Working in teams is more important to businesses than ever before. According to a study published in the Harvard Business Review, the time that employees and managers spend in collaborative activities has grown by 50% or more over the last two decades. In many cases, more than three quarters of an employee’s day is spent in communication with colleagues. But group environments can quickly turn unproductive, even chaotic, if we’re not careful. How can we maximize productivity and innovation in team settings?
In 2012, Google conducted a two-year study called Project Aristotle, looking for answers on what made the most successful teams. To the researchers’ surprise, the number one factor had nothing to do with assembling the smartest or hardest-working people, or even the right configuration of personality types, skills, or backgrounds. Their research showed that the most important component was psychological safety, or “a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking.” In other words, team members who feel comfortable with each other are more likely to contribute ideas, share concerns, ask questions, and admit mistakes.
Unfortunately, many of us can relate to being on teams with low psychological safety—the kind of group brainstorm where everyone is trying to one up each other by shooting down ideas left and right. In many team environments, we feel that everyone is competing for the spotlight, instead of letting the ideas flow and seeing where they lead us. With low psychological safety, teams can be very stressful environments. Team members hold back their ideas out of fear of shaming from the group. And with the loudest voices dominating the discussion, more introverted employees might not contribute at all.
But the safer that team members feel with one another, the more likely it is that even the quietest voices will speak up, harnessing the power of diverse ideas. Of course, having a diversity of skills and backgrounds is still crucial to a successful team, but psychological safety ensures that everyone can share their unique viewpoints. It also fosters greater innovation, as team members are less wary of taking risks. Everyone is free to throw out their most outside-the-box ideas, which can lead to growth.
Psychological safety also fosters greater focus and clarity. When we’re fearful of looking ignorant, we withhold. Imagine a team where a member is too concerned to ask a potentially “dumb” question like, “What is the goal of this project?” Asking that question might actually cause the group to realize their goal isn’t that well-defined, leading them to clarify it. Psychological safety can also directly influence productivity. In an environment where people are comfortable admitting mistakes, it’s less likely that the mistake will happen again.
Ultimately, this concept comes down to a mindset of scarcity versus a mindset of growth. With low psychological safety, everyone’s gunning for the best idea at the expense of their teammates. There are only some “right” ideas, but mostly “wrong” ideas. But with high psychological safety, there are no bad ideas, because even the wrong idea might inspire something that leads to the right idea. The potential for growth is limitless.
Some may question if psychological safety comes at the expense of holding people accountable or pushing employees to deliver excellence. But according to Amy Edmondson—the organizational behavioral scientist who first introduced the idea of team psychological safety—motivation and accountability are on an entirely different axis. In fact, the sweet spot is having BOTH high motivation and accountability AND high psychological safety, which leads to learning and high performance. And according to Forbes, psychological safety not only improves the relationships among teammates, but can lead to a significant impact on “bottom line, performance, engagement and innovation.”
So what steps can you take as a manager or employee to foster more psychological safety in your team environments?
- Foster a climate of openness and inclusivity.
As a manager, try to spend more time listening to your employees than talking yourself. Make an effort to draw out introverted team members so all ideas are heard. Don’t hold back on praising others, and frame negative feedback constructively. You can also include others in decision-making processes.
- Model vulnerability and curiosity.
Acknowledge your own fallibility, and own your mistakes. As Amy Edmondson points out, the phrase “I may miss something I need to hear from you” can work wonders toward modeling vulnerability. Ask questions and encourage others to do the same.
- Build rapport.
Don’t be all business all the time. Create an environment where people can make jokes. Spending time with colleagues outside of work strengthens personal bonds, which can lead to improved collaboration at work.
- Set meeting ground rules.
Set the tone for meetings by letting everyone know that a collaborative space is judgement free. Put guidelines in place that promote psychological safety, like “no interrupting one another” and “no shooting ideas down at this stage.” Have everyone agree to the rules before a meeting and politely enforce them if someone veers off course. Try starting every team meeting by having everyone share a risk taken in the previous week. According to a study by Google, this simple act improved 6% on psychological safety ratings and 10% on structure and clarity ratings.
Psychological safety is the key ingredient to a dynamic team—one that is greater than the sum of its parts. And with these ideas as a guideline, you can take steps toward creating a safe and productive environment for your group work.