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Psychological Safety

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Psychological Safety

and Why it Matters for Team Performance
Do you remember that teacher who used to say that there is no such thing as a silly question? That is an early example of what we have come to recognise as Psychological Safety. The teacher is reassuring the class that they are all in a safe space where they should feel able to take risks; to ask anything and not risk embarrassment, and to propose ideas and not fear rejection.

Google’s research into what makes a team effective found that Psychological Safety was the most important factor. Their previous research had focused on what makes a great manager, but Project Aristotle recognised that ‘the team is the molecular unit where real production happens’ and ‘where employees experience most of their work.’ The researchers behind the project were the subject of an article in the New York Times, which highlighted the fact that the bulk of modern work is more and more team-based. It is not enough to focus on ‘employee performance optimisation’ anymore because teams are now the fundamental unit of organisation. Companies need to get smarter and if they want remain competitive they need to influence not only how people work but also how they work together.

So, what does make some teams more effective than others? Often working in a team highlights interpersonal issues, skill sets that aren’t suited to the tasks at hand, and unclear goals. All of which can result in conflict and potentially hinder productivity.  The researchers set about measuring effectiveness with various assessments and data collection but found that the concept of a successful team varies depending on who you ask. The executives were most concerned with results (e.g., sales numbers or product launches), but team members said that team culture was the most important measure of team effectiveness. Ultimately, the researchers found that what really mattered was less about who is on the team and more about how the team worked together.

The research identified five key dynamics of effective teams and the most important was Psychological Safety. Google understands that to mean ‘an individual’s perception of the consequences of taking an interpersonal risk or a belief that a team is safe for risk.’ They found that teams that were deemed safe in this way were more successful as a result. Teammates are able to ‘feel confident that no one on the team will embarrass or punish anyone else for admitting a mistake, asking a question, or offering a new idea.’

So why is Psychological Safety so important? And how can you build that safe space in your workplace? The study showed that ‘individuals on teams with higher Psychological Safety are less likely to leave Google, they’re more likely to harness the power of diverse ideas from their teammates, they bring in more revenue, and they’re rated as effective.’ Want to be more successful? Want to foster loyalty, collaboration and get better results? Amy Edmondson, the scholar who first introduced the idea of Psychological Safety, has three simple places to start:

  • Frame the work as a learning problem, not an execution problem

  • Acknowledge your own fallibility

  • Model curiosity and ask lots of questions
That teacher was on to something. If you ask more and all agree to be more open to sharing information and opinions you are well on your way to being a more effective team.
researchers found that what really mattered was less about who is on the team and more about how the team worked together.