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)


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.


What are investors looking for? Be a line, not a dot!

What do investors look for? It’s the million dollar question (sometimes literally!), so it’s worth spending some time thinking about the answer. In a recent NEF workshop we visited London Business School to hear from Dr Jeff Skinner about what investors want to know before they put their money on the table.




Ideas are cheap

You’ll often hear about how ‘ideas are cheap’ - and it’s true to an extent. The world is full of people who have ideas for the next big thing and will be more than happy to tell you about why they’re the next Uber/Apple/AirBnb. Sure some of them might turn out to be on to something, but undboutedly the majority are being a bit too optimistic.

So, how to make sure that your idea is a really good one, and you're not just another misguided individual? Try asking yourself the following questions. If you can answer each one then you just might be able to convince someone to give you some money to get you started. If you can’t, then think about working out the answer, and asking yourself whether there’s more work to be done before approaching investors.

1) Why now?

As noted above - ideas are cheap and easy to come across so the chances that you’re the only one that has thought of something is exceedingly slim. So on the assumption that someone else has already had your idea - why doesn’t it already exist?

Did someone already try to do your business, but fail? Why did they fail? And why won’t you fall at the same hurdle?

When you first have that ‘Eureka moment’ it’s easy to get swept up in the excitement of having spotted an opportunity and to charge straight in to action. In fact, discovering that someone else has already attempted your business idea is almost certainly a good thing! The things you’ll learn from them will either help you avoid their mistakes (if that’s possible), or save yourself months or years of work trying to get a business off the ground that can’t succeed.

So, investors are going to ask you why your idea could be done now, when it couldn’t have been done before. What has changed? New technology? Different culture? Whatever it is, make sure you’re clued up in advance.

2) What’s your competitive advantage?

Related to the ‘why now?’ question is one about what your competitive advantage is. Assuming you have made it past question 1), you’re now left with a great business idea and the time is right for someone to take this to market. So what’s to stop anyone else coming along and competing with you?

If your idea is easily replicable by any Tom, Dick or Harry then even if your business is profitable now, it likely won’t stay that way for long. Why won’t the large established companies just copy your service or product? Why won’t some other entrepreneur just start their own business and try to do it better?

Your competitive advantage has to exist in the present, but should also be something that will be defensible in the future. For instance there is something to be said for being the ‘first mover’ - but if that’s the only advantage you have then you may soon find that bigger and more experienced competitors will use their advantage to undermine you.

The sort of things that might count as a competitive advantage are varied. It could be the relationships you have to suppliers or advertisers, a patent you hold on some technology or a strong brand.

3) Can you execute?

More than just the idea - investors will want to know about you and your team. First, are you all on the same page regarding things like vision for the future of the company and attitude to risk? If they’re not then investing would be very dangerous indeed! There will be enough external threats to survival - it’s not ideal to add internal conflict to the list!

Crucially, the investors will want to know whether or not you and your team can execute on the critical success factors. That is, can you get things done? More than anything, establishing a relationship for yourself as a team that can execute is essential.

As the title of this post suggests, investors invest in lines, not dots. You turning up on their doorstep with a bright idea is all well and good, but teams that can’t execute almost always fail. The process of receiving funding takes at least 6 months, and some times much longer. During that period of discussion investors will be keeping a keen eye on which of your targets you’re hitting and how often you fail to achieve objectives you identified as critical to your success.


Of course, there's plenty more that could be added to the list. Hopefully it serves as a starting point when evaluating your next business idea. If you have any more suggestions to add - let me know in the comments!