Great Teams Have Psychological Safety

I recently finished reading "Smarter, Faster, Better" by Charles Duhigg - a great read full of insights about how the most productive individuals and organisations work.

One of the best sections is about what makes a good team and it refers extensively to work done by Google during "Project Aristotle". Google spent several months studying all of their teams to try and determine what the highest performing teams have in common and whether traditionally accepted wisdom held up to scrutiny.

What they found was that it was surprisingly difficult to discover any features of a team that were always correlated with high performance. There were high performing teams that were very extroverted, but also those that were introverted. Some were best friends outside of work, while others never spoke outside of the office. They had hypothesised that teams who are physically located together would outperform teams who are distributed around the world - but even that turned out not to be the case.

The one thing that they found to be a reliable and consistent feature of high performing teams is what they called "psychological safety". The size, location, organisational structure, and every other feature you could think of turned out not to be essential for high performance. Only psychological safety is absolutely essential.

What is psychological safety? 

According Duhigg:

Psychological safety is a "shared belief, held by members of the team, that the group is a safe place for taking risks. "It is a "sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject, or punish someone for speaking up... It describes a team climate characterised by interpersonal trust and mutual respect in which people are comfortable being themselves.

- Page 50, Smarter, Faster, Better.

A team that does not have psychological safety is one in which members of the team aren't comfortable being themselves and may worry about speaking their mind or taking risks once in a while. On the other hand, teams that do have psychological safety encourage innovative ideas and novel approach to be aired publicly. Of course, a team that has psychological safety is not guaranteed to be high performing, but, according to Google's research, those who don't have it will be very unlikely to reach their full potential.

How does one produce psychological safety within a team?

Again, Google has the answers. There are two behaviours that all good teams share and which contribute to an atmosphere of psychological safety: social sensitivity and equality of conversation turn-taking.

Social sensitivity is a short way of saying that members of great teams tend to be aware of how other people within the group are feeling. As Duhigg puts it, good teams "were skilled at intuiting how members felt based on their tone of voice, how people held themselves, and the expressions on their faces." (pg 60)

The other behaviour that leads to psychological safety is 'equality of conversation turn-taking'. This simply means that "all the members of the good teams spoke in roughly the same proportion... In some teams, for instance, everyone spoke during each task. In other groups, conversation ebbed from assignment to assignment but by the end of the day, everyone had spoken roughly the same amount." (Pg 60)

These two behaviours are perhaps not the two you would think essential for high performance, but once they are pointed out it's not hard to see some logic behind them. A team in which individuals are not socially sensitive are more likely to develop poor relationships over time. It's often said that a huge proportion of our communication is non-verbal i.e. There's more to understanding other people than just understanding the meaning of the words we say.

A team where individuals don't pick up social cues based on tone of voice, body language, etc is one where people will very often misunderstand one another. Best case scenario that means they will make mistakes because they're not all on the same page. Worst case scenario there will be hurt feelings, arguments and a sour mood.

As for speaking in equal amounts, it should also not be very surprising to discover that this how high performing teams operate. Assuming you have hired well in the first place, shouldn't you expect each member to have something valuable to offer when addressing a problem? The more voices that are heard, the more perspectives will be brought to bear and the more likely you are to find an innovative solution to a difficult problem.

What's more, it's almost certainly a universal law that people want a voice and they want to be heard. Giving each member of your team a voice doesn't mean that everyone gets a vote in the final decision, but it does mean that they feel valued, respected and meaningful. If you've ever been a part of a meeting where you can't get a word in you'll know how hopeless it feels. I wouldn't be surprised if that feeling spreads across all areas of your work over time.

The final comment on implementing a culture of psychological safety is that it's important that leaders set the tone and behave as they expect their team to behave.

"To create psychological safety, team leaders needed to model the right behaviours... Leaders should not interrupt team mates during conversations, because that will establish an interrupting norm. They should demonstrate they are listening by summarising what people say after they said it. They should admit what they don't know. They shouldn't end a meeting until all team members have spoken at least once.

... There are two general principles: teams succeed when everyone feels like they can speak up and when members show they are sensitive to how one another feels." (Pg 66)

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I'd really recommend getting a copy of Harder, Faster, Better by Charles Duhigg. It's got a ton of really interesting stories and insights on motivation, setting goals, building a great team and more.