What is the secret of productive teams? For the longest time, Google believed that the best teams consisted of the smartest people who got on with each other. But an observation of 180 of its internal teams provided a surprising result: the "who" didn't actually matter. There was nothing showing that a mix of skills, backgrounds or specific personality types made any difference. By far the most important dynamic driving team performance was how teammates treated one another. People on the more successful teams felt encouraged to express their ideas and take risks together. People on the ineffective teams, by contrast, discouraged equal speaking in the name of efficiency; they were not sensitive to others' moods and could not figure out when things were being left unsaid.
The investigation by Google coincides with other scientific findings. As early as 1999, Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson started researching the idea that teams became successful only when their members felt self-confident and encouraged enough to join with the group. She observed that when the team environment was characterized by interpersonal trust and mutual respect, people were comfortable being themselves and dared to voice their opinions without reservations. Without this feeling of personal security, employees were reluctant to represent their ideas in case it left them open to abuse.
Edmondson labeled the concept "psychological safety." In her recent Ted Talk, she defined it as "a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking." It occurs whenever individual team members trust that they "will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes."
To add some context, Edmondson gives an example of what might happen in a psychologically unsafe workplace. She tells the tale of a nurse on a nightshift in a busy urban hospital, who suspects that a patient is being given a dangerously high dosage of medication. But the nurse does not call the doctor to check the order, because the last time she spoke up, the doctor made disparaging comments about her competence. She lets the moment go by, with potentially disastrous consequences.
For the researchers at Google, psychological safety was a profitable discovery. Working through the data, it quickly became apparent that team members with the highest levels of psychological safety were performing better in almost every area of work. Specifically, they were:
- Less likely to leave Google
- More likely to be receptive to diverse ideas from their teammates
- Better partners to their co-workers
- Significantly more profitable, generating more revenue than the less psychologically safe team members
- Rated as effective, twice as often by executives.
How to build psychological safety on your own teams
Edmondson suggest three simple strategies for making sure that psychological safety is practiced on your own teams:
1. Frame the work as a learning problem, not an execution problem
Leaders who make it clear that there is uncertainty ahead, and that each team member's opinion absolutely matters to the project outcome, create the rationale for speaking up. As Edmondson explains, you need to let up on the brakes and free people up to really engage, rather than focusing just on efficiency.
One way to do this is for leaders to express gratitude for the effort and ideas invested, regardless of a negative outcome. While it's important to hold team members accountable for results and behaviors, it's more important to separate accountability from blame, which reduces the feeling of personal safety. Team members need to feel safe to make mistakes and to be vulnerable in front of each other to do their best work.
2. Acknowledge your own fallibility
Leaders need to model desirable behaviors, so be a good role model for your employee and let them know that it's OK to talk about mistakes. This creates a safe environment for speaking up. For example, you might:
- Choose language that will encourage team members to speak up, such as, "I may miss something - I need to hear from you."
- Encourage failure. Mistakes are inevitable, but the team needs to know that they won't get in trouble if they do something wrong.
3. Ask plenty of questions
Leaders who model curiosity and ask a lot of questions create a necessity for team members to speak up. Tips include:
- Consciously asking for everyone's input, especially the contrarian views. Leaving someone out, or letting the conventional theories dominate, will only hurt the outliers and make them feel less "safe."
- Framing questions as a desire to seek and understand, not to hold people accountable or throw them overboard.
- Finding time for retrospection. Reflecting on your work will help you get to the root causes of problems using real events that have happened, and help improve performance in the future.
For organizations to open the door to high performance, they need every person to bring their full self to the challenging tasks ahead, and to feel safe enough to do what they think is right without fear of reprisal. Leaders who can create an environment of psychological safety, where team members feel safe to take risks, can capitalize on the expertise of their people and boldly go where they haven't dared to go before.