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Humble Leadership Builds Inclusive Environments

A couple of weeks ago, Amy Edmondson (Professor of Leadership and Management at Harvard Business School) talked to people managers at Spotify about her new research that culminated in her book ‘The Fearless Organization’. 

Amy’s previous research and book ‘Teaming: How Organizations Learn, Innovate, and Compete in the Knowledge Economy’ has guided me in rethinking team dynamics in an inclusive environment. The work is centered around how people can come together quickly and sometimes temporarily to solve a new problem. The focal point of this particular research was to determine what conditions are needed for those teams to succeed. With the understanding that many corporations reward individual competition that, at times, impedes collaboration and that ‘teaming’ is needed to address the most difficult challenges in today’s businesses, Amy’s research makes us at Spotify HR ask the question: what needs to change to ensure teaming works?

Edmonson differentiates stable teams from teaming. A stable team, like your favorite sports team, is made of bounded individuals, who know each others’ capabilities and skills and are equipped with predetermined game plans. Each individual is interdependent to achieve a clear shared goal – to win! ‘Teaming’ is better defined as a group of people who are more like a pick-up game versus an established sports team. In a pick-up game (or teaming situation), you get to discover your mates’ skills while you are already doing the work, in this case playing. You still want to win, but it requires a different mindset during the game – learn and play at the same time.  

At Spotify, where one of our values is ‘collaboration’, the very concept of teaming is ingrained in how we work. Teaming provides an opportunity to bring our people together to work across boundaries, and status. For example, people whose knowledge, experiences and skills are different to get the work done, people who value diversity. So, what is the key factor that makes a group of people from different backgrounds and any other dimension of diversity to team up and be successful? Humility. 

This means being humble in the face of change, open and curious about what the other person brings to the team, willing to try new things, to take risks and learn quickly. Being humble means that your own expertise does not get in the way of openly listening. Humble leaders are predisposed to build inclusive environments. Why? Because to create an environment of inclusion, leaders have to be open to learn from their team members – even those with less experience, less tenure, or maybe fewer academic degrees. These team members probably understand the customer in a specific and different way than the leader. Many studies have demonstrated that innovation happens in inclusive environments, where leaders are willing to try new things even if the idea was not theirs. And inclusive environments allow and expect people to speak-up.

Sylvia Ann Hewlett, says in her HBR article ‘Creating a Culture Where Employees Speak-Up’, “All of us aspire to work for leaders who truly value our input. We’re looking for a ‘speak-up culture’— the kind of workplace where we feel welcome and included, free to express our views and opinions, and confident that our ideas will be heard and recognized.”

The reason people do not speak-up is not lack of confidence in themselves, but the fear created in most control and command cultures. While working at an insurance company, I studied research on safety and preventable accidents, and all the bibliography indicated that in most of the cases, the workers close to the accident (in a factory, on a ship or a plane) knew it may happen, knew the root cause, and even how to fix the problem, and most of them were afraid to escalate, to speak-up.

In our work at Spotify, how do we bring the pillars of ‘teaming’ and a ‘speak-up culture’ to fruition? I have taken some of the pillars and shared how we operationalize them in messaging and actions:

Humility: From the very start, in the onboarding process, each new band member gets The Band Manifesto with an important quote from Daniel Ek, “We have no patience for entitled egos”. The tone is set up from the top, humility is expected.

Value of different expertise: One of our five values is being collaborative, we state: Everyone is an integral part of the work we do with an equal opportunity to participate – we share ideas and best practices across business units and in spite of traditional hierarchies.

Avoid professional culture clash: Another of our values is being sincere, we state: We have no time for internal politics. We lead with transparency. So if you are in tech, product management or finance, there is no “this is the way we do it in our org” excuse. 

Curious about others’ capabilities and experiences: We strongly believe that diversity will lead to building a better product for our users and creators, but we can only embrace diversity if we are open and curious to learn from each other. 

OK, OK, I know what you are thinking, those are all nice words that any company could hang on their lobby walls…how are you really providing the conditions for ‘teaming’ and a ‘speak-up culture’? How does it show up in the day to day work of your teams?

In the midst of big decisions, a newcomer or a tenured band member can observe the Swedish values reflected in the humbleness, the openness to learn and the emphasis on transparency and accountability. In everyday interactions power is not based on hierarchy – internally, we introduce ourselves by the work we do, not by our titles or level. We are all encouraged to ask questions to anyone in the company; most documents are shared broadly and you can get questions or comments from any band member, even those that may have not been involved in the work but are interested in the topic. All voices are valued. 

Another way we have created spaces to support a speak-up culture are monthly Unplugged sessions with our founder and CEO Daniel, which are a back-and-forth of Q&As on the company’s financials, new products, industry insights and some personal questions (usually about music or sports). These hour-long meetings generate an open and respectful dialogue across employees from around the world. In these meetings, as well as our regular Town Hall and All Hands, it’s OK for leaders to say that they do not know the answer and get back to the audience later – we do not make up answers, we are humble and transparent even about what we do not know.

At Spotify, work is not done in silos, so when working on a Company Bet or designing a Cultural Moment, we bring together band members from different units, all empowered to make recommendations and work on solutions. Titles, levels and hierarchies are never in the way of a great idea. This way of working could only be successful if each and everyone of the Xteam (cross-functional team) members are humble, curious about each other’s capabilities, removing professional and cultural challenges, inspiring each other in new ways to build products for our users and our creators.

In this way of working, trust is more important than control, it expects no politicking, and no fear to speak-up. Because we all know that fear doesn’t just kill trust, but it kills innovation.

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