On this team is it safe to be myself? Can I take the risk to offer my opinion without it being shot down or rejected? It has been shown that when team members can answer, “yes” to these and similar questions, it improves team effectiveness.
Though I rely on research all the time to make decisions on how to design or approach a project, the issue I have with academic research is that it is often conducted in conditions that don’t resemble real workplaces. When I work with a team, they have a challenging goal that is meant to address or solve a real issue. This is why I really loved the Google team research that Charles Duhigg writes about in his February 25, 2016, New York Times article, What Google Learned From Its Quest to Build the Perfect Team. Google’s research studied the effectiveness of real teams doing real work.
One of the most compelling findings about team effectiveness was the importance of creating “psychological safety”. Amy Edmonson, a Harvard professor, describes this in her 1999 research as, “a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking”, and “a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject or punish someone for speaking up.”
The researchers at Google also found that effective teams demonstrated “equality in distribution of time-taking”. Essentially all members had a chance to contribute in fairly equal amounts. This signals that all members felt valued and safe enough to share their ideas.
Of the term “psychological safety”, Edmondson wrote in the 1999 study, “It describes a team climate characterized by interpersonal trust and mutual respect in which people are comfortable being themselves.” Wow. Isn’t that what we all want at work and life, whether on a team or not? To be seen, heard and accepted for who we are and what we bring? This makes so much sense to me. If I feel accepted, I am more likely to share my knowledge and ideas. If I don’t, I am more likely to hold back. When a team is working to create something really great or solve an important problem, it is rarely a good thing for people to refrain from sharing their best ideas. A lack of psychological safety on a team would also explain why people sometimes wait to share their best ideas until after a team meeting.
No doubt, creating psychological safely on a team takes time to build and requires being thoughtful about communication. You can see how another of the Google findings, the importance of creating group norms, can clearly contribute positively to safety on a team. Team leaders need to consider how their approach, communication and behaviors impact psychological safety. Though a complex construct, it seems worth learning how to do. I imagine that these findings apply to being an effective leader in general. Let’s not wait for more research to start applying it.
Welcome to Moira's blog. I write a (mostly) monthly post about the work of building better work places: people strategies, systems, teams and leaders.