Recent articles and books have cited the work of Google’s Project Aristotle, a team that used data to attempt to define what made some of Google’s teams more effective than others.

Over several years, the company looked at – and ruled out – almost every cliché about what makes for the best teams.

  • Diversity? Nice to have but not decisive.
  • Having lots of “A players”? Sure, but it doesn’t make the difference.
  • A very structured approach to meetings and interactions? Nope.
  • An unstructured, creative approach to meetings? Nope, not that either.

What Google discovered in their internal analysis validates what many people have learned firsthand: The most effective teams are those in which everybody feels trusted and respected.

As Harvard professor Amy Edmondson wrote:

“The team climate is characterized by interpersonal trust and mutual respect in which people are comfortable being themselves.”

Dr. Edmondson coined a fancy name for this concept—“psychological safety“.

But fancy or not, it captures a big idea:

Teams work best when everybody takes turns talking and contributes about equally over time, and when the members are skilled at intuiting how others feel through non-verbal cues.

In a nutshell, share the airtime and pay attention to your teammates’ feelings – whether they verbalize them or not.

But the big question is this: how do you create that level of trust and respect on a team?

How, in other words, do you build “psychological safety?”

Fostering Psychological Safety

In one example Google cites, a team leader shares the tragic news with his teammates that he has Stage 4 cancer. The vulnerability and empathy generated by that revelation brings the team together, as would be expected.

And the work of best-selling author and team management expert Patrick Lencioni demonstrated several years ago in The Five Dysfunctions of a Team that teams can build trust by sharing less heartrending news than a cancer diagnosis – childhood dreams, personal challenges, risks they have taken.

It was found that often, a whole range of humanistic sharing can bond a team together in similar ways.

In our work coaching teams, we acknowledge that it is valuable for team members to be open, honest and even vulnerable with one another.

But while some of that sharing can lay the groundwork for psychological safety in a group, we discovered a way to make sure that it lasts.

Frankly, we found it almost by accident.

In our coaching work, we ask teams to identify a team behavior that, if improved, would make the team more effective. Examples included: More timely decision-making; more open communication with emerging leaders; faster, better responsiveness to each others’ requests and needs; and others.

Next we ask them each to choose an individual behavioral goal that aligns with the team goal.

Finally – and this is the critical step to creating psychological safety – we ask them to follow up with each other one-on-one every few weeks to get feedback on how they’re doing on the team and personal goals, and suggestions for how to improve further.

Surprising Results

Two things happened as a result of this process. One we expected, and one that surprised us a bit.

The first thing that happened was that teams that used this process – adapted from Marshall Goldsmith’s work on Stakeholder Centered Coaching – got better at the goal they were working on.

We expected that.

But when we started asking teams what else changed, besides the behavior they were working on, what they told us surprised us.

Here are a few examples:

“We didn’t just get better at our stated goal. That’s sort of the tip of the iceberg. We communicate more. We’re more honest with one another now. I feel like I can say ‘I don’t know’ or ‘I’m overloaded’ and someone in this room will help me out.”

“I feel like I have complete confidence in the people in this room now.“

“I now have complete trust in each of you not only to make the right decisions but to do right by me. Even if I miss a meeting, I believe you all have my best interests in mind and I don’t have to worry that you’ll make a decision that’s bad for me.”

In other words, people learned to feel “psychologically safe” within the team.

By talking to one another regularly about HOW they work, not just WHAT they’re working on, they learned to be more open, to admit when they didn’t know something, and to trust their teammates to help and support them rather undercut them.

That’s what psychological safety looks like, and that’s how you sustain it over time by helping people learn to give and receive feedback from their teammates on a regular basis.

Those conversations inevitably make each person feel a little vulnerable at first, but over time, people learn that their teammates are on their side and that they can trust them enough to ask for help.

Going Forward:

Here are some questions to ask yourself if your team is currently underperforming:

  • How “psychologically safe” is your team today?
  • How safe does it need to be to meet the demands of your marketplace?
  • Is the gap between these two wide enough to take action?
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