On 1 February 2003, space shuttle Columbia (STS-107) exploded over Texas and Louisiana, as it reentered the Earth’s atmosphere, killing the seven crew members onboard. 

The investigation that followed discerned that a piece of foam – only the size of a briefcase, weighing 750g – was the cause of the tragedy. The foam collided with Columbia’s left wing upon takeoff, loosening the protective tiles on the wing and making it “vulnerable to the brutal temperatures” upon re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere.1

Knowing about the foam incident after takeoff, most of the NASA engineers were not concerned as previous shuttle launches had successfully reentered the atmosphere, despite the same type of damage. However, others disagreed, claiming the damage could have been more serious. Roger Rocha, one of the senior engineers at NASA, was one of these people and knew further investigation was needed so that solutions could be explored before Columbia was scheduled to return. He attempted to alert senior officials to the severity of the accident, but his claims were disregarded. In a final act of desperation, Roger even drafted an email expressing that “this is… wrong, and bordering on irresponsible…”, but Rocha never sent the message for fear of jumping the chain of command.2

In the debrief following the accident, communication breakdown was recognised as one of the major causes for this national catastrophe. 

What’s the relevance of this story? 

Over the last decade, having worked with hundreds of teams at all levels, I’ve come to this key conclusion: 

“The quality of teaming is in direct proportion to the quality of the conversations in the team”

The higher the quality of the conversations in the team, the higher the quality of the teamwork. But what impacts the quality of the conversations in a team – at its core, it boils down to three things: 


Emotional safety is a vibe, a feeling, or something along the lines of ”I can fully express what I’m thinking and feeling…without feeling the fear that I will be judged or labelled negatively or that I may face undesired personal consequences as a result of speaking up…”

Vocal courage is saying what’s really on your mind, in spite of the fears/concerns about speaking up. 

Holistic listening is to listen with your ears, eyes and your heart, to what is being said, the body language, the vibe/mood in the conversation, and equally what is not being said; in essence, to listen to the song beneath the words. Some ways to think about this is;

  • It is to deeply appreciate what is important to others and why
  • To fully understand the “why” behind the “what is being said” – the underlying motives 
  • It is to get behind the words and language to get to the meaning 
  • It is seeking to appreciate someone else’s point of view, both logically and emotionally, and to do so without judgement and/or without feeling the need to agree or disagree 
  • It is about paying attention to not just the individual conversations but also what’s happening in the “system”

So if we want to enhance the quality of the conversations within our teams, we need to keep getting better in each of these three components:

Emotional Safety + Vocal Courage + Holistic Listening = High Quality Conversations 

Here are some ideas on how to keep getting better: 

To enhance Emotional safety

  • Build greater trust in the team 
  • Exercise more personal vulnerability 
  • Establish rituals and routines which make it easier to be safe
  • Address the safety concerns, front and centre i.e. “everyone in this room should and can feel safe in this environment to express anything they wish to say” 
  • Calibrate “real time” the level of safety in a conversation and how to get better in the moment
  • Explore as a team: “What needs to happen for us to increase the emotional safety in our team?” 
  • The leader of the team plays a huge part in creating safety. As a leader, you must ask: “How do I need to show up/What do I need to do for the team to feel completely safe?” 

To increase Vocal courage

  • Care more about the issue than your personal well being
  • Believe that speaking up will serve a higher purpose 
  • Reduce your tolerance to “bottling things up and not saying anything” 
  • Express your views in a manner that is non-threatening  
  • Align with others who share your perspective – look for safety in numbers 
  • Acknowledge and recognise displays of courage 
  • In the words of Nike, Just do it

 To increase Holistic listening:  

  • Listen with an open mind and heart 
  • Ask questions to better appreciate others’ perspectives 
  • Clarify that you’ve understood someone’s perspective 
  • Hold your opinions and views lightly – they may not be the ultimate truth or the only way 
  • Look for commonality and alignment first e.g. “Where are we on the same page?” 

 What ideas would you add to the above list? 

1ABC News Radio, ‘Space Shuttle Columbia Crew Remembered 10 Years Later’, 2013, viewed on 3 August 2014,

2Schwartz, J. and Leary, W. E., 2003, ‘Senior Engineer Faulted NASA for Not Seeking Satellite Help’, The New York Times, viewed on 3 August 2014,