In 2012, Google spent two years studying 180 different teams to figure out the recipe to high performing teams. They found five main ingredients – the first is something researchers call psychological safety.
Let’s take a few steps backwards, shall we? Over the past two decades, the amount of time that we’ve spent on collaborative and team-based activities at work has grown by more than 50%. Naturally, as one of the most forward-thinking companies in the world, Google has spent recent decades trying to figure out how they can maximize the productivity of their teams. After spending millions of dollars over years on initiatives that haven’t fully answered their question, they began Project Aristotle.
As a tribute to the man who once said that “the whole is greater than the sum of the parts,” Project Aristotle aimed to pinpoint the exact characteristics that separated the highest performing teams from the others. Before the project, executives at Google believed that building the best teams simply meant putting the best people together. Boy, did they underestimate the complexity of team building. The researchers at Project Aristotle found that what mattered wasn’t at all about who was on the team (successful teams varied in composition), but how they worked together. Specifically, they found five characteristics that defined how the best teams worked.
The first, and most important, characteristic that they identified was psychological safety, which essentially describes whether members of a team feel safe enough to take interpersonal risks. It’s about whether members of a team are confident that they won’t feel embarrassed or punished for making mistakes, and this matters especially for projects that rely on interdependence and are full of uncertainty (which, let’s be honest, is most projects nowadays).
Teams where members feel psychologically safe allow all members to speak and contribute to the discussion, and members are sensitive to each other’s moods. “Sounds a little too mushy for me,” you might be thinking…but here’s the thing: Project Aristotle found that these teams bring in more revenue, are rated twice as effective, and have members that are more likely to stay with the organization. It matters.
Think about it this way, most teams are formed in today’s organizations to tackle problems and challenges that individuals can’t take on by themselves. In order for teams to accomplish this task, members need to feel comfortable enough with each other to express their unique perspectives, share their concerns, and make full use their diverse skills. When members feel psychological safety, teams are more likely to harness the power of diverse ideas, and maximize the unique talents of each member of the team. Within these teams, the whole is unquestionably greater than the sum of the parts.
Now, the question you may be asking now is: how do we build psychologically safety? In her 2014 TEDx Talk, Amy Edmondson, who pioneered research on psychological safety, suggests three things: (1) framing the work as a learning, rather than executive, problem (2) acknowledge your fallibility, and make it safe to speak up, and (3) model curiosity, which creates a necessity for speaking up. Ultimately, it’s about making sure that the team is operating under a growth mindset. Google also offers some great strategies for building psychological safety within a team.
As useful as these tips are, Rome wasn’t built in a day, and Tom Brady didn’t learn to throw a football by reading a book (I assume…). Turning psychological safety into a norm within a team takes time, and mastering the ability to implement these strategies takes practice. This is where experiential team-building comes in, in my opinion – it gives you an opportunity to explicitly talk about psychological safety within the context of your own unique team, and a chance to practice using the tools mentioned above in a low-risk situation. After all, practice makes perfect.
So, how psychologically safe do members of your team feel?