This study was carried out by the Behavioural Insights team at the FSCB, in partnership with the Centre for Responsible Leadership and senior level employees in a second line team at FSCB member firm Citi.
Financial services organisations aim to develop an organisational culture in which innovation and constructive challenge are supported and encouraged. This requires both psychological safety and leadership listening.
Employees’ willingness to fully utilise their talent in service of their firms depends heavily on how confident they feel that they will not be shot down when proposing a new idea, raising a concern, or challenging the way things are being done. New ideas need a safe environment to breathe before they thrive.
In the 2022 FSCB Survey, around 78% of 42,000 respondents felt that their firm encouraged innovation in the best interests of their customers. A less positive finding is that more than half (56 %) of them1 felt that internal processes and practices were a barrier to continuous improvement.
Employees are in a better position to identify internal barriers and areas for improvement within their teams, and find solutions that are both innovative and feasible for their firms. Good culture, risk and conduct management rely on employees’ ability to notice existing problems and suggest solutions at an early stage, before they become bigger issues. However, firms will only benefit from this combination of talent and opportunity if employees’ ideas are being encouraged and implemented.
In 2021, in partnership with the Centre for Responsible Leadership, we conducted a randomised controlled trial with senior level employees in a second line team at Citi to investigate how they could encourage employees to challenge and raise new ideas in virtual team meetings. The project also sought to understand the types of behaviours that may affect employee perceptions of their line manager’s listening – we give an overview of our findings in a separate article here [link to listening article].
The challenge: fostering new ideas
Citi had identified that many employees in a second line team felt the need to pre-socialise new ideas and get buy-in prior to sharing them in team meetings. This imposed a premature judgement on new ideas before they had the chance to fully develop. An internal survey prior to the trial indicated that employees feared they might suffer reputational damage if their suggestions were not well received by management or ‘went against the grain’. This meant that important opportunities for collaboration and collective brainstorming were being missed. Overall, the situation risked creating an overly rigid culture that would dampen innovation.
A follow-up focus group also found that there was an over-reliance on one-to-one meetings with line managers, with some employees feeling that this was a safer space to speak frankly, raise ideas and be listened to. For the line managers, however, the over-reliance on individual conversations was difficult to manage, especially in large teams. It was hard to meet with every employee every week. This norm was equally detrimental to team meetings because they risked becoming a sterile space for new ideas, and a place where only pre-vetted suggestions would be put forward.
This was far from ideal for a bank that valued innovation, good risk management and psychological safety.
The tested solution
FSCB Insights, the Centre for Responsible Leadership and Citi searched for a simple and cost-efficient solution that could produce the greatest impact. Following a behavioural science approach, we agreed that the target behaviour was to encourage employees ‘to raise and share new ideas in team meetings.’
Below is a summary of the research design that was developed together.
Figure 1. Summary of the study design
Experimental design at a glance
Target behaviour – what were we aiming to achieve?
Employees raising and sharing new ideas in meetings.
Study design – what did we change in team meetings?
44 senior level teams from the second line were randomly assigned to two groups, called Control (C) and Intervention (I). One team could not participate due to Covid-19, so the final sample was 43 teams. Teams in the Control group were asked to think of solutions to a given problem as a group for one hour. In the Intervention teams, we created a safe space for collaborating with others within team meetings. Intervention teams were asked to first raise ideas for 10 minutes in breakout rooms with another 1-2 randomly assigned colleagues, before sharing these ideas with the whole team and the team leader.
Dependent variables – how did we measure the success or otherwise of the change?
- All meetings were online, meaning it was possible to record what was said and transcribe and analyse the content of these conversations. As such, we were able to count the number of ideas raised and identify whether they were brand-new ideas or extensions of previous ideas in the meeting
- At the end, all participants (including the team leader) answered a 5-minute pulse survey to capture their immediate Team members were asked if they felt listened to and team leaders were asked to rank how valuable the ideas were.
This design allowed us to compare the ideas raised in the Control and Intervention teams (the target behaviour), and then attribute the observed aggregated differences in the target behaviour exclusively to the use of breakout rooms.
The pulse survey collected at the end of the meetings revealed significant differences between Intervention and Control teams:
- team leaders in Intervention teams rated the value of ideas raised by team members significantly higher than team leaders in Control teams
- employees in Intervention teams showed higher levels of psychological safety than their colleagues in Control teams.
Improved psychological safety
It is natural to expect that different teams will exhibit variations in their level of psychological safety, as each team will naturally have different group dynamics and leadership styles. To be able to draw robust conclusions about the effect of the intervention (and exclude all other factors) it is important to have a large number of teams and randomise them into two groups (Control and Intervention) which can be compared. This way, we can safely say if the observed differences are caused by the use of the breakout rooms and not because of a natural variance in the dynamics of various teams.
As shown in figure 2 below, the employees who first discussed their ideas in the breakout rooms (Intervention teams) also rated their level of psychological safety higher than their colleagues in Control teams. Groups with higher psychological safety are more likely to be able to share their ideas to benefit the organisation, as well as alert the organisation to risks.
Figure 2: Average level of psychological safety in each of the 43 teams participating in the trial, from the Pulse Survey.
Increased perceived value of ideas raised
The team leaders had no knowledge of whether they were part of the Intervention or Control teams, nor were they informed about the different approach used between the groups. Still, team leaders in Intervention teams ranked the ideas raised by their team members as significantly more valuable than team leaders in Control teams. The average value of ideas in Intervention teams was 4.1 out of 5 and in Control teams, 3.6 out of 5. Better ideas can be generated through the use of breakout rooms which provided a chance for pre- socialisation within meetings.
The high-level view suggests that having a safe space to raise and discuss ideas with a small group of colleagues improved the meeting for both members and leaders of teams.
New ideas about braver topics
When the transcripts from the meetings were analysed, we saw that both Control and Intervention teams generated an average of one idea per participant, with no noticeable difference between groups. However, 56% of the ideas raised in Intervention teams addressed topics that were novel or unique to the meeting instead of adding new detail to things that had already been suggested in the meeting. In Control teams, 54% of ideas were developments from other ideas that had been said before in the meeting.
The most popular topic discussed in Control teams was one that was familiar to team members. The ideas raised in Intervention teams tended to address less familiar topics. New ideas are important for organisations to remain competitive and lead in their field – the intervention led to more of these ideas.
Figure 3: overview of the ideas raised in Intervention (I) and Control (C) teams
A linguistic analysis showed that the employees in Intervention teams defended their ideas by arguing more about the benefits that they could bring to other people, instead of themselves. They used more words related to social impacts and awareness of others (‘they’, ‘social’, ‘colleagues’, ‘sharing’). Comparatively, Control teams used significantly more words referring to the impacts to themselves as individuals and as a team (‘us’, ‘ours’, ‘mine’). This demonstrated a more external focus in the Intervention teams. Taking a wider view through seeing the bigger picture and social awareness are both associated with success in business.
We saw that breakout rooms helped team members feel safer to raise and discuss new ideas in meetings and address less comfortable topics. They also seemed to induce a more outward focus.
Given the findings outlined above, it is plausible to assume that the breakout rooms reduced reputational concerns and feelings of interpersonal risk. This is because the ideas that came out of the breakout rooms were not directly attributable to a single individual but had the implicit endorsement from the whole room. The ideas may have been slightly more mature, having been discussed in the small room and summarized by the room representative.
The intervention facilitated the ‘pre-socialisation’ process within the meeting time. In the long run this may reduce the need to do it beforehand. The random assignment to breakout rooms increased the chance that the colleagues helping shape the ideas were not necessarily the same that would do it outside of the meeting.
Will this intervention work in other organisations? The answer would depend on the organisation having a comparable culture and facing similar challenges. Within the context of this firm, the advantage of having a Control group is being able to clearly assess if the differences observed in the Intervention teams were actually due to the intervention, increasing the chances that the results can be generalised. This creates a more cost- efficient solution than investing time and money in an untested intervention, hoping that it works.
1 In fact, this has been a stable result for the last 7 cycles of FSCB Surveys. The average percentage of respondents who felt that processes and practices were barriers to their continued improvement ranged between 52%-57%.