I remember a job I had wherein my boss assigned me a project focused on using a new technology on a very tight deadline – when I expressed my concern about being able to both learn and produce the end product on time and in a quality way, his flush-faced response was essentially, damn it, what am I paying you for? This is your responsibility to figure out! Not exactly a reassuring response to a fresh-faced college kid with little experience in the corporate world – and who had no prior training in the area of the assigned project.
Not surprisingly, this colored many of my future interactions wherein I would often avoid questions and pretend to understand. Moreover, I was hesitant to question my boss’s decisions, even if I felt there were errors in his thinking.
This, of course, is not a healthy business environment. It creates anxiety for workers and can lead to massive, costly mistakes. Neither the workers nor the manager is benefiting from this situation.
Amy Edmondson, current Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at Harvard, came across a phenomenon that ties into my story above when conducting a research project as a grad student. She had been studying medical teams within a few hospitals where she planned on documenting the correlation between high-performing teams and their lack of mistakes. In particular, she was studying human error in the application of medications.
To her obvious surprise, she essentially found the opposite was true. The highest performing teams most often reported more errors than less accomplished teams. Obviously, this was quite the head scratcher.
After turning the problem over in her mind for a while, the light bulb finally turned on. The issue wasn’t that the top performing teams were necessarily making more mistakes, it’s that they were acknowledging and reporting mistakes and shortcomings more often.
Essentially, there was a safe space for admitting to errors. For this reason, Professor Edmondson coined the term psychological safety.
In her insightful TED Talk, she goes on to define it as this:
“Psychological safety is a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes.”
According to Edmondson, from a very early age, many of us are essentially trained to avoid looking ignorant, incompetent, intrusive, or negative. To do this we avoid asking questions, admitting to weaknesses or mistakes, offering ideas, or critiquing the status quo. This is due to negative experiences in our past, so instead, we seek to protect ourselves in a manner that is referred to as impression management.
It’s obvious how this can be detrimental in a corporate environment, where there can be costly missteps and mistakes. But consider environments such as medicine or the military, where lives are often at stake.
The cost of not having psychological safety is a loss of opportunity to learn something new. And one can extrapolate from this that we’re more likely to repeat errors because of this very fact.
In a coincidental stroke of fate confirming Edmondson’s findings, Google, in its dogged pursuit of creating the most effective teams, landed upon the concept of psychological safety. Though it certainly wasn’t easy for Project Aristotle, the namesake of Google’s research group undertaking this task.
First of all, their assumptions were likewise shattered, similar to Edmondson. They first thought of things that might tie team members together, like similar educational backgrounds, whether group members hung out after work, shared hobbies, or had equal levels of extroverted or introverted-ness. Curiously, none of these things seemed to be a good determinant.
As the manager from Google’s People Analytics division, Abeer Dubey, said in a fantastic New York Times Article, ‘‘We had lots of data, but there was nothing showing that a mix of specific personality types or skills or backgrounds made any difference. The ‘who’ part of the equation didn’t seem to matter.’’
High performing teams varied so much in their composition that it made pattern-finding – a specialty of Google – frustratingly difficult. Over time, though, a couple of important traits emerged.
First of all, successful teams had a roughly equal distribution in talking time between its members. So essentially, everyone gets to speak their piece. People might contribute their ideas and thoughts at different times, or on tangents to the subject at hand, but in general, everyone speaks about the same amount of time.
Secondly, there was a high level of “average social sensitivity,” which is basically a component of emotional intelligence that relates to reading people’s emotions through nonverbal cues, such as vocal inflection, facial expressions, body language, etc. A great way of judging your own abilities in this regard is to take the “Mind in the Eyes” test, as mentioned in our post about creating high performing teams. In it you are shown pictures of people’s eyes while they are experiencing a variety of emotions and you are tasked with choosing which emotion the person in the picture is experiencing.
After finding Edmondson’s research, Google’s researchers came to realize that both of the two traits above were related to the concept of psychological safety that she had stumbled upon during her hospital studies.
What’s interesting about these groups with high levels of psychological safety is that from the outside, they may not actually seem that productive. Members sometimes speak over one another, conversations are often taken on tangents, and there is plenty of personal sharing and gabbing. However, versus a rigid and formal group, the group with this feeling of psychological safety is actually much more effective. They jell better and are able to anticipate other’s thoughts, more easily connecting dots and conveying concerns, new thoughts, and potentially genius, yet outlandish-sounding ideas. This can be eye-opening to managers who have a biased idea of what an effective team looks and sounds like.
How to Create Psychological Safety
Edmondson has three recommendations for helping to improve the feeling of psychological safety within a group.
First of all, framing is important. When challenges or errors come up, it should be framed as a learning problem – how can we figure out a solution? Traditionally, mistakes are seen as an execution problem – someone or a few people did something wrong. This is the wrong approach in that it avoids great opportunities for learning.
Second, managers need to be able to admit their own fallibility. This will, in turn, trickle down to other team members. People will be more willing to discuss their own weaknesses, or admit that they actually don’t know something and seek help or do more research.
Third of all, it’s important for managers to create an atmosphere of curiosity. It’s essential to show that asking lots of questions is good. Group members need to feel safe to ask questions, no matter how trivial or grandiose they may seem. Questions can expose areas of weakness, but also reveal opportunities – and they almost always lead to an opportunity for learning.
Google found that showing a sensitivity to needs and feelings was important to building psychological safety. Of course, this can be a challenge in an organization so full of engineers who, stereotypically, avoid the mushy stuff. However, Project Aristotle’s data-driven approach showed metrics emphasizing the need for sharing and opening up – and Googlers love data enough to trust in it, and share more. This enables teams to talk about norms and address some of the things that Edmondson has outlined, in addition to making sure everyone is heard.
By implementing these suggestions in your own organization, you can not just increase the psychological safety felt by your employees, but build the kind of culture where people feel engaged and primed for success.
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