We've all been there: You're in a meeting and suddenly, you're struck with a question or idea. However, due to the fear of humiliation, you internalize it and say nothing. You've just experienced an environment absent of psychological safety. It doesn't seem like that big of a deal, but the cumulative effect of withholding information is an epidemic that impacts team effectiveness.
For the longest time, Google, like most organizations, assumed that building the best teams meant compiling the best people. But, it wanted to know for sure. So, in 2012, the company set out on a mission to answer the question: why do some teams excel while others underperform? As you would expect, Google took a very analytical approach studying every observable behavior of 180 of its teams. However, after years of research, there were no evident correlations that could be plugged into a dream-team generating algorithm.
So, Google went a more subjective direction. Specifically, it looked at the significance of group norms and collective intelligence. Group norms are the traditions, behavioral standards, or unwritten rules that govern teams, and collective intelligence is team abilities that emerge from collaboration.
That's when things started to fall into place.
To be honest, the majority of the findings weren't that surprising. The list included components like clear structure, dependability, and meaningful work. However, there was one unexpected characteristic Google found to be more important than others: psychological safety.
In the words of Harvard organizational behavioral scientist Amy Edmondson, psychological safety is "a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking."
In other words, they are willing to speak up, ask questions, and admit mistakes without worrying about repercussions, ridicule, or judgment. They can bring their whole self with them to work.
Personally, I've seen what a lack of psychological safety can do to a team. Due to working in a constant state of fear, teams become guarded, skeptical, and anxious. They don't help one another out, contribute beyond their job descriptions, or innovate -- which means they don't last.
It goes without saying, but an environment like that is unnerving, covert, and demotivating.
In Google's case, though, it found that teams with psychologically safe environments had employees who were less likely to leave, more likely to harness the power of diversity, and ultimately, who were more successful.
So, how do you know where your team stands? Here are the seven questions Edmondson uses to gauge a team's level of psychological safety:
- If you make a mistake on this team, it is often held against you?
- Members of this team can bring up problems and tough issues?
- People on this team sometimes reject others for being different?
- It is safe to take a risk on this team?
- It is difficult to ask other members of this team for help?
- No one on this team would deliberately act in a way that undermines my efforts?
- Working with members of this team, my unique skills and talents are valued and utilized?
Each one of these statements speaks to a critical component of safe environments where employees can learn, trust, innovate, and offer suggestions critical to the team's success.
Engineering the perfect team is more subjective than we would like, but focusing on psychological safety increases the likelihood that you will maximize the potential of every team member.