If you could improve one aspect of your team, what would it be? What would move the needle the most toward a more effective team? Hire the most talented individuals? Great idea and do that anyway, but no. Colocate the team? That is a nice luxury these days, but no. Put more senior people on the team or maybe even make the team bigger? No, and shame on you, no.
The most important factor, by far, in building effective teams is a safe working environment where each individual can address anything — good, bad or very bad — the moment it occurs without fear of recrimination. I am referring to an environment that essentially models a Westrum generative culture. More specifically, psychological safety is the key to establishing such an environment.
In a nutshell, psychological safety encourages team members to ask questions, openly discuss failures, offer ideas and question the status quo. Amy Edmondson, the Novartis Professor of Leadership at Harvard Business School, explains the concept with powerful examples and empirical data in this eleven minute TEDx talk.
It turns out no one wakes up in the morning and jumps out of bed because they can't wait to get to work today to look ignorant, incompetent, intrusive or negative, right?
— Amy Edmondson, 1:41
In a team that does not provide psychological safety, team members will go to great lengths to avoid looking...
Ignorant → Don't ask questions.
Incompetent → Don't admit weakness or mistake.
Intrusive → Don't offer ideas.
Negative → Don't critique the status quo.
— Amy Edmondson, 2:03
Edmondson explains that this approach of "impression management" is quite effective. Unfortunately, it works for the individual at great expense to the team and its objectives. Most of us are conditioned to operate this way in teams, because psychological safety is so uncommon. I suspect this behavior is deeply rooted in our survival instincts (see my discussion of negativity bias), and it is reinforced to the point of habit as we grow up. Most of us fail to even realize how we subconsciously react to hostile working environments.
Every time an individual with important information stays silent, the team loses out on small moments of enlightenment. As you can imagine, this can — and does — lead to disastrous consequences in hospitals, engineering companies and other organizations where a delay in reporting failures or symptoms of impending failures can lead to significant financial loss, injury or even death.
Edmondson demonstrates this midway through the talk with empirical data collected from a study that explored the correlation between effective hospital teams and medication error rates. She found that effective teams reported more errors than ineffective teams.
It turns out that effective teams were open about errors as they occurred, with some teams openly discussing them day to day, while less effective teams feared to discuss errors and practiced "impression management." The reality is this: effective teams only appear to experience more errors. They likely produce fewer errors of less severity than ineffective teams.
This all seems so simple in retrospect, but even Google took years to ferret out the importance of psychological safety in teams. The culture at Google is data-driven, but since data about things like sensitivity and empathy were not typically collected, the human side of the equation was often lost in the mix. Google's Project Aristotle, established to determine the secrets of effective teams, changed that.
What Project Aristotle has taught people within Google is that no one wants to put on a "work face" when they get to the office. No one wants to leave part of their personality and inner life at home. But to be fully present at work, to feel "psychologically safe," we must know that we can be free enough, sometimes, to share the things that scare us without fear of recriminations. We must be able to talk about what is messy or sad, to have hard conversations with colleagues who are driving us crazy.— Charles Duhigg, The New York Times Magazine
The gem within the project's findings is the five secrets to effective teams, the first of which is psychological safety. It is by far the most important factor in effective teams.
#1: Psychological Safety — Team members feel safe to take risks and be vulnerable in front of each other.
#2: Dependability — Team members get things done on time and meet Google's high bar for excellence.
#3: Structure and Clarity — Team members have clear roles, plans and goals.
#4: Meaning — Work is personally important to team members.
#5: Impact — Team members think their work matters and creates change.
— Google's Project Aristotle
These findings show that team dynamics matter more than the individual members of the team. Of course, finding talented people who align with your organizational values is critically important, but even those individuals will fail on a team that does not provide psychological safety.
Edmondson provides three simple suggestions for fostering psychological safety in teams:
Focus on these suggestions first and then foster the other keys Google uncovered. It will not be easy, but the payoff is huge, both in terms of team effectiveness and in the individual health and wellbeing of each team member. Best wishes on your team entering Edmondson's "learning zone."
Westrum Generative Culture as defined by Google
Psychological Safety Defined from Google re:Work guide
Building a Psychologically Safe Workplace by Amy Edmondson
The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life by Erving Goffman and Sven Bergström
What Google Learned From Its Quest to Build the Perfect Team by Charles Duhigg
Project Aristotle by Google