Published on June 5, 2018 – 7 minutes read
What makes an effective team? By doing more than 200 interviews and researching over 180 teams, Google did extensive research to answer this question.
As turned out, “Who is on a team matters less than how team members interact and structure their work”, or how they work together.
Google identified psychological safety as the key characteristic of effective teams. What is it, why is it so crucial, and more important, how can you create psychological safety in your team?
"I was part of a newly formed group and had a question in mind because of something that I didn’t understand. When I looked around I saw no one else wanted to ask a question and thought I might have misunderstood or not listened well, which made me feel uncomfortable. Therefore, I decided to not ask the question and figure it out later."
Do you recognise this?
Though it is detrimental to effective teamwork, it turns out that team members are often reluctant to engage in behaviors that could negatively influence how others perceive their competence, awareness, and positivity. This is exactly what happened in the situation I described above.
Harvard Business School Professor of Leadership and Management, Amy Edmondson, did intensive comparative research on different teams and their effectiveness. Her data showed that better teams were making more mistakes. While odd at first, she concluded later that better teams were not making more mistakes, they were just communicating openly about making them.
That’s when she coined the term psychological safety.
“Psychological safety means that team members feel safe to take risks and be vulnerable in front of each other.”
In contrast to me deciding not to ask that question, psychological safety means that I am encouraged to speak up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes, without being punished or humiliated for doing so.
Read Amy's book The Fearless Organization, or if you have less time, check out her Ted Talk, or where she discusses her research and the concept.
Google’s research statistics show that investing in psychologically safe teams is well worth the effort. Psychologically safe teams are first of all more effective (obviously), and it’s individuals rated as effective twice as often by their executives. Moreover, the individuals are less likely to leave the company they work for. Most importantly, they bring in more revenue.
To be an effective team, team members need to communicate openly about their mistakes. Next, we need to treat our mistakes with curiosity in order to learn from them, according to Harvard Business Review.
Amy Edmondson, says a team can create psychological safety by doing three things:
First of all, frame work as a learning problem instead of an execution problem. Allowing everyone to make mistakes and learn from them is the fundament of psychological safety.
Secondly, this means that team members need to acknowledge their own fallibility. With everything that they do, they may be wrong or may have missed something.
Thirdly, that implies that they don’t know everything. Therefore they have to be curious and ask questions, even the most banal ones.
Amy Edmondson’s three ways to create psychological safety are a starting point for creating it. They are the basic values that are needed. To build upon Amy’s theory, I’d like to look at creating it from a different perspective: trust.
To feel safe, to take risks, and to be vulnerable in front of others, team members need to trust other team members. Therefore psychological safety is about trust.
How can a team build trust? By opening up towards each other, they can build a relationship, which leads to increased trust.
Openness and trust thus are related. Increased openness leads to increased trust, which lays the foundation for more openness. It’s a spiral that goes on and on. Developed by Anders Wendelheim from Stockholm University.
However, there is an important difference between the two concepts: Trust is a relationship-state between people, or the result of actions of everything that happened between group members.
Openness is a behavior. This is where it gets crucial: As a member of a group I can decide to open up towards others, starting the positive spiral that leads to increased trust, which allows for more openness.
By understanding how trust and openness work together, I can choose to be a bit more open than what trust really allows, thereby contributing to the group’s psychological safety and development towards an effective team.
How much openness and trust should there be in a group to be effective? This is related to the task or the group’s function.
The more complex the group’s task, the more collaboration is needed, the deeper the relations between individuals in the team need to be to come up with solutions.
So in order to gain trust and be a more effective team, you need to build a relationship with your team members, and to build that relationship, you need to open up. How to do that?
I’ve seen workplaces where employees are expected to be professional and where it’s not appreciated if they are personal. I believe that psychological safety and effective teams won’t exist without being personal. Let me explain:
Imagine you and I are a team. If you don’t know where I’m from, what my values are and why I do what I do, we won’t have a deep relation. If we don’t get personal, we won’t be able to handle complex tasks. If we don’t surpass the coffee talk about last night’s football game, your weekend plans or the weather, you and I are never going to be an effective team.
However, I’m not saying that you have to share your deepest secrets. It is important to know that there’s a big difference between sharing personal and private issues.
Be personal as much as the situation allows you too. Don’t overshare, meaning that you’re being too open. Others might feel uncomfortable or forced to open up too much, which can create the opposite effect of trust.
Being personal is essential in creating an effective team because it builds a relation and creates trust. It’s also hugely important from a practical perspective.
Our colleague’s (let’s call her Lisa) son is now eight months old, and last night, he had trouble sleeping, so Lisa didn’t sleep at all, and therefore is really tired this morning. Today, we have an important meeting where Lisa can do two things: She can share what happened last night – or not. If she doesn’t, you and I are probably going to think she’s a bit cranky and not as positive and present as she normally would be.
If she shares it, we would understand why she acts the way she does, and we give her half an hour to drink two cups of coffee, so she can be herself again. Because she shared her story, we understand that before her cup of coffee, it’s probably not the best time for us to make important decisions.
We can’t separate our professional and personal lives. Both are connected.
We can’t change the fact that Lisa is tired because of her son. The only thing we can change is the fact that she communicates it. This way, we can change how we work together, making us more effective!
Psychological safety — feeling safe to take risks and be vulnerable in front of each other — is essential for effective teams. It might be very hard to do (it is), or you might be afraid to do it (I was), but creating psychological safety is well worth the effort: teams with it, work more effective and bring in more revenue.
Here’s your how-to guide:
Frame work as a learning problem instead of an execution problem.
Allow everyone — yourself included — to make mistakes and learn from them.
Acknowledge your own fallibility, be curious and ask questions!
Be open by being personal to build relations and gain trust, allowing for more openness.
Marc Vollebregt makes working together work. If you’re curious to know more about how we can work together, contact me! contact me!