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Your Team Is Best When It Is "Psychologically Safe"

March 29th, 2016
teamworkWhy do some teams succeed and others don't?

It's a question that elicits as many different answers as there are managers answering it. Most tempting is to say that the best teams are composed of the smartest, most able people. But that's not always true. In fact, as Google discovered when it set out to discover the formula for team success, bringing together the smartest, most productive and most efficient workers may actually be more likely to result in just the opposite.

What makes for success, Google found, is "psychological safety." First described by Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson in a 1999 study, psychological safety is "a team climate characterized by interpersonal trust and mutual respect in which people are comfortable being themselves."

Achieving that may mean setting aside some cherished, if mistaken beliefs about the nature of group productivity. Groups that get right down to business with little chit-chat and stay on topic may actually be less successful than those who share personal details and periodically go off on tangents.

Don't take that to mean meetings should be unfocused. When Google rediscovered Edmondson's psychological safety it found that when team members felt they could share without fear of embarrassment or rejection, and they were sensitive to each other's moods and emotional state, they were more productive and most often successful.

How do managers encourage this psychological safety? Inc writer Susan Steinbrecher suggests starting with these four phrases:
  1. What can I do to help? Your team will interpret this as meaning you want the team to succeed and you are willing to help make this happen. But, it can't be an empty gesture. You must follow through.
  2. I trust your decision. Trust is an important ingredient in all management. Knowing they have your trust means the team can takes risks without worrying you will second-guess them.
  3. What can I do differently? No one is perfect; don't pretend to be. Asking this question empowers your team to tell you what you can do to help them. Take it to heart and you'll be a better manager.
  4. What do you think is our best course of action? Everyone has an opinion, so by asking for theirs you show you value views besides your own. Besides earning their respect, you're very likely to discover better ways of handling a project or tackling an issue.

Image: David Castillo Dominici /

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