In 2012, Google convened “Project Aristotle,” which was essentially its quest to build a perfect team, or figure out what characteristics of teams lead to the most success. One of the hallmarks of the Project Aristotle work was this idea of “psychological safety” as a cornerstone of high-performing teams. There have been numerous deep dives into psychological safety since 2012, of course, and time and again it is continually seen as a factor present in the best teams. And that stays true no matter the size or make up of a company, be it a startup or an established business. But what exactly does the term mean, and how can managers most effectively develop it within their teams?
What does the term mean?
The broad definition is a team where individual members “are comfortable being and expressing themselves.” These types of teams are usually better at embracing and implementing diverse ideas, because a team member with a random, “out there” idea -- and remember, at one point the iPhone and other huge-selling products were considered random, “out there” ideas -- feels more comfortable speaking up. Psychological safety implies a reduction, or near elimination, in judgment among team members which allows for the free flow of ideas and innovation. There is also a decrease in blame or finger-pointing which helps employees feel more willing to take risks. Teams that have this level of safety built into their culture should see a number of additional benefits. Team performance usually increases as workers are more productive and willing to ask for help when they need it. And interpersonal risk-taking also gets a boost as there's less fear of rejection so employees are better able to bond and get to know (and trust) each other.
Much of the psychological safety on a team comes from how they are managed and the culture created within the team or department. For team leaders or managers, this can mean more upfront work to build a safe environment but hopefully they'll soon see the benefits of putting in the time. The trick is to balance both manager and teammate needs to make a space together that is productive and creative without fear of reprisal.
Why is psychological safety challenging to create in teams?
One reason is simply that incentive structures of work. We put people in teams to collaborate and innovate, but we can usually only advance or promote 1-2 people from a successful team at most (usually due to financial reasons or the hierarchical structure). Not every company has billions of dollars on hand, after all. Opportunities for salary or career growth may be limited. After a while, it’s possible that teams become competitive -- so instead of working together, it’s almost like a series of individuals working to look the best in order to advance their careers.
Another issue is the current nature of work. Layoffs are relatively common nowadays -- although in positive news, they are lower than at other points in the last two decades! -- and the line around disruption and technology is increasingly blurred. Could you lose your job to a machine or algorithm? If that’s possible, wouldn’t you want to increasingly present as being relevant and necessary in your organization? Again, when overall job concerns aren’t openly addressed, many employees focus on themselves as opposed to the good of a team or the good of the organization. These can limit psychological safety.
A third factor is simple human interaction. When we hear an idea we think is outlandish or even “stupid,” sometimes we want to decry it or instantly dismiss it. It's the “that will never work” mentality. There can be knee-jerk reactions to ideas and new concepts on teams all the time. The more and more often these reactions occur, the less psychological safety the team has.
And perhaps the largest reason this concept can be hard to develop boils down to management. If you are working for a company that doesn't value team collaboration or creativity, psychological safety will not develop. And if your direct manager is quick to cut people off, take credit for others ideas, or follows a more authoritarian management style, the level of comfort on the team will be directly impacted as well.
How can psychological safety be developed, then?
Start by rooting your team in four major questions:
- What can we count on each other for?
- What is our team’s purpose?
- What reputation do we aspire to have?
- What do we need to do differently to achieve that reputation and purpose?
These questions can guide brainstorming sessions, team meetings, and should be revisited at least twice a month. Are you making progress on your purpose and reputation? If not, why not? What could be done differently?
There are smaller steps that can be followed too:
Managerial training: Team managers should be given multiple opportunities to train on so-called “soft” skills such as relationship-building, conflict management, communication styles, empathy, etc. Unfortunately, many managers are not trained very well on the managerial part of their job. A manager without training might be hard-pressed to create psychological safety in their team and it's not a concept that will naturally occur without that direct managerial effort.
Safe spaces/objects: This may sound like a kindergarten class and frighten some professionals, but consider having a stick or other object that is deemed as "safe." When a person is holding it and speaking, no one can question or comment on what they’re saying until they (the second person) gets the stick. It creates an order to ideas and reduces knee-jerk reactions and talking over teammates. Also borrowing from grade school, anonymous suggestion boxes also help support psychological safety as employees have a non-punitive channel of communication they can rely on.
Immediate conflict resolution: When there is a conflict between two team members, work on it immediately. Do not let it fester until the end of a project just to get the project done, because then the tensions might be more intense on the next project. When conflict arises, work on identifying it, talking through it openly, and squashing it as soon as possible. Remember to focus on the problem, rather than the people, to depersonalize the issue and find common ground.
Make it about more than the work: This can be team-building exercises, happy hours, theme park visits, whatever -- but for a team to trust and feel safe with each other, they need to know and experience one another outside of just deadlines and deliverables. If you’re worried about budget, consider getting creative with cheaper outings you can do outside the office. A picnic in a park, a trip to a museum on a free attendance night, volleyball on the beach, etc. The idea is to get people to bond on a personal level and you don't need to break the bank to do that.
Building psychological safety is worth the time
Psychological safety drives teams to new heights -- and logically so. If you don’t feel safe around people, and don’t feel you can be yourself and contribute new ideas or push back on the ideas of others, how could the team function well overall? It would be very hard. So while psychological safety can feel like a “fluffier,” “non-work” concept, it’s actually tremendously important for productivity and success. Teams that feel they work in a safe environment are more eager to share and support each other which leads to a positive team climate that can influence others in the company. Plus safe teams are able to work faster, speak with more candor, and engage with more mutual respect than those that fear speaking up. The benefits of promoting psychological safety at work are numerous so instead of quashing those crazy, "out-there" ideas, try encouraging them instead and see where it leads you.