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Why psychological safety is critical in building high performance teams

What makes a high performing team?

A decisive leader? The individual expertise of team members? A well-designed task? While these are important structural features, research from multiple sources indicate that these alone do not drive high performing teams. A key ingredient driving effective teams is psychological safety.

For example, Google analyzed what made teams effective based on the study of 180 teams in Google. The results point to 5 key factors, of which the presence of psychological safety was by far the most important criteria compared to the rest.

The top 5 factors that impacted team effectiveness, in order of importance were:

  • Psychological safety: The individual’s perception of feeling safe to take risk. For example, feeling 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.

  • Dependability: The ability for members to reliably complete quality work on time

  • Structure and clarity: The individual’s understanding of roles, plans and goals.

  • Meaning: Finding a sense of purpose in either the work itself or the output

  • Impact: The feeling that your work matters, and knowing how it contributes to the organization’s goals.

While all factors were important, psychological safety was identified as being by far the most critical factor over the others.

What is psychological safety?

While the concept of psychological safety was studied for many years, it gained wider attention through the work of Amy Edmondson from Harvard University, in her paper “Psychological Safety and Learning Behavior in Work Teams” (1999).

Here, she defined psychological safety as a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking - such as asking for help, admitting errors or asking for feedback. It is the belief that you won’t be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes.

Her study showed that psychological safety was closely associated with the ability for the teams to learn. In a team that had high psychological safety, team members felt comfortable asking for help, admitting errors, discussing problems and seeking feedback, which are all activities that generate learning. For example, in hospital wards that had higher psychological safety, nurses were more honest, and reported their mistakes more often. However, in wards where there was low psychological safety, these activities made individual’s feel vulnerable and less likely to report issues or ask for help.

The same phenomenon was observed in companies: where there was low psychological safety, team members hesitated to ask “basic” questions, fearing other people’s perception of them, at the risk of not fully understanding the context. Or they held back critical issues because they feared they could be blamed or punished for their association to the issue. The teams with low psychological safety had a lower ability to learn, and consequently were slower to adapt to changes or make improvements.

What is important is to distinguish psychological safety from team members being friendly with each other. Team norms which only pursue friendliness or loyalty often result in team members avoiding to raise issues, for fear of breaking the team cohesion. Psychological safety goes further than friendliness, and indicates that people have a deep respect for each other and can safely raise “difficult” topics. That is, the team feel safe to raise issues even if it may drive a certain tension momentarily. The individuals in the team can trust each other, and know that people will listen to each other carefully, and find the right resolution, without passing judgement on the people involved. They do not shy away from speaking up on critical matters.

Why is psychological safety so important to driving effective teams? It:

  1. Impacts the teams’ ability to raise issues, resolve conflict, learn and adapt: When critical issues are raised, this is an opportunity to learn. For example, teams can investigate what the root cause of the critical issue was, and ensure collectively that it won’t happen again allowing for the team to put in place sustainable action plans. Without the right norms supporting psychological safety in place, companies have difficulty getting to the root cause, and may act upon the superficial symptoms, or not realize the presence of the issue at all until it is too late.

  2. Drives higher engagement and loyalty of the employees. As represented in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, safety needs, including psychological safety, is an important universal need. The presence of psychological safety drives the feeling of being accepted as one is, reduces attrition and increase inclusion.

  3. Allows for more transparency and better decision making. The sense of security helps individuals report issues, such as possible security or non-compliance issues and thus helps critical information flow faster within the organization. As the fluidity of information and accessibility to critical data increases, decisions can be taken with more accurate information, faster.

  4. Creates the foundations to drive innovation and organizational effectiveness. Innovation is spurred through the active sharing of ideas and thoughts from people with diverse backgrounds and experiences. Psychological safety enhances the level of participation in each individual, and helps for a richer exchange of ideas. The fruitful exchange of ideas, experiences and information not only spurs innovation, but also improves organizational effectiveness through the sharing of best practices and lessons learned.

  5. Breaks down silos and allows for higher inter-team coordination. It is critical to ensure psychological safety across teams, and not only within the teams. In many cases, the leaders of the team do their best to drive cohesion within their teams, but fail to drive the same level of honesty and safety across teams or departments. When teams do not openly share their questions, critical issues, and need for help to other teams, this results in siloed decisions, uncoordinated delivery and sub-optimized performance for the entire team. In today’s market environment, with its unprecedented pace of change, the ability to learn and adapt not only within the teams, but across the teams becomes a factor of success and survival for companies.

How do we build psychological safety in our organization?:

Psychological safety is about setting the right norms. Norms are the unwritten, yet expected behavior that governs the teams. Norms can define whether individuals feel supported when raising an issue or mistake, or whether they feel punished and accused. So it is important to uphold and celebrate the right kind of behavior that contribute to these norms. Below are some specific examples of how to create these norms.

  • Frame mistakes / errors as a learning opportunity: Set the scene upfront at the beginning of the project or task, or in regular team meetings, and welcome people raising concerns, questions, issues and frame it publicly as a learning opportunity. Ensure that no one feels accused or threatened, and use the language “we” instead of “you” or “I” when addressing those challenges. Deliberately establish regular sessions to share experiences and feedback. Ask the question “What can we all learn from that?” to establish common vocabulary and norms within the teams. This all starts with the leadership team, who need to exemplify this behavior, and to signal through actions the criticality of this norm within the organization.

  • Model the right behaviors: Showcase and celebrate instances where people modeled the right behavior, so that individuals in the organization can see that this is a behavior that is encouraged and welcomed. For example, create internal case studies and share stories about the projects that raised and overcame a critical problem. Create recognition and awards for people who demonstrate the right behaviors. Model the right behavior yourself – by asking questions, sharing issues or concerns, and listening attentively to each member’s opinions.

  • Create an ongoing mechanism to capture your employees’ level of psychological safety, as well as their thoughts, ideas, proposals, and frustrations: To ensure that the information flows freely across the organization, put in place a transparent mechanism to measure and monitor the level of psychological safety. This institutionalizes and signals the importance of psychological safety across the company. In addition, the ability to capture and act upon the employee voice accelerates the identification and coordination of key themes that need to be addressed at an organizational level.

How do we measure the level of psychological safety?

A quick assessment on the level of psychological safety can be done by asking yourselves these questions:

  • My team feels safe raising issues, even bad news, to each other and to the people who need to know and act upon it.

  • My team creates the space to listen to each other attentively, and gives roughly equal time to speak to the team mates, to truly understanding what each person has to say.

  • When receiving negative feedback or reviews, my team feels that this is an opportunity to learn rather than a judgement that is passed on them.

  • When unsure of something, my team doesn’t feel uncomfortable asking for more information or raising questions to clarify.

  • My team feels that helping each other is a trait that is encouraged and welcomed, rather than a weakness in any single individual.

Psychological safety is a key ingredient to drive effective teams, to establish a learning organization that is able to adapt to changing circumstances, and to build an engaged workforce that feel that their voice and contributions matter. While it is such a powerful element for success, many companies struggle to establish psychological safety consistently. This is because building and maintaining psychological safety requires ongoing work, relentless attention, and a shared commitment to put in place the norms to make this happen. But when it does happen employees feel the difference, and their level of contribution, engagement, and personal and organizational learning is magnified to the benefit of the company. Is your team, department and company psychologically safe? Would you like to work in one that is?

Need help? elendi provides a platform that measures and monitors the level of psychological safety, and captures the real-time voice of the employees that drives organizational and team level insights to take the right decisions. It also captures all the other elements driving high performance teams such as dependability, structure and clarity, meaning and impact to help you assess and build the right elements to fuel effective teams and growth in your organization.


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