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Team Coaching from an Embassy Evacuation Exercise

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Based on her research into how medical teams work together, Amy Edmondson of Harvard Business School distinguishes between trust and psychological safety in that trust exists in the mind of an individual and is focused on an ‘other’, a person or an organization. With trust, an individual has a specific target to whom they give the benefit of the doubt with regard to anticipated consequences. Even though it was a training exercise, I trusted the Marines to know what they were doing, to have practiced and trained sufficiently to get me out of Kuwait safely. Psychological safety, however, is a learning behavior that operates at the collective level (leader and team members, internal and external). Despite the team aspect, psychological safety is ‘self’ focused and relates to the individual team member believing they will be heard and acknowledged, and receive the benefit of the doubt if they ask for help, admit a mistake, or share a controversial point of view. On the day of the exercise, I was an external team member to the Marine team. Before the exercise started, I didn’t know what the expectations were in terms of my contribution, if I was allowed to speak up, share a concern along the way, or point out a potential mistake during the exercise. Edmondson underscores that psychological safety is not the ultimate goal for an organization, but rather contribution and learning that leads to team improved performance and goal achievement.

On the evacuation exercise day, I received a message that an ‘emergency’ prompted an immediate expat evacuation, and I was to report to the pre-determined meeting spot by a certain time. All expats received information about what they could and could not bring with them, and how much luggage was possible to take per person. The other details were not disclosed as they wanted to make the exercise as realistic as possible. At the meeting point, I started to feel adrenaline shoot through my arms and legs as I pulled up in my car and saw the Marines waiting for me. My heart raced a bit, and I began to hold my breath as I realized I had no control over the situation from this point forward. Even though the situation didn’t represent a real emergency, the uncertainty of the situation made it feel real.

Neuroscientist and 2019 Guggenheim Neuroscience Fellow Lisa Feldman Barrett researches the structural and functional organization of nervous systems and explores their role in the creation and construction of emotions. She hypothesizes that emotions do not drive the body’s behavior, but rather the brain’s interpretation of bodily sensations in relation to a situation lead to the creation of emotions. This kind of mind-body meaning-making is a predictive activity, basically guesses about what to do next, rooted in our prior experience and the sensory consequences of those guesses. As I pulled up to the meeting point and saw the Marines, I wasn’t aware any particular emotion, but I was assessing the situation and trying to make sense of it based on previous experiences I’d had. My body was communicating to my brain that this situation was serious, I was no longer knew what was going to happen, and I would be in a position to trust strangers with my safety.

As I grabbed my bag and left my car behind, a Marine greeted me with a “hello ma’am”, making purposeful, yet friendly eye contact, stating his name and asking mine. He then briefly described what would happen next, asked me if I had any questions or concerns, and then asked if he could help me with my bag. Although he had numerous things on his mind and basically needed to have his head on a swivel for security purposes, he connected with me personally and created the psychological safety foundations for me to speak up and share a concern as an external team member. My breathing and heart rate relaxed, as did the tension I was holding in my legs and arms.

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