Whenever I work with teams, I work hard to create a space where everyone feels they can speak up and that they can take risks with their contributions and learning. This is part of creating “psychological safety”, or having confidence that you will not be punished, embarrassed, or rejected for speaking up. Amy Edmondson, a Harvard business school professor and researcher published a study in 1999 about psychological safety on teams. She wrote, “It describes a team climate characterized by interpersonal trust and mutual respect in which people are comfortable being themselves.”
If you want to learn a bit more about psychological safety and teams and you haven’t yet read Charles Duhigg’s fantastic New York Times article from February 25, 2016, it’s a good place to start. I have referred to it before – but it’s worth mentioning again. In it, Edmondson is quoted and there are some other good references.
I discovered this requirement for successful teams from my own experiences leading teams as an operation’s manager and then later facilitating them in my current work. At this point in my career I can say that I have worked with hundreds of teams. It is some of my favorite work. When I first started out I made some mistakes that contributed to a few people not feeling safe. Those experiences have stuck with me. Though I didn’t mean to cause people to feel embarrassed, my actions and words contributed to it. Thankfully after these experiences I vowed to become more skillful and get better at facilitating teams and I did.
Creating psychological safety on teams requires skill. The more diverse the team, the more skill required by the team leader or facilitator. Setting up good ground rules that the team will use every time they meet (and in other sub-team meetings) is a foundation that has been shown to be important in creating a successful team. In my experience teams sometimes make this a “check the box” exercise. I now make a bigger deal of it when I facilitate teams. Equity in team members talking, listening and making sure all feel that their ideas matter, is also very important. Some lucky teams seem to naturally be better at this. But when the expected outcomes are complex or will have a big impact, most teams will need help starting off right. Skillful facilitation will go a long way in helping a team “form” and creating a successful team launch.
One thing I know for sure is that if you want a successful team, you need to create a team climate where everyone is more likely to bring their “A game”. There is so much to benefit from everyone being all in – it’s the point of a team. If you could do it yourself, you should. But if you need a team, a successful one will need to feel safe.
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.