The Link between Psychological Safety and Team Effectiveness

Imagine you’re a team member tasked with a highly complex problem and your boss tells your team, “Failure is not an option; we are under close scrutiny from the executive team and we only have one chance to get it right. And if you mess up like we did the last time it’ll be every man and woman for themselves as they show us the door.”

As you feel the weight of these words settle into your heart and mind, what are you thinking? What are you feeling? Are you excited or are you scared?

One of most intriguing projects to come out of Google in recent years is an initiative called Project Aristotle which set out to use Google data and the experience of Google team members to unlock the secrets of team success and effectiveness.

The assumption going into this project is that if you hired the right people with the right skills and education and experience you could build the perfect team. Right? Wrong.

What the team of statisticians, social scientists, engineers, and researchers found was that education and expertise had very little to do with the success of teams. Instead, what the research team found was that the dependability of the team members was far more important then their skills or education. They also found that a teams’ success depended on the team members having clearly defined goals and roles within the group. Successful teams also understood that their work had meaning and significant impact to the greater good.

Finally, there was one characteristic of enhanced teams that none of the research team members had anticipated, and that was “psychological safety.” Amy C. Edmondson, a Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at the Harvard Business School has been studying psychological safety for years and she has observed that all that good expertise and talent is wasted if the person doesn’t feel able to speak up and contribute their ideas. In her book titled The Fearless Organization, Edmondson notes that fear is “not an effective motivator” and psychological safety “is not a personality difference but rather a feature of the workplace that leaders can and must help create.”

So how can leaders create psychological safety in their workplace? Here’s some tips, based on my reading of the literature and my experience coaching teams:

  • -Welcome and encourage candor and openness.
  • -Foster a culture of respect.
  • -Find ways to take the fear out of failure.
  • -Value the diverse perspectives, skills, talents of each team member.
  • -Create a safe space for people to take interpersonal risks without the threat of shame, ridicule, retaliation, or marginalization.
  • -Listen from a place of not knowing; challenge your assumptions.
  • -Invite each team member to question authority, or the status quo, and positively reinforce that behavior.

The simplest way to create psychological safety is to look for ways to remove the threat or risk of contributing the half-baked idea, or the well-intentioned warning. If neither is welcomed in your organization be clear that you’re effectively putting a muzzle on your most important resource — your people.

So instead of trying to motivate through fear like my example in the opening paragraph, try saying this: “This is a highly complex problem so we are going to need every person in this room to be hyper-focused on exploring all the options, the obstacles, and to muster up the courage to question every assumption we make. I’m counting on each one of you to be thoughtful, respectful, speak up, and to listen to understand.”

Also look for ways to create psychological safety for yourself by understanding your own default threat response; explore ways you can quell your brains’ high alert system before it executes the knee-jerk fear response. One way to do this is to imagine the best-case scenario instead of the worst-case scenario your brain automatically plays out when you are emotionally triggered. If you want to learn how to retrain your brain to do this and learn other brain-based mindfulness techniques for resiliency and emotional self-mastery, please consider joining us at the Pause (II) Power workshop on Nov 9/19 in Tampa Florida

As Amy C. Edmondson said creating psychological safety is not a behavior but it is a practice. It is a practice that is best modeled by leaders who can clearly appreciate the benefits and rewards of making psychological safety a key attribute of their organizational culture, and their own well-being.