High-Performance Teams Rely on Pressure and Psychological Safety

By: Kelsey Schurer, Director of Stories and Learning Corey Blake, CEO in Psychological Safety

I’m sitting in my office chair, silently crying on Zoom as I listen to someone else speaking. Yes, I know—completely unprofessional. No muting myself. No turning off my screen. I’ve got tears streaming down my face and snot coming out of my nose for everyone on the speaker gallery to see.

But I’m not ashamed because the woman in the center of the screen—she’s crying with me. In fact, if I look around, I can see wet eyes, quivering chins, and hands folded in prayer from a lot of these folks. They are all colleagues from the same company witnessing the same reaction within each other on full display: empathy.

The catalyst for all this emotion in the virtual room is storytelling. While her colleagues listen and lean in, one woman bravely shares her story of how she came to the company—how she became the woman she is today with all her weaknesses and strengths, all her trials and triumphs.

Mostly, though, she tells us a story about losing her father to cancer and that moment being the catalyst behind her career choice. And because I lost my grandmother to cancer—just like that—we are connected though we’ve barely spoken two words to one another. I’ve heard her. I've seen her. And seeing each other for the human beings we are—that makes all the difference.

Purpose Is a Company’s Compass; Psychological Safety Is the Wind Filling the Sails

When we talk about storytelling and its relation to company culture, we aren’t just talking about a quick little anecdote someone shares to get a crowd laughing or relieve the awkwardness of new team members at meetings. We are talking about leaning into a psychologically safe space and risking vulnerability to create more profound connection on the pathway to deeper trust so we can move faster and further together as a team.

The workplace has often been an environment where disconnection breeds disengagement, or worse, disdain. Employees who felt energized and grateful on their first day find themselves burned out, undervalued, unseen, unheard, and, eventually, expendable in the name of profit. Within high-performance teams, we find employees who are highly engaged, highly productive, self-motivated, talented, and willing to go the extra mile for a purposeful outcome. And yet, in the absence of psychological safety, these same high-performance teams become medium-performance teams. Mistrust builds, purpose slips, and the hunger to belong elsewhere creeps in.

Compass sitting on a wooden windowsill

When trust is sacrificed for the sake of profit or other outcomes, a leader soon finds the cracks in their vessel. Naturally, they might blame the crew—though they’ll all go down with the ship when the storm topples it over. High-performance teams need a purposeful compass that raises the stakes and the pressure to call forth their best effort. They also need the winds of psychological safety at their backs to help them push further into their own perceived limitations and expand their capacity for contributing, both individually and as a team.

Simply put, when the storm comes, leaders need smart risk-takers on deck who know how to work together—and it’s challenging for team members to work together seamlessly and brilliantly if they don't know what their teammates are made of.

Storytelling Builds Trust

Every member of a team is a collection of "before" stories, including previous job positions, career challenges, and the specifics of their childhood and their education. And at your company, they are building a new collection of stories, including the trials and challenges that are pushing them to show up and contribute their gifts to serve your customers and help the company grow. Throughout all of their stories is a throughline of overcoming the pressures of adversity with the help of allies and mentors for support and guidance.

“When we tell a story using the structure of the hero’s journey, we shine a light upon the less comfortable parts of ourselves—our mistakes, our failures, our moments of doubt.”

High-performance teams thrive amidst the same combination of pressure and support. One of the ways to support their success is through the intentional deepening of psychological safety within your culture to allow for greater vulnerability—a safe place to look beyond the surface version of themselves that they rarely allow each other permission to see past. Supportive guidance in sharing the stories that reveal depth of character create an ideal ecosystem for fostering continued vulnerability, furthering trust, and expanding the capacity of the entire team.

When we share the stories that we used to leave at home, we shine a light upon the more fragile parts of ourselves—our mistakes, our failures, our moments of doubt. Every team member who adventures into a new world will fumble and fall. This is the nature of being human. The quickest way to accept and honor our humanity, and to not let it undermine us, is to listen for the questions we are each grappling with—to witness our own humanity unfolding in an authentically shared story that evokes emotion and opens a doorway into the secret questions that determine the lens through which we navigate the world.

Am I worthy of leadership if I do not look like other leaders?

What if my childhood stutter returns during a presentation I'm giving?

What will happen when everyone realizes I'm not qualified for my recent promotion?

When we gain access to our own authentic power through a shared storytelling experience—that also reveals the power of everyone else on the team—we intuitively see the capabilities of everyone around us: our colleagues, our customers, our clients, our families, our friends. And then we connect in ways we didn’t think possible. We see each other not as in need of rescuing, but as everyday heroes who are capable of saving ourselves as long as we have support from mentors and allies who are willing to travel through this adventure at our sides.

Storytelling Awakens the Team

To return to the Zoom screen, our brave colleague wraps up her story with a summary of what she has learned through the loss of her father. His cancer was the hardest battle she’s faced, but even after, as a mother and a woman in the workplace, she still evokes the energy of her father who taught her how to play basketball all those years ago—before he was ever sick.

Now, she shows up to the “court” of her life with the beauty and grace of a player who was taught to dribble and pass, to make the shot, to return to the game of life that she loves and to continue onward—even after she thought she’d lost so much.

That kind of willfulness and strength shows up in her home, on the court, and yes—within the company where she contributes her gifts. Her story is one of many on the team. Her superpower to play through the pain—to turn her pain into awe-inspiring plays—allows her to shine as an all-star athlete at work.

When everyone on the court has their own version of that story, imagine what they can do together.

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