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Psychological safety is a critical consideration as Alnwick Garden embraces diagnostic tools to prepare its departmental heads and senior managers for a future in the national spotlight.



The brainchild of The Duchess of Northumberland, Alnwick Garden is a multi-award-winning visitor attraction based in Alnwick, Northumberland.


Its 12 acres of meandering and magnificent gardens are home to the world’s largest Tai Haku Cherry Orchard, a Grand Cascade comprising 120 water jets and the world’s largest Treehouse Restaurant.


The 42-acre site is adjacent to Alnwick Castle and is run by a charitable trust. It attracts 350k visitors per year, is one of the top leisure destinations in the North of England and has a turnover of £6.5 million.

Realising the strength of its offer, the board of trustees, made a decision that Alnwick Garden should build on its phenomenal regional success in the North East of England, to become a national attraction. This would not only enhance its own reputation and standing, it would have huge, positive benefits for the town of Alnwick in terms of increased trade and further position the North East as a top tourist destination.


The task of implementing a strategy to achieve this ambitious goal, was given to chief executive, Mark Brassell, who has been with Alnwick Garden since 2015.


Mark, said: “We have a very progressive Board of Trustees and while we are financially sound and make a positive social impact, there was an overwhelming desire that we needed to be on the national stage and that we should be inspirational. That was the big challenge presented to me.


“I knew we had to be truly focussed on two teams, my heads of departments and senior managers. Both teams needed to be totally aligned with the future direction. We had to develop a new culture that embraced change, where individuals had the confidence to stand out and take leadership and where each department understood the importance of their interdependence on each other.”


Mark recognised that for this to occur the teams, who were already high performing, would need to be fully assessed for their readiness to achieve this significant challenge. He looked at the options, deciding that traditional teambuilding would not be good enough.


“Our existing culture, which was very strong, was based on the here and now and developing a fantastic visitor experience. The financial success we gained from this all went back to delivering social impact and creating jobs.”


He wanted to enhance the effectiveness and wellbeing of the teams and believed he needed a detailed diagnostic of how they were functioning. This, in turn, would help inform how the culture and norms needed to be developed and, most importantly, the detail of what needed to happen in order to achieve his strategic objective.


He needed to prepare the team for the future and build on the high levels of commitment he had witnessed. Simply, he wanted to create a psychologically safe culture which would enable the teams to thrive.


A psychologically safe culture is one where it is safe to be in a minority of one in decision-making or discussions, safe to respectfully challenge the status quo, safe to ask for help, safe to admit to an error mistake, and one where you feel valued by your line manager and by colleagues.


Conscious change, at any time, is testing, Mark recognised the impact the pandemic was having on the mental health of staff. He was particularly keen to acknowledge that working from home, furlough and uncertainty in relation to when the garden might reopen, would have significant concerns for everyone. Measuring the psychological safety levels in the teams, would shed light on the specific actions and support needed to assist them and which they, in turn, could adopt in relation to their staff, more generally.


Mark said: “The pandemic has impacted on the lives of so many people across the country. It has been a very emotional and stressful time for so many people and in moving forward with our ambitious plans, we were extremely mindful of the fact that we had to look after all of our staff.


“It was therefore, very important that the departmental heads and senior managers felt psychologically safe, as they were going to play a huge role in taking Alnwick Garden to the next level.”


Mark gained the support of the trustees to deploy diagnostic tools Teamworks and Boardworks, which have been developed by Newcastle-based Wellbeing Works and which have been successfully used across a wide range of organisations in the public and private sectors.


Boardworks measures governance, Board composition and Board dynamics.


Governance is concerned with how the Board operates. The appropriateness of the information data getting to the board, the timeliness of information, how the Board allows contributions and how decisions are reached.


Composition relates to the make-up of the Board, its appropriateness, diversity and organisational skill set.


Dynamics relates to the psychological safety at the Board, the type of discussions that arise and the behaviour and conduct of those on the Board.


Each Board report has a detailed analysis, using the term is thriving, hiving and surviving. A set of detailed recommendations is provided and it takes six minutes to complete.


Teamworks is a measure of team effectiveness and team psychological safety. It takes three minutes to complete and focuses on what motivates the team, what the team fears and how the team feels.


Both teams were briefed and asked to complete the relevant online questionnaires. Within a week the draft report was ready and highlighted the following key issues, as outlined by Hamish Moore, managing director, Wellbeing Works.


“The teams could be described as Hiving. That is to say working very hard but not obtaining the results the effort deserves or warrants. They work in a very busy environment and recognise that when one part of the collective effort of the team is not in place or functioning fully, it undermines the visitor experience and is detrimental to the reputation and functioning of Alnwick Garden.


“The data also revealed that it was unlikely, without some changes, the teams would be able to deliver the new vision. Many staff were already working at maximum capacity.


“The inter relationships within the teams were not always harmonious and for some the prospect of a further period of change and pace would be psychologically unsafe.”


The detailed diagnostic from Teamworks and Boardworks indicated further that it was the lack of collective accountability for delivering the aggregate vision, as opposed to responsibility to deliver high performing silos, that needed immediate attention. This had sometimes led to competing behaviours rather than constructive and supportive ones.


Mark Brassell, added: “The findings were very revealing. It confirmed that we did have a very strong culture and that our departmental heads and senior managers were focussed, however, there was a lack of cohesion and appreciation as to what was happening across departments.


“Unintentionally, it meant that one silo was diluting the impact of the efforts of others, leading to frustration, stress and inefficiency. This meant, in practical terms, that whilst many of the individual constituent parts of the offer to the public functioned well, members of the teams did not adopt a collective accountability for the delivery of the aggregated vision. So, whilst one team was achieving its targets it could undermine the efforts of another team.


“This was partly because it had never been an explicit measure, the working environment is very demanding and busy, so communication was often reactive and there was no structural or formal mechanism to embed this critical activity and way of working.”


Further, data revealed a number of collective or institutional skills which would be needed, particularly in the most senior management team to allow them to function at the national level.


Hamish Moore, added: “Whilst recruitment of additional senior managers was already planned, the insight from Boardworks has allowed Mark to identify specific skills he needs to ensure must be present from the new appointees. In addition, a new key performance indicator will be utilised to highlight and embed the need for a collective accountability.


“Uniquely, this KPI is been designed by the team in order that it is truly embedded. This is interesting in itself, as normally they are set from the top-down viewpoint.”


In due course, the teams will meet to review the progress of these changes but the approach taken has already set the scene for the opening of the garden, as Covid restrictions are lifted and the challenge of becoming a national attraction.


There has already been a marked step change in collective thinking and collaborative working. This highlighted a lack of knowledge of each other’s departments and a lack of joint planning and personal accountability.


Each member of the team is to come up with examples of impeded collective working to discuss with Mark Brassell and will also draft a KPI which can be adopted by everyone in the team.


Mark added: “This has been a very interesting project and I was most impressed with how quick and easy it was to use the diagnostic tools. We received high quality data in just four days and the findings were very revealing. We are already beginning to adopt changes.


“Each person is trying to spend a little time with each of their colleagues to understand what they do and the pressures they are under and we are going to run team meetings with the emphasis on progress achieved, challenges upcoming and a focus on how collectively we will solve the problems.”