Creating a psychological safety net for your team

“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?

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How to plan a meeting that people won’t dread—Part II

Planning a meeting that people won't dread—Part IIRole Plays. Skits. Improv. These words strike fear into my heart. I know these methods can be great ways to work through a tricky problem, and many people love the opportunity to actively engage with an idea or challenge by getting up and acting it out. Even I’ll admit that I love the fun and energy in the room when my colleagues perform (I have many talented and hilarious colleagues). But I’ll do just about anything to stay off the stage myself.

Last week I wrote about some ways that you can plan meetings and events that meet the needs of more Business Chemistry types more of the time. This week I’ll continue that theme, starting with a discussion of these anxiety-producing (for me) kinds of activities.

When quieter types hesitate to get involved we sometimes implore them to “get out of their comfort zone” and “stretch” This kind of encouragement can be helpful if someone just needs a little push to get there. However, for others, improv and role plays are too far from comfort, and if someone’s totally preoccupied by performance anxiety, they’re probably not focused on learning. On the flip-side, for others, sitting too long and listening or discussing is boring, boring, boring. And if someone is bored, they’re not learning much either. For many of these folks, the chance to use their creativity and acting chops keeps them interested.

A key here is to make it okay for people to participate in different ways. While some people can’t wait to get into the spotlight (ahem, Pioneers), others are more comfortable participating offstage, developing a script, suggesting an improv scenario, creating a prop, recording a video, cheering their colleagues on, or summarizing learning in a wrap-up conversation. So yes, let’s all stretch a little, but not so far that we pull any muscles.

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Project stalled? Practice perspective-taking

How to Encourage Perspective-Taking Skills

Unclear objectives. Scope creep. Cost overruns. Many of the reasons that projects fail seem painfully obvious. And yet there’s a less noticeable offender that can lead teams to take rash shortcuts, ignore the facts, or worse, mistake their overconfidence for boldness.

I’m talking about our failure to actively seek out and consider perspectives different from our own.

You might have guessed that perspective-taking is something we promote enthusiastically in Business Chemistry. After all, minimal variation of thought can lead to groupthink…which can steer a team right into a place of dysfunctional conformity. And we’re not only talking about encouraging people to exchange perspectives; but about using targeted strategies to do so. Academic research supports this recommendation: perspective-taking has been shown to simultaneously improve creativity1 and reduce favoritism within a team2. And beyond fostering more cooperative workplace behaviors3, taking others’ perspectives into account has been linked to better team coordination4 and improved conflict management5.

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Going with the flow: Cascades can hinder team decision-making

My last post suggested that making decisions in diverse teams can help avoid decision-making traps, and there’s research evidence to support this view1. However, team decisions are often no better than individual decisions—and sometimes they’re even worse2. So what’s going on?

Essentially it has to do with the difference between having diversity on a team and managing the team environment and process in a way that enables the group to actually benefit from that diversity.

There are various mechanisms through which biases and poor decision-making can actually be heightened rather than diminished on a team, even a diverse one.

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The Power of Opposites

The Power of Opposites

If given the choice, would you work with someone who’s similar to you and shares your views? Or would you choose someone who’s quite dissimilar, and has a different perspective?

Research suggests that we make better decisions in diverse groups than in homogeneous ones, but that we feel less confident in those decisions1. Why? Maybe because making decisions with people similar to us feels easy; if we’re all on the same page from the start it must be the right page, mustn’t it? The overconfidence that we’re prone to individually, gets multiplied in homogeneous groups.

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