Leading Through Trust Series: Safety

Why building psychological safety in teams in your most important job!

In previous posts of this six-part series, we have explored Trust, Transparency and Relationships.

What is it and why you should care

Psychological safety has become more prominent in recent times, partially at least due to a study done by Google on its own teams.

The best companies are made up of great teams. Even the most talented people won’t succeed if those individuals don’t have the ability to work well together. This is why Google set about makes a team successful in a project codenamed Project Project Aristotle, a tribute to the philosopher’s famous quote “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”

To define “effectiveness,” the team decided on assessment criteria that measured both qualitative and quantitative data. They analysed dozens of teams and interviewed hundreds of executives, team leads and team members. So, what did they find?

Project Aristotle

The researchers found that what really mattered was less about who is on the team, and more about how the team worked together. And surprise, surprise, what mattered most was trust. And what was the most important factor contributing to a team’s effectiveness? It was psychological safety.

Simply put, psychological safety refers to an individual’s perception of taking a risk, and the response his or her teammates will have to taking that risk.

In a team with high psychological safety, teammates feel safe to take risks around their team members. They feel confident that no one on the team will embarrass or punish anyone else for admitting a mistake, asking a question, or offering a new idea.

In other words, great teams thrive on trust.

Digging Deeper on Psychological Safety?

Ancient evolutionary adaptations explain why psychological safety is both fragile and vital to success in uncertain, interdependent environments. The brain processes a provocation by a boss, competitive co-worker, or dismissive subordinate as a life-or-death threat. The amygdala, the alarm bell in the brain, ignites the fight-or-flight response, hijacking higher brain centres. This “act first, think later” brain structure shuts down perspective and analytical reasoning. Quite literally, just when we need it most, we lose our minds. While that fight-or-flight reaction may save us in life-or-death situations, it handicaps the strategic thinking needed in today’s workplace.

While we’ll go in the ‘how’ of psychological safety in a future post, here are lessons learnt from the Google study:


#1: Approach conflict as a collaborator, not an adversary.

We humans hate losing even more than we love winning. A perceived loss triggers attempts to re-establish fairness through competition, criticism, or disengagement, which is a form of workplace-learned helplessness.

#2: Speak human to human.

Underlying every teams who-did-what confrontation are universal needs such as respect, competence, social status, and autonomy.

#3: Anticipate reactions and plan countermoves.

“Thinking through in advance how your audience will react to your messaging helps ensure your content will be heard, versus your audience hearing an attack on their identity or ego.

#4: Replace blame with curiosity.

If team members sense that you’re trying to blame them for something, you become their sabre-toothed tiger. John Gottman’s research at the University of Washington shows that blame and criticism reliably escalate conflict, leading to defensiveness and — eventually — to disengagement. The alternative to blame is curiosity. If you believe you already know what the other person is thinking, then you’re not ready to have a conversation. Instead, adopt a learning mindset, knowing you don’t have all the facts.

#5: Ask for feedback on delivery.

Asking for feedback on how you delivered your message disarms your opponent, illuminates blind spots in communication skills, and models fallibility, which increases trust in leaders.

#6: Measure psychological safety.

Ask your team periodically how safe they feel and what could enhance their feeling of safety.

If you create this sense of psychological safety on your own team starting now, you can expect to see higher levels of engagement, increased motivation to tackle difficult problems, more learning and development opportunities, and better performance.

In our next post in the series, we will go in to this more deeply.


Further References 

Google project results.

Reference to learn more about the six measures: High-Performing Teams Need Psychological Safety. Here’s How to Create It https://hbr.org/2017/08/high-performing-teams-need-psychological-safety-heres-how-to-create-it 4/5

Leading Through Trust Series: Safety