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Is Your Team Playing Defense? 3 Signs Fear Rules Your Office


As originally published on

When was the last time you took the emotional temperature of your company?

If you’re like many of the entrepreneurs I work with, you’re probably more focused on your big-picture goals than the many moving parts helping you to achieve them. After all, it’s easy to assume that a great new hire or seasoned team member will take care of themselves, especially if they’ve got juicy, relevant experience and credentials behind them.

But great people can still produce poor results if they’re in an unsupportive environment.

That’s because, whether you’re aware of it or not, huge amounts of emotional energy are being expended in service to you and your company every day, and the type of energy being expended is completely up to you.

If you and your leadership team have created an environment where team members feel safe to speak their mind, take risks, and make mistakes, the awesome resource that is their energy becomes fuel for your company’s growth, creativity and innovation.

But if you haven’t? It starts to feed an instinctual (and completely natural!) need for self-preservation — a need that will always trump less immediate but more fulfilling desires, like personal and professional growth.

In other words, if your team members don’t feel safe, they’ll be too worried about protecting their ideas, their ego and their livelihood to contribute anything beyond the bare minimum needed to “survive.” They’ll be too busy playing defense to take risks and strive for more, and it’s a complete waste of talent, effort and potential.

Wondering whether you’ve put your own team on the defensive? Here’s how to tell.

1. People aren’t telling the (whole) truth. When people believe they’ll be punished for challenging your ideas or presenting a different one, they’ll keep their innovative ideas, and their opinions, to themselves. And without honest feedback about what’s working and what’s not working, you have no means of developing better, faster and easier strategies for success.

2. No one is helping each other. If your team is stuck playing defense, they’ll always be competing with one another for status and recognition rather than working together to achieve something greater than the sum of their individual efforts. All their energy gets devoted to making themselves look good, or simply avoiding looking bad.

3. No one is taking risks. For any kind of growth to happen, people need room to test, experiment and learn, and that means success has to be about more than just results. The only real failure in life is a failure to learn from your mistakes, so if you’ve created a workplace culture where people are afraid to take risks and are more worried about looking stupid in front of you or their peers than making progress, creativity and innovation will grind to a halt.

Even if you think you’re encouraging a safe environment where people are free to share their ideas, thoughts and opinions, keep in mind two things: 1) Your leaders and managers must also share this mindset, and 2) team members coming into your company may have never experienced this type of openness before and need more than a little convincing to believe you’re serious about it.

For this reason, a no-defense budget, or a psychologically safe space, needs to be built right into the DNA of your company. That means you practice what you preach and preach it often!

Has your business hit a growth ceiling? Your team members might just be afraid to move forward. Discover a foolproof plan for success in Shannon Waller’s book The Team Success Handbook.

Proven, Practical, Powerful

Now, this has been part of our company’s culture for years, so I’ve seen firsthand how well it works. But don’t just take my word for it! I’m proud to say recent research supports what we’ve been doing intuitively at Strategic Coach all along.

In a well-known Google survey on team effectiveness, researchers set out to determine the specific conditions necessary for a team to function at its best. In the end, they mapped out five key dynamics shared by top performing teams, none of which had to do with the particular people on the team and everything to do with how they interacted with one another, structured their work and viewed their contributions. In other words, whether they were playing offense or defense.

And the most important one? Psychological safety.

In the most effective teams, every individual felt safe to take risks and be vulnerable. They knew they were free to experiment, ask questions, make mistakes and offer new ideas without being embarrassed or punished. They had a no-defense budget.

With that in mind, here are three crucial steps to fostering psychological safety (aka your no-defense budget) in your own company.

Three Steps To Creating Your No-Defense Budget

1. Give yourself permission to make mistakes (occasionally). As an entrepreneur, you set the tone for your organization. If you’re holding yourself to unrealistic expectations, you can’t help but do the same with your team. A little self-compassion goes a long way.

2. Celebrate failure. Failing isn’t the end of the world when you know it’s a part of the learning process. Normalize this kind of growth mindset by scheduling meetings where everyone, you included, shares something they tried that didn’t work and, more importantly, what they learned from the experience.

3. Focus on progress, not perfection. Always stress to your team that what you’re looking for is progress, not perfection. Hold weekly project meetings with progress updates. (Bonus: Focusing on progress over end goals is an easy way to boost everyone’s confidence!)

The Building Blocks Of Success

Both you and your team may need to unlearn habits and mindsets related to playing defense, especially if they’re coming from a more corporate working environment. But by focusing on and celebrating experimentation, risk-taking, lessons learned and progress, you will dramatically accelerate your ability to innovate and grow. And isn’t that what every entrepreneur wants?

About the Author

Shannon Waller, Entrepreneurial Team Strategist, is a natural collaborator who instinctively saw that a thriving Unique Ability® Team can strengthen their entrepreneur, the business, and themselves. A win-win-win. Go, team, is Shannon’s rallying cry.

Profile Photo of Shannon Waller