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Psychological Safety & Team Performance

What is psychological safety, and why should managers care?

The Making of a Perfect Team

We've all been on teams that are great, and others that we dread meeting with. What causes some teams to be efficient, collaborative, and fun, while others are indecisive, sluggish, and even argumentative? If you had to predict which factors cause some teams to be more productive and innovative than others-- even in the same company-- what would you guess?

Maybe you’d predict that teams who were friends outside of work would perform better, because they liked and respected each other. Perhaps you’d be interested in the amount of time the team had been working together, so that they’d know each other’s strength and weaknesses. Or maybe you’d guess a certain combination of introverts and extroverts would make for an ideal team.

A few years ago, a team at Google set out to try to answer this question, and after exploring the above possibilities (and many more) - they found something interesting. The number one most important factor -- above tenure, experience, friendliness, or personality type -- was psychological safety.

Psychological Safety

What is psychological safety? It refers to a climate in which all team members feel empowered to share their thoughts and opinions -- regardless of if their opinion is unpopular, or if they are new to the team, or in a junior position. In psychologically safe workplaces, employees know that their opinions will be heard and respected. Professor Amy Edmondson at Harvard Business School defines psychological safety as: ‘‘a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject or punish someone for speaking up.”

Can you remember a time when you held back an opinion, maybe because it was critical of another team member, or because you didn’t want to rock the boat after a plan had already been agreed on? Do you think it would have been better for your team if they addressed the challenging question?

The research says yes. In another article by HBS professors David Garvin, Amy Edmondson, and Francesca Gino, they write that the most psychologically safe teams feel comfortable “disagreeing with peers or authority figures, asking naive questions, owning up to mistakes, and presenting a minority viewpoint.”

Fostering a safe workplace

What should you do if you’re a manager, and you want to encourage psychological safety in your team?

  1. Respect dissenting opinions. If you disregard a concern raised by a team member (and especially if they are new or junior), this will establish a norm in your team that criticism is not appreciated. Team members will learn not to rock the boat, and you will miss out on challenging questions and insights.
  2. Encourage new ideas. If you feel that your team is hesitant to criticize, challenge them to brainstorm new ways to tackle a problem that you’re facing. It will be easier for them to offer suggestions in the form of new ideas, until they feel confident enough to offer direct criticism.Acknowledge your own mistakes. By admitting your shortcomings, you will create an environment in which you will be more approachable to your employees. They will feel safer talking about their own mistakes or concerns that they have spotted. 

More resources:

Check out Google's guide for managers who want to increase psychological safety here.

Check out Amy Edmondon's Ted Talk about Psychological Safety below!

Nicole Abi-Esber

Social Science Researcher

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