Psychological safety key to creating strong teams 

How Google explored the scientific factors that drive behaviour in successful teams.

When people work together as a team in every endeavour of life they tend to achieve more than individuals. Most organisations have a budget item for team building every year. What is surprising, though, is that most of the team building interventions fail because most executives and consultants introducing such interventions do not understand the science behind teamwork. In this article, I am going to share with you what science and research say about working together in teams. 

In 2012, Google sought to understand how teams function and embarked on a project named Project Aristotle. They based this project on results from what scientific research had found about teams. They studied all the factors that are normally considered when building teams; personality variables like whether the people are outgoing, demographic variables and the level of interaction and collaboration among team members. They looked at more than 180 teams within the organisation and how they worked. They collected an enormous amount of data about each of these teams and the results are amazing. 

They discovered that the key driver of high performing teams was something called psychological safety.

Harvard Professor Amy Edmondson (1999) says “Psychological safety is a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes.” 

My consulting experience leads me to agree with this finding. I have observed people in group meetings, for example, where they “agree” with the leadership on issues being discussed but then start raising serious concerns and misgivings about what was proposed as soon as they step out of the meeting.

I have often heard phrases like “it does not work”, “it’s a waste of time” and other such statements, which reflect a culture that does not tolerate divergent views, especially when those views do not support the leadership’s proposals. As a result, such people will not support whatever cause the leadership is trying to advance. They will support the cause when the leader is present, but in private they will be doing everything possible to discredit the proposals.

In order to foster psychological safety in a team, you need to allow team members to voice concerns and give each other feedback in the presence of everyone without fear of retribution. You must create an environment where team members are able to acknowledge their own mistakes without being punished for disclosing those mistakes. 

The team leader and all team members must create an environment that allows individual team members to take ownership of issues. Blaming others or the environment is unlikely to create the psychological safety required for the team to function effectively.  

There is a lot that can be done to create psychological safety that will make sure your teams succeed. Project Aristotle by Google pointed out that, out of all the other important factors about working with a successful team, psychological safety was the most important of all of them. Before you embark on that team-building exercise, do an assessment of psychological safety and work on gaps identified before wasting money climbing mountains and other such activities aimed at building teams.

Reliability and purpose 

In the same study, Google identified other factors that are important albeit less influential than psychological safety. They discovered that the team needs to have dependable team members who will deliver on their promises for the team to be successful. If team members are not reliable, renege on their side of the agreed goals and targets, the team will not succeed. This includes team members honouring their commitment to delivering high-quality work for the benefit of the team.

They also identified goal clarity as one of the drivers of successful teams. When the goals for the team are clear and how each individual team member will contribute to the success, the team will succeed. 

In practice, teams are set up with goals that are imposed and not agreed upon. Naturally, the team members do not take ownership of such goals. 

The third factor was whether individuals feel that what they are working on is personally meaningful. When tasks are being allocated, it is important to show that they are meaningful to the individuals working on them. 

When individuals see no connection between what they are working on and what they see as things of value they will not put 100 percent effort towards the achievement of such goals.  

The fourth driver of team success whether the team members believe that the work they are doing matters? I have seen people working on tasks but asking ‘why? What is the value?’ When such questions are being asked by team members, you will have problems with the team achieving its goals.

Given that this is what science says about successful teams, how have you been incorporating these findings in your team-building efforts? If you fail to heed what scientific research says, you may be wasting your time and money embarking on team-building exercises. It is very possible that your team-building efforts can be structured in such a way that all the drivers of successful teams are incorporated in your team-building program. I am sure for those who have attended team building sessions; sometimes come back to the office feeling as if nothing has changed. So why repeat the same unsuccessful ways for building teams?