The Case for Psychological Safety in the Workplace

April 3, 2023

by John O. Burdett

A two-year study, involving hundreds of interviews, looked at the factors that made up a successful team. Psychological safety was deemed, by far, the most significant.

Factors That Make a Successful Team

Starting in 2012, a two-year study by Google, involving hundreds of interviews, looked at the factors that made up a successful team. “Project Aristotle” identified 250 team attributes. Five were discovered to have primacy:

  1. Psychological safety;
  2. Team members trust each other to achieve goals at a level of excellence;
  3. Clear roles and goals;
  4. Personal meaning in the work; and
  5. Overall purpose.

Of the five, psychological safety was deemed, by far, the most significant.

The Google study found that team members who felt safe with each other – were willing to speak out, challenge one another, and take personal risk – admitted mistakes, were more likely to partner with each other, took on new roles, were open to new ideas and asked challenging questions. No less important, there was also a strong correlation with retention.

The Power of Psychological Safety

Psychological safety goes beyond the belief that you can speak up without being punished. It’s the courage to speak to power. It’s an invitation to be the stick that stirs the contentious pot. It’s to fill the space when the silence in the room carries the message “step carefully.” It’s to nurture the maverick on the team.

Psychological safety shouldn’t be confused with complaint or disruption. It defines informed and respectful interruption. Those who make a difference not only state their concerns, but they also have an answer when someone else on the team asks, “What do you think we should do about it?” And the best way to ensure people take note of what you have to say? Pave the way by being a great listener. We are copying machines. When we listen, we facilitate listening in others.

Psychological safety is reinforced when the team leader lets others speak first; when new team members are effectively integrated; when the body language of the informal leaders in the room invite input; when those who prefer to stay on the periphery of the team are invited to speak; when provocative questions are affirmed; and when appropriate humour enters the picture. The right humour, at the right time, can defuse tension, stimulate people’s more playful selves, reinforce recognition and lower the emotional temperature in the room. But it’s got to be the right humour at the right time.

There is also considerable value in providing team members with a rich synopsis of the topics to be discussed at the meeting ahead of time. Ask Amazon. A six-page memo lays out the problem, the different approaches and how various solutions would serve the customer. Setting the scene ahead of time overcomes a common issue.

Teams That Play Together, Stay Together

If you give a typical team a problem, they jump right in. The outcome dominates everything else. It’s a mad dash to a solution. Process, building on individual strengths, working together as a team, exploring different scenarios and/or learning from past experience are pushed aside. By comparison, successful leaders are readers. Challenge creates commitment. Information informs inclusion. Process prompts productive outcomes. Reflection realises richer results.

It’s worth emphasising that psychological safety isn’t just another way to say, “Be nice to each other.” Teams that play together, stay together. That doesn’t mean they are playing lawn bowls. There are times, in a successful team, when it’s more like rugby football – scrums, hard tackles passing the ball backward and kicking for touch. Once described as “a game of ruffians played by gentlemen,” one of the enduring traditions of rugby is that, after the rough and tumble, everyone meets in the bar for a beverage. “Kiss and drink up.”

In his book Think Again (2021), Adam Grant describes his research with hundreds of new teams in Silicon Valley. Building on the work of Australian psychologist, Karen Jehn, he studied two kinds of conflict: relationship and task. What he found was:

  1. Successful teams had low relationship conflict and high task conflict; and
  2. Poor performing teams were held back by interpersonal conflict.

If you are the team leader and “when” or “how” is the issue, let the team work it out. If it’s about relationships, however, address the issue before the conflict becomes entrenched.

This article is an extract from “Psychological Safety: Without It, You Ain’t Got Much!“, © Orxestra® Inc.

John O. Burdett is founder of Orxestra® Inc. He has extensive international experience as a senior executive. As a consultant he has worked in more than 40 countries for organisations that are household names. John has worked on organisation culture for some of the world's largest organisations. His ongoing partnership with TRANSEARCH International means that his thought leading intellectual property, in any one year, supports talent management in many hundreds of organisations around the world. Get in touch with John O. Burdett »

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