by Jim Bruce
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:Work2 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:
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:
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.
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