if the answer indicates discomfort with participation.
In a team meeting, the manager can simply note how much everyone participates in the meeting. It doesn’t have to be highly quantitative. Just a tick mark on an agenda that has the names of the team members is great. The manager can then use the data to work at both ends of the participation scale. For those that participate a lot, the manager can invite them to help with drawing out the others. A simple “Hey Marcello what do you think?” (coming from a teammate and not the manager) can make a world of difference in feeling safe to participate. For those who participate rarely, in a 1-1 meeting the manager can ask them what would make it easier for them to participate.
There are many places where improving participation could impact existing company metrics. If the company does regular employee surveys of satisfaction, then those numbers would be worth monitoring. Absenteeism, retention, and job referrals are also good. None of these are solely driven by Participation, but all of them are impacted by it.
The goal of a data-driven approach is to get a balanced view and not fixate on any one metric. The three layers of metrics provide very different views into Participation and as a group can create insight. For more on this, the Data-Driven Change Management course goes into some depth with practical tools and how to do it.
Do more than belong: participate. Do more than care: help. Do more than believe: practice. Do more than be fair: be kind. Do more than forgive: forget. Do more than dream: work.
-William Arthur Ward
Another approach is to look at the connections between people on a team. In the article Measuring Belonging, an easy-to-follow process is described on how to see the connectedness of each member of the team to every other member. A free Excel add-on helps with the analysis. With this view, it is possible to see which members of the team interact with other members. It is then possible to look for ways to encourage connectedness or at least remove barriers as they are discovered.
Participation is a Team Sport
Managers can encourage participation, remove obstacles, and even talk about the value of participation, but to feel that safe participation is possible, each team member will evaluate the dangers of participation with every other team member. Participation is a team sport. It is at the heart of company culture and one of the ten dimensions of Joy at Work. Managers need to show they want participation by creating psychological safety, but they also need to guide others on the team to do the same.
Create Your Joy at Work Intention
A Self-Paced Video Course
This course steps you through a process to develop your Joy at Work Intention as a Change Expert which serves as a touchstone to guide your words and actions, especially when things get difficult. Your intention statement helps you navigate risky situations and see the opportunities to show others your vision for how to lead others to change. Your Joy at Work Intention clarifies the impact you hope to have through your work.