In 2016 the Richmond Tigers were having a terrible year. For the coach Damien Hardwick, it became a crisis, as many speculated that he would be sacked. He liked to get close to his players, but as he searched for solutions to their woes, he found himself focusing more on statistics and micromanaging the players. The more he focused on improving performance the higher his and the players stress became.

It got to the point where his wife told him “you are not the man I married”. Hardwick realized that if things were going to change he would have to change.

At the start of 2017 he decided to initiate a session with all players and coaching staff called the Triple H Sessions: Hardship, Highlights, and Heroes. In these sessions each person shared something deeply personal to them under those three categories. When someone shared something the total focus of the group was on that person.

Damien Hardwick was first and he set the tone, followed by captain Trent Cotchin and the Tigers’ senior leaders. Each speaker would nominate someone to follow.

All the players who stood in front of the group shared something special and unique to them. When they shared these things interpersonal relationships and trust began to rise. You don’t share something that is personal if you don’t have trust, and that is something that every player did.

Players old and young opened their hearts to teammates with eyes always fixed on whoever was speaking in the players’ auditorium. Many were emotional. Some shared losing someone dear to them. The sessions created more conversations between players, coaches and staff, and deeper connections were made.

They also included an initiative where each player was given $5 and told to go out to have a coffee with someone in the team they didn’t know very well.

Brandon Lewis, a Richmond player said this about the outcomes of those sessions “There’s so much love for each other. We stay positive, we stick tight, we don’t let anything in the cracks, or anyone inside our heads. And we know our best footy together is good enough to beat anyone.”

Hardwick didn’t hear about the Triple H exercise from another coach. He read about it in a book by Jon Gordon, an American leadership expert. The book was called You Win in the Locker Room First, and it featured many of the methods used by Atlanta Falcons coach Mike Smith, who led that franchise through one of the most striking turnarounds in NFL history. The Triple H exercise has also worked with everyone from the Clemson University football team to the UCLA women’s basketball program.

Although Hardwick didn’t label it this way, what he was doing was increasing the psychological safety in the Richmond team. Professor Amy Edmondson from Harvard Business School defines psychological safety as “a team climate characterized by interpersonal trust and mutual respect in which people are comfortable being themselves.”

I shared in an earlier article that Google discovered that the number 1 predictor of their best teams was psychological safety. Although psychological safety is critical for high performance, it is also fragile. The wrong response by a leader or a competitive co-worker can squash it before it has a chance to flourish.

We become more open-minded, resilient, motivated, and persistent when we feel safe. Humor increases, as does solution-finding and divergent thinking — the cognitive process underlying creativity.

If you would like to know the questions which measure team psychological safety or would like a speaker on psychological safety for your organisation please email Jenny Thomson at jenny@graemecowan.com.au.