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Psychological Safety

| February 27, 2018

by Jim Bruce

… my team is a safe place for interpersonal risk taking


Early this decade Google was focused on building the perfect team.  Even earlier, the company had endeavored to capture large quantities of data about employees and how they worked.  They knew, for example, how frequently particular people ate together (more productive people had larger networks of dining partners) and were able to identify key traits shared by the very best managers (good communication and avoidance of micromanaging). 
In 2012 the company launched a new initiative, Project Aristotle, to analyze this data and develop an understanding of what really made the best teams.  This study is the subject of an article by Charles Duhigg published in the New York Times:  “What Google Learned from its Quest to Build the Perfect Team.1”  Google’s website re:Work provides access to a broad set of information about the study as well as guides for all phases of a team’s work.
Project Aristotle identified five key “dynamics” that set successful teams apart from other teams at Google:

  1. Psychological safety:  Can this team’s members take risks without feeling insecure or embarrassed?
  2. Dependability:  Can this team’s members count on each other to do high quality work on time?
  3. Structure and clarity:  Are the goals, roles, and execution plans on our team clear?
  4. Meaning of work:  Are we working on something that is personally important for each of us?
  5. Impact of work:  Do we fundamentally believe that the work we’re doing matters? 

Of these five key dynamics, the study clearly showed that the first, psychological safety, was far more important than the other four key dynamics and, in fact, it provided the underpinning for the other four.  John Katzenbach, noted writer on organizational culture, leadership, and learning, put it this way:  [The study demonstrated] “…that the purely functional aspects of a team’s performance – the members’ professional backgrounds, experience, drive, or intelligence, for example – were not as relevant to success as this safe-space facility.3”  Said differently, what really mattered was less about who was on the team and more about how the team worked together.
This leads us to two questions:  How might this concept of “psychological safety” be defined?  And, “What is needed to make my team psychologically safe?”
Amy Edmondson, the Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at the Harvard Business School, was first to identify the concept of “psychological safety.”  In a 2014 TEDxTalk HGSE talk, Professor Edmondson said that “Psychological safety is a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes4.”  The term describes a team climate characterized by interpersonal trust and mutual respect in which people are comfortable being themselves and speaking openly.  However, this is not an environment where there is no accountability.  Edmondson sees psychological safety and accountability as separate qualities.  Low psychological safety and low accountability are indicators of apathy.  High psychological safety combined with high accountability result in learning, the state a team strives for so that it will be seen as both continuously learning and successful.
So, how do we build such a team?  Start small.  Getting to “full-on” psychological safety for your team will take time.  Perhaps, by first taking a small step at a team meeting and doing a go-around where each person talks about one thing he or she brings to the team.  Others might speak on the value they experience from that individual’s work before continuing to the next team member for what he or she brings.  Repeated over time, this could naturally evolve to people talking about life events that impact their work on the team.  Some teams make a “go-around” to talk about what’s going on in each individual’s life a regular part of every team meeting.  This would build stronger relationships, including trust and mutual respect, between all team members.  Without strong bonds the trust that is required for the team’s psychological safety cannot exist5.
Beyond this, Edmondson4 suggests three paths that must be taken for a team to have psychology safety:

  1. Frame the work as a set of learning opportunities rather than as execution problems.  No matter the task, there is always some uncertainty.  Recognize this, be open to and seek input from others, set the pattern of a willingness to hear the ideas of others.
  2. Acknowledge that you don’t have all the answers.  Be open to input because “you just may miss something.”  Even though you really believe that you know the answer, be willing to admit that you might have incomplete knowledge of the total situation.
  3. Model curiosity.  Ask lots of questions.  If you ask the questions, then your colleagues on the team will have to answer, adding their voice to the overall discussion.  Every time we don’t ask questions we deprive ourselves and our colleagues of some amount of learning.

Making work assigned to each team member really the team’s work is key to team learning and having a team that will deliver its very best work.  That is a worthy objective for every team leader and every team member.
Make time this week to stop and think about the team you lead or are a member of.  What can you do to increase psychological safety so that the team can do it’s very best work?  And, as you make progress on psychological safety for the team, begin to work on the other four dynamics – dependability, structure and clarity, the work’s meaning, and its impact – of highly successful teams.
Make it a great week.  .  .  .  jim
Jim Bruce is a Senior Fellow and Executive Coach at MOR Associates, and Professor of Electrical Engineering, Emeritus, and CIO, Emeritus, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA.
References and Notes:

  1. Charles Duhigg, What Google Learned From Its Quest to Build the Perfect Team, New York Times, February 25, 2016.
  2. Google’s website re:work is a library of learning and informational materials on work.  You may find its collection Guide:  Care Professionally and Personally for your Team  and Guide:  Understand Team Effectiveness to be particularly helpful.
  3. John Katzenbach, Great Teams Build Great Cultures, Strategy+Business, May 17, 2016.
  4. Amy Edmondson, “Building a Psychologically Safe Workplace,” TEDxHGSE, May 4, 2014.
  5. Duhigg, in the NYTimes article referenced earlier, related a very special moment in the life of Sakaguchi’s team:  “He [Sakaguchi] began by asking everyone to share something personal about themselves. He went first:                                                          ‘’I think one of the things most people don’t know about me,’ he told the group, ‘is that I have Stage 4 cancer.’  In 2001, he said, a doctor discovered a tumor in his kidney.  By the time the cancer was detected, it had spread to his spine.  For nearly half a decade, it had grown slowly as he underwent treatment while working at Google.  Recently, however, doctors had found a new, worrisome spot on a scan of his liver.  That was far more serious, he explained.                                                            No one knew what to say.  The team had been working with Sakaguchi for 10 months.  They all liked him, just as they all liked one another.  No one suspected that he was dealing with anything like this.  ”                                                                      ’’To have Matt stand there and tell us that he’s sick and he’s not going to get better and, you know, what that means,’ Laurent said. ‘It was a really hard, really special moment.’”                                                                                                                 And, that is the type of bonds that colleagues on a well-functioning team have and an example of things, very difficult things, they can share to strengthen the interpersonal bonds between them and to support each other.