When you were a pre-schooler, you were routinely told two things: Be nice! and Take turns!
It turns out that these two social norms - of empathy and turn-taking - are particularly relevant to one of the biggest studies of team effectiveness ever undertaken.
Project Aristotle was launched in 2012 at Google, where they had set out to discover what makes for the most perfect team. After studying over a hundred teams and analysing years of data, the researchers concluded that the most perfect teams operate a certain mix of group norms. They looked into how individuals on a team treated one another, and they noticed how certain group norms could raise the collective intelligence of the team and how the absence of these norms could just as easily destroy any semblance of group intelligence, in spite of the smarts of the individuals.
The two group norms that differentiated the great from the good were social sensitivity (noticing how people are feeling on your team and adapting your behaviour accordingly) and conversational turn-taking (making sure that everyone on this team has had equal airtime over the course of the teamwork day).
During their study, the Google researchers came across Professor Amy Edmondson’s work at Harvard Business School. Edmondson had termed this magic formula of group norms
“Psychological Safety”, meaning “a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject or punish someone for speaking up … It describes a team climate characterized by interpersonal trust and mutual respect in which people are comfortable being themselves.”
Easy to grasp as a concept. But difficult to do in practice.
As human beings, the ‘humanity’ factor within our workplaces determines how sustainable our tenure is within this group. What this says is that you have to work harder to overcome issues at a team level than at an individual level or at a one-to-one intrapersonal level. And, sometimes, frankly that feels too much like hard work. And it can bring you down quite quickly.
How much influence do you have?
You and your colleagues are co-responsible to establish the ambiance of safety in your team. You have some influence over it - especially as the team leader - but you don’t have sole agency over it. As team leader / line manager, you are responsible to encourage it. This is not a one-off surge of focus that’s required. It’s a persistent, continuous focus. Think of it like establishing a team culture; meaning emphasizing the way things are done on this team at all times. It has to be consistent, otherwise your team members will quickly sense that it isn’t taken seriously and the whole exercise will collapse.
What should you focus on?
In February 2021, our QiS (Quick iOpener Survey) asked respondents Edmondson’s seven Psychological Safety questions.
What we know from our research findings is which of the Edmondson seven items you find easier to establish and which more tricky. In this ranking of the mean scores from our dataset on these items, the first is the easiest and the seventh is the hardest.
You and your team:
- (80.4% - QiS score from 230 respondents) can ask one another for help
- (79.6%) give one another due credit for your efforts
- (76.6%) readily accept others who are different
- (74.3%) are able to talk about tough issues
- (74.0%) value and utilize unique skills and talents
- (73.9%) support one another even if you make a mistake
- (68.0%) feel safe to take a risk
The corresponding questions in the Edmondson survey are:
(Question is inversely formed*)
- Is it difficult to ask others on this team for help? (*)
- Would anyone on this team deliberately act in a way that undermines your efforts? (*)
- Do people on this team sometimes reject others for being different? (*)
- Are members of this team able to talk about tough issues?
- Are unique skills and talents valued and utilized within this team?
- If you make a mistake, will it be held against you? (*)
- Is it safe to take a risk on this team?
What our QiS results show is that there’s a clear and progressive four-step process to establishing the resultant Psychological Safety. Psychological Safety is built in incremental blocks and what you’ll notice as you read on is that there is a natural progression of human needs that are met in a work setting. These needs are met with group norms.
The four steps to establishing Psychological Safety
First and foremost, if you don’t feel accepted and included on this team, then you will feel rejected. And rejection hurts. It triggers the pain centres in your brain.
You have to have a sense that you belong on this team if you are to have any chance at feeling psychologically safe. This is the foundation block of Psychological Safety. You must feel welcomed onto the team to be able to develop a sense of camaraderie. A team that identifies with high levels of camaraderie feels mutual empathy and has one anothers’ backs.
Importantly - and this is why we call it co-belonging - everyone else on this team must feel equally accepted and included; and you, therefore, play your role in doing this for others too.
Project Aristotle found empathy within a team to be one of two key differentiators that predisposes it to outstanding performance.
If iOpener’s data is true of your team too - meaning 1 in every 4 people may feel rejected for being different - then there’s ample room for improvement to ensure that you are encouraging optimal Diversity & Inclusion.
What are you doing to make sure everyone feels that they belong in your team?
Secondly, when you feel unsafe, you do not open your mind to curiosity and further learning, nor are you willing to ask questions when you don’t know something. You might have found that, if you make a mistake, that it’s held against you. So, you operate a self-censoring instinct and you shut down in order to cocoon yourself.
However, when you feel safe, you are able to learn by being part of this team. You have a voice. You use it to ask questions and to answer questions for others. You also feel free to give and to receive feedforward. You learn and grow from these disciplines of curiosity and feedforward and they create a virtuous cycle of learning, insights and implementation.
You also use your voice to raise issues that are important to you; a very important aspect of team culture and your sense of team fit.
This makes you feel that you’re living up to more of your potential and helps you see even greater potential in yourself than you previously realized.
Of course, it takes the whole team together to create an ambiance of co-learning. You encourage others to find their voices. They feel heard and they listen well too.
Project Aristotle found turn-taking to speak within a team to be the second of two key differentiators that predisposes it to outstanding performance.
How equally is your team voice distributed amongst its members?
Thirdly, if you don’t feel psychologically safe on this team, you may be feeling that your contributions are micro-managed or, worse still, falling on deaf ears or even shunned. As a person, you feel diminished and disrespected.
It’s crucial that everyone feels able to have their unique skills and strengths acknowledged, respected and utilized on the team. When you do so, you feel more competent and motivated, as well as positively challenged and more likely to achieve flow when going about your daily activities. This stimulates enjoyment and a deeper meaningful connection between you and your job. And it makes for a team atmosphere of mastery and mutual respect. Your belief in yourself and in your team is boosted and eggs you on to achieve more.
So, in order to optimize co-contributing, you and your fellow team members know one another’s skills and talents well and you draw on them as much as possible.
Which colleagues’ strengths and skills do you already draw on? And which have you not leveraged yet and what could you do to utilize these more?
When your Psychological Safety is not a given, you feel pressure to conform and to be compliant. You don’t invest time, energy and effort to share your ideas about how things could be done better. The status quo remains unchallenged. You don’t feel that you can risk sharing your ideas or innovating. The creative parts of your cerebral activity are shut down.
In a world in which change is ever-accelerating, this fourth factor of Psychological Safety is vital. Progress is achieved as much through the making of mistakes and finding new ways forward as it is through the mastery of an activity. And, most difficult of all, is for teams to support one another to take risks. This implies that firstly they need to know what types of risk are above the waterline and which are below. And often they have never had this conversation.
Progress is always positive but it’s hard - perhaps impossible - to attain without all the previous factors of co-belonging, co-learning and co-contributing being in place.
To co-progress, a team has to feel optimally safe and able to challenge what is and to keep doing so. To envision what could be.
Importantly, co-progress means that you encourage others to challenge your thinking and your ideas, as well as the way things are. And you are also encouraged to challenge others.
What could be possible when you operate within a psychologically safe and fully optimized team?
There are specific actions you can take to increase Psychological Safety in your team. Increasing Co-Belonging will boost your Psychological Safety score significantly. As will focusing on Co-Learning. You’ll need these in order to progress to steps three and four, which are increasingly challenging to do well; in particular being able to enable risk-taking. But the rewards are great; you’ll have a radically candid, highly innovative and happy team that you’ll feel immensely proud to be part of.
If you’re interested in collaborating to establish greater Psychological Safety session for your team, you’ve come to the right place. Please contact us here
We have Psychological Safety subject matter experts ready to facilitate workshops, diagnostic instruments, coaching and webinars on the subject.
We also offer several leadership workshops that link directly to Psychological Safety. Ask us about:
- Developing Communication Fundamentals
- Giving and Receiving Feedback
- Celebrating Failure, Achieving Potential
- Coaching as a Leader
- Facilitating and Managing Meetings
- Optimizing Your Own and Others’ Motivation
- Leading Change
- Establishing a Culture of Diversity and Inclusion
- Leading with Emotional Intelligence and Compassion