“Can you describe a time when you were on a team that was really successful?”
That’s more than just a leading question in a job interview. Answering that prompt can begin to give us clues into why some team experiences–and outcomes–are just better.
I bet you could probably list some of the characteristics that define the highest performing teams—things like goal focus, dependability, and complementary skills.
But what if the key to high team performance is something far more basic and subtle?
Newer research1 suggests that what distinguishes top teams is actually “psychological safety.” Said another way, we do our best work when we feel safe enough to take risks and contribute without holding back. And in a truly psychologically safe work climate, people aren’t just comfortable expressing themselves, they’re comfortable being themselves—complete with quirks and peccadillos. It’s also important to consider what we’re *not* doing on a team we deem safe. Harvard business professor Amy Edmondson describes psychologically safe teams as ones where “people are less likely to focus on self-protection.”
When we’re not constantly calculating whether we’ll lose face by taking a risk, we can more easily lean into our desire to engage with others and to learn. Research1 supports that a psychologically safe team leads to better overall engagement and an openness to learning. Indeed, the safer team members feel with one another, the more likely they are to admit mistakes, to partner, and to take on new roles3.
So how could your team start to build more safety, interpersonally speaking?
|Business Chemistry certainly presents an important first step. By exploring individuals’ different preferences and predilections, a team could begin to understand and create space for them. And because the Business Chemistry system assumes that we don’t all think and interact in the same ways, there may be less pressure to behave in one particular way. Many clients comment that by acknowledging different working styles, disagreements and differences become less personal.
Still there’s a hitch. For example, in a given meeting, I might feel safe because I know I’m free to express my opinion. And you might feel unsafe because you experience my freely expressed opinions as an attack on you. If we each need different conditions to make us feel safe, then the effort to create psychological safety on a team has to be customized to its members.
Consider these steps as you work to engage the 4 Business Chemistry types:
- Divvy Up Airtime Groups where a few people dominate the conversation are less smart than those with a more equal distribution of conversational turn-taking, says Professor Anita Woolley of Carnegie Mellon University, an expert on collective intelligence4. Given Pioneers’ hallmark exuberance and energy, it can be easy for them to talk the most in a meeting, a dynamic that the team could actually help to self-regulate. Team members could encourage someone else to speak after a Pioneer makes his point, or better yet, members could strive for equal air time in each and every meeting. This give-and-take process could also allow Pioneers to engage in thoughtful silence and listening, something that can further improve a skill where they’re already strong–stepping back and looking at the big picture.
- Play the Contrarian Game If one marker of a psychological safe environment is the ability to engage in healthy, free-flowing debate, Drivers will likely feel right at home. And yet, not every Business Chemistry type has as easy a relationship with disagreement as Drivers. Rather than allowing a Driver’s hard-hitting logic to dominate—consider encouraging them to be thoughtful: allow for natural pauses and enforce “disagreeing without damage”. In addition, you could redirect a Driver’s flaw-finding by moving discussion toward solutions. On the flip side, Integrators, who are known to avoid conflict, could be engaged in debate by “baking” disagreement into team processes. For example, once a direction has been defined by the team, you can ask each person to voice one potential downside or liability of the plan, making it potentially less risky to share.
- Be a P.Q.A. What if something as simple as asking questions better unlocked your team’s talent? Amy Edmondson encourages leaders5 to be perpetual question-askers (PQAs)—demonstrating to the team that there are unanswered questions and needed explanations still to be found. Team members could ask questions like “What kind of leg up would it give us if we could answer X?” or “How can we move X issue from being an unknown to a known?” This technique may appeal particularly to quieter Guardians, who find their greatest sense of safety from seeking accuracy and thoroughness. By activating their very thirst for completeness, your questions could compel them to participate even more.
- Have an Anxiety Party Consider implementing a system that asks people to identify their darkest worries and discomforts, rather than covering them up. At Google Ventures6, anxiety parties happen twice a year as a means to call out underground worries and to stress-test them live in teams. After individual team members write down their biggest anxieties—as they relate to the team—on a private sheet of paper, they rank them in order of severity. Then they read them aloud and colleagues live-score how much the issue troubles them from a zero (“It never even occurred to me that this was an issue”) to five (“I strongly believe you need to improve in this area”). Sharing in this “securely vulnerable” way may be least comfortable for Drivers who tend to be emotionally contained and more logical than emotional. And yet, the power of “ripping off the covers” on our worries could help Drivers contribute to feelings of team transparency and the realization that in actuality, plenty of worries are unfounded.
Psychological safety doesn’t usually happen all by itself. Yet monitoring and continually building psychological safety on your team could yield an important form of insurance: protection against groupthink, extremely dominant egos or passive personalities, and undiscussed “elephants in the room.” In the world of improv comedy, group safety is sacrosanct. Second City comedians Kelly Leonard and Tom Yorton—authors of the book “Yes, And”7—realized after a half of century of doing comedy that “dialogues push stories further than monologues.” They understand that there’s strength in vulnerability, urging: “Fear of failure stifles creativity; creating safe times and forums for failure fuels it.”
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1 Duhigg, C. (2016, February 25). What Google learned from its quest to build the perfect team. New York Times Magazine.
2 Wanless, S.B. (2016). The role of psychological safety in human development. Research in Human Development, 13(1), 6-14.
3 Rozovsky, J. (2016). The five keys to a successful Google team. re: Work, The Water Cooler Blog.
4 Engel D., Woolley A.W., Jing L.X., Chabris C.F., Malone T.W. (2014) Reading the Mind in the Eyes or Reading between the Lines? Theory of Mind Predicts Collective Intelligence Equally Well Online and Face-To-Face. PLoS ONE 9(12): e115212.
5 Lebowitz, S. (2016, March 19). A Harvard professor says a hardwired psychological impulse can sabotage you at work. Business Insider.
6 Burka, D. (2016, January 21). How “Anxiety Parties” made our team more vulnerable and more effective. Google Ventures Library.
7 Leonard, K. & Yorton, T. (2015). Yes, And: How Improvisation Reverses “No, But” Thinking and Improves Creativity and Collaboration–Lessons from The Second City. New York, NY: HarperCollins.