C an you believe the year we just experienced? 2020 was chocked-full of disruptive change. We have been enduring crisis after crisis with a global pandemic, a highly divisive presidential election, financial crisis, nationwide protesting and global unrest. The health and overall livelihood of ourselves and those around us has been rocked and leaders have been forced to adapt in big ways. The pressure to survive against the odds of COVID-19 has created greater challenges than ever. We have been forced to retool, reimagine and recreate the ways we operate and communicate in order to move forward effectively.

Prior to 2020, one of my goals was to find ways to better serve leaders and their teams. Then the pandemic hit and forced us to lead differently. This led to my decision to become a Birkman™ Certified Professional.

As we launch into 2021, I’d like to share three core pillars that serve as the foundation for high-performing teams, according to Birkman™. The workshops I deliver utilize a three-step process equipping leaders to create opportunities for their teams to operate at their full potential – and it all starts with these key pillars.

The three Pillars of high-performing teams include:

  • Purpose – The team’s uniting factor for why it exists 
  • Clarity – Alignment between people and tasks to achieve team goals
  • Psychological Safety – An environment where team members can take interpersonal risks that improve learnings and increase collaboration

Without them, it’s nearly impossible for a team to find success. They are essential for team effectiveness. Most organizations commonly put some level of value in Purpose and Clarity (whether simply written on the wall or intentionally put into practice). However, the concept of Psychological Safety is not as familiar to leaders – yet. I’ll unpack more about Psychological Safety through this blog as it will help leaders shift teams from the chaos of 2020 to a more promising 2021.

Creating Psychological Safety

If you haven’t spent time on Psychological Safety as part of your leadership efforts/strategy, this would be the year to focus on it. 2021 is a time for leaders to actively check in with their teams and create an environment where team members feel safe taking risks and are encouraged to think outside the box. It’s an opportunity to let people contribute and shine without the threat of repercussion for simply trying to be more effective in their roles.

No one likes making mistakes and many may worry that “now is not the time to mess up” given job security issues during a pandemic. However, when people feel motivated and energized to take calculated risks without the fear of feeling insecure or embarrassed by their decisions, they ultimately do their best work. The condition of Psychological Safety is 100% the responsibility of the team’s leader. It is the gateway to better creativity, faster innovation and vibrant collaboration. It’s about more than just working with one another – it’s working together to help one another grow for the greater good of each individual and your organization as a whole.

Case Study

During my last years at Walmart, I ran the Talent Development Division for Walmart U.S. This role prepared me for roles in my post-Walmart career where I’ve led education reform and served catalyst organizations focused on improving the quality and equity of best-in-class education across the state of Arkansas.

And then came COVID-19; dramatically changing the way we deliver school curriculum to our children and moving our education delivery system to virtual vs. in-person. Traditional classroom content is not easily transitioned to virtual delivery and expected to meet the minimal standards of quality that most of our schools offer. But our teachers and administrators had no other options but to keep our kids and families safe.

Now, put yourself in the shoes of a teacher, a principal or a superintendent. These individuals are passionate about educating our children; but they were forced to make choices that were not ideal for changing the way our children are taught. And in the midst of these compromising choices, the role of the parent was called upon to fill the gap.

I’ve had a birds-eye-view of the struggles and compromises educators had to make to teach our children. And at the core has been a conflict between serving the needs of our kids and families with the needs and safety of the teachers and administrators.

Psychological Safety for teachers and administrators has been at the core for those doing their best at meeting the conflicting values of the educational system and the health and safety of our families. Those administrators who provided a safe workplace environment for teachers to express their fears, partner in solutions best for their children and were allowed to remain committed to the success of their students have been the ones to survive with the support of both parents and the education system. At the core of Psychological Safety, visionary leaders built a culture where risk-taking and innovation were encouraged and celebrated. History will reveal the visionary leaders from those handcuffed by antiquated systems and fear.

If ever there was a year for resilience and creating Psychological Safety, it is 2021, as we rebuild education solutions that allow our children to excel and encourage their ability to learn and succeed. I have been inspired by such leaders as Thaden School in Bentonville, Arkansas, the Springdale, Pea Ridge and Batesville, Arkansas School Districts and ForwARd Arkansas for their courage, resilience and their cultures of Psychological Safety and respect.

Process for Achieving a High-Performing Team

High-performance is a phrase used often but at its core is hard to achieve. It requires a lot of work and can easily revert back to less productive stages of performance. This can happen when there are changes in leadership, business challenges, and threats to your organization’s existence.

Step 1 | Personal Awareness

The very first step to achieving strong performance starts with personal awareness and revealing a person’s three core behaviors:

  • usual behavior (how a person sees themself), 
  • needs behavior (how a person sees others), and 
  • stress behavior (how a person is likely to react when in distress)* 

This awareness allows you to have a strong understanding of who you are along with the ‘why’ behind what you do each day. Each individual needs to develop a deep understanding about themselves before you begin to tackle team behavior.

Step 2 | Team Awareness & Commitment

Once your personal behaviors are clear, the next stage is to apply them across your team. Internalize these by understanding where those dominant behaviors and quartile characteristics exist — where the gaps may lie and identifying the strengths of each individual on the team.* The purpose here is to create an environment that is whole, leveraging the best of every person on the team. Beyond awareness of these areas, the team must work toward reaching a level of commitment to success. This starts with defining rules of engagement, establishing protocols for resolving conflict, and applying what you’ve learned about yourself and your team consistently.

Step 3 | Team Purpose & Vision

The final step toward consistent high performance is creating a team mission and vision statement that becomes a rally cry for the team to live by. It’s the piece that connects to the values of each individual on the team. It’s the inspiration that speaks to each individual’s desire to wake up, go to work and lift up their team to accomplish what they have developed under the mission and vision for the organization. This truly is the fire that ignites the team’s performance.

Is your team ready for 2021? Have you established a clear purpose and alignment? Begin by committing to create Psychological Safety and propel your team to a higher level of performance. If this is the year you’d like to commit to that, you can learn more here.


*Source Birkman™

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