Is Psychological Safety the Key to Optimum Team Performance?

Fostering people skills in the workplace is becoming more and more relevant. People skills are those attributes that help us interact well with our colleagues and other members of our team. It's long been recognised that the teams who perform best enjoy good relationships amongst its members. But another factor is surfacing as a major component in team success. That factor is something called 'psychological safety.' A recent study by Google found that teams thrive and produce their best work inside a culture of psychological safety. According to the study, everyone in the workplace is responsible for promoting this culture, but it starts with management.

Hard or Soft Skills? Or Both?

 

Google's study aimed to find out what made their most effective teams different. The Internet giant initially assumed that the right combination of hard skills was key to outstanding teamwork. This turned out to be wrong. It became apparent during the study that soft skills had a huge impact on a team’s performance, and not just hard skills alone. The psychological safety phenomenon emerged as the leading criteria. Every top-performing team had it. Basically, psychological safety means that team members feel safe enough to take risks without fear of ridicule.

 

Google’s 2-year, extensive study also showed that dependability is crucial to team performance. Team members need to know they can rely on teammates to deliver work on time and to a high standard.

 

Clarity of goals is another big deal. Teams work best when goals are clearly defined, and a detailed plan is put in place to achieve those goals. Structure, the study found, is key to high performance and the delivery of quality work.

 

Meaningful Work Matters

 

Google discovered that when teams are busy with what every team member considers to be meaningful and important projects, they produce their highest quality work. Best results are obtained when everyone believes their role counts. Add the psychological safety factor into the mix and you have a team that can perform to extraordinary levels.

 

This doesn't happen overnight. Managers need to invest effort and time to build and maintain a culture of psychological safety for their teams. Arriving at a place where everyone feels they can take risks and trust one another not to judge or ridicule can be a slow process. But once you're there, your team can achieve great things.

 

Failure Can Be Positive Too

 

When people feel free to fail without being called a failure, amazing things happen. When failure is treated as an acceptable outcome, it causes the team to evolve, innovate and brainstorm fresh ideas. High performing teams are known to admit to more mistakes because they feel they’re in a safe environment.

 

A psychologically safe team will feel accepted and at ease. They are encouraged to openly share ideas, question decisions and confront managers if necessary. This allows individuals team members to be creative and innovative. In the ideal team, skills are complementary, with each member knowing their own strengths and weaknesses.

 

Fear of Ridicule Kills Potential

 

But what about those teams who have to operate in an environment without psychological safety? The lack of trust and security impacts the performance of the entire team to the extent that it can even harm the company's profit margins, Google found. Team members are reluctant to ask questions, brainstorm ideas, or verbalise their concerns. Very often, they are nervous about questioning dominant opinions. Passion and collaborative thinking ebbs and teams fail to realise their full potential, regardless of how talented individual team members might be.

 

Indicators of Psychological Safety

 

To get an idea of how psychologically safe your team environment is, look out for the indicators. Is your keen to question and experiment? Do they trust you and each other? How open-minded are individual team members?

 

Teams should show a willingness to change and be open to new perspectives. Individuals need to be motivated and have a sense of purpose in what they’re doing. When faced with confrontation or disagreement, they should be able to bounce back and overcome the conflict in an amicable way.

 

Ask Questions and Evaluate Feedback

 

To foster a sense of safety in your team, you need to ask questions and listen carefully to the answers. Question the team both as a group and as individuals. Ask for feedback on the levels of trust they feel in the team, and how free they feel to admit mistakes. How comfortable are they about sharing ideas? How inclusive is the team?

 

Your next step is to evaluate all information you receive from the feedback sessions. Is there trust in the team and in management? Is everyone comfortable to voice their opinions and ideas? The goal should be to create a channel of continuous, open communication about everything from methods to processes to goals.

 

The following are a few points to help managers focus while building a psychologically safe team:

 

1. Make it clear that mistakes are opportunities to learn

 

Encourage the team to try to understand what went wrong with a project instead of assigning blame. Teams often race to find a solution instead of first learning from the error. Spend a little time discussing what slipped up in the project without reprisal or blame.

 

2. Innovate and experiment

 

Support team members who experiment and explore new ideas. Encourage them to speak in terms of hypotheses rather than absolutes to soften the blow of ideas not working or being accepted. Make it easier for them to share more “out-of-the-box” ideas.

 

3. Be curious and humble

 

Set an example by starting discussions, pushing boundaries and questioning. Show your team that it’s safe to do these things and to be vulnerable. Admit it when you drop the ball and acknowledge your mistakes. Insist your team holds you accountable and encourage them to disagree respectfully.

 

4. Have those difficult conversations

 

Head-on confrontations with team individuals can be stressful. But they are essential for good team dynamics and can prevent small problems from getting out of hand.

 

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