Psychological Safety: The #1 Factor that Matters Most for Your Team

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What do you think makes the biggest difference to the performance of your team?

a. skills and expertise

b. the team’s budget

c. the predominance of “A-Player” personalities

d. none of the above

Surprisingly, the answer is D. What matters most is the level of psychological safety that exists among members.

So what exactly is psychological safety?

Psychological safety is the shared belief that team members feel safe to take risks.

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Behavioral scientist Amy Edmondson of Harvard first introduced the notion of “team psychological safety.” She found that those teams with members who feel comfortable speaking authentically with each other, even when expressing contrarian perspectives, are the teams most likely to try new things and outperform others.

This key insight from Edmundson’s research is backed by Google’s Project Aristotle. Google assessed the behaviors of 180 engineering and sales teams. They found that, again, psychological safety was the #1 determining factor for success.

Specifically, Google researchers found that individuals on teams with higher psychological safety:

  • are less likely to leave Google,

  • bring in more revenue,

  • and are rated as “effective” twice as often by executives.

Bam! How’s that for evidence?

Meet Adam Leonard, the Pro of Psychological Safety

Adam Leonard is a leadership and team development consultant within Google. He is responsible for translating insights into action and helping teams develop greater psychological safety within the organization.

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I had the fortunate opportunity to hear Adam speak recently about psychological safety at Esalen (with an impromptu dance party for my birthday after the talk!). Before I share some of Adam’s nuggets, I want to tell you a bit more about him.

Adam was first exposed to this concept while at Esalen 16 years ago as a work scholar. During the day, Adam worked as an organic farmer.  In the evenings, he studied with some of the leading Human Potential pioneers, experimenting with new transformative tools and practices. These psychologists and philosophers were inspired by Abraham Maslow’s psychology of self-actualization. They explored different forms of interaction, movement, and communication to see what works to help people feel comfortable quickly and learn from each other.

Later, while in grad school, Adam facilitated Esalen-style workshops and shared some of these practices with fellow students. Time and again he noticed how powerful these techniques were for helping groups of strangers feel comfortable and trusting.

Adam ultimately decided to forego a budding career in diplomacy to focus on how to enable people to do their best work together within organizations. According to Adam, because the workplace is where we spend most of our time, it is an opportune arena to help people learn and grow. He landed at Google in 2013 and has been there ever since.

5 Ways to Create Psychological Safety on Your Team

Adam shared five specific behaviors that build psychological safety at Google. They include:

  • Embrace Conflict

  • Distribute Decision-making

  • Encourage Diversity of Thought

  • Experiment

  • Practice Vulnerability

I detail these behaviors below.

Embrace Conflict

It is a myth that effective teams don’t fight.

These teams experience conflict - but the way they approach it is qualitatively different. They engage in what might be called “productive conflict.” They seek to understand each other’s perspectives without getting defensive or attached to specific ideas.

Distributed Decision-Making

The leaders of high performing teams don’t hide information. They also don’t try to convince the team that he or she has all the answers. High performing teams have open and transparent communication flows. They recognize that we work in complex environments - no one person has the exclusive authority on information and decisions. When teams work together from this premise, they are better able to coordinate action and drive value together.  

Diversity of Thought

Effective teams embrace diverse perspectives. Team members are encouraged to share their unique opinions, based on their vantage point and experience. At Google, certain teams are designed explicitly for cognitive diversity. At Google X, for example, new ideas are vetted through a team of “eccentric geniuses,” who critique and explore ides through multiple lenses. Those ideas that pass through this team then get a budget.

Experiment

Effective teams embrace experimentation and failure. They recognize that not all experiments work. If you’re engaging in 10x thinking, like Google does, then you need to make room for failure. Effective teams acknowledge and accept failure - as long as they learn from them and use these insights for further improvement.

Vulnerability of the Leader

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, effective teams are led by people who are open to being vulnerable. Unfortunately, most leaders don’t know how to do this well.

We often model leadership the way that we were led by others. Not many of us have experienced examples of leaders who know how to build and maintain authentic trust well.

So what does it mean to be vulnerable? Being vulnerable means admitting that you need help, that you don’t know all the answers, and that you sometimes make mistakes. Leaders who openly communicate these things without fear or shame encourage others on the team to do the same. And that is when the real magic happens.

So how do you increase the psychological safety of your team?

If you’re looking to increase the psychological safety of your team right away, practice being vulnerable. Open up. Admit failure. Ask for help. It can be truly eye-opening what happens when you show up in this way with your team.

Beyond this simple step, there is a more intentional way of building safety that involves running a short diagnostic and then designing and running a team experiment to improve certain dimensions of psychological safety.

In our work, we've found that implementing a few simple techniques can significantly improve the abilities of teams to hit goals AND continuously get better over time.