tl;dr: Strive for a team with a strong foundation of social intelligence and psychological safety. Your team will be more collaborative, open about weaknesses, and will focus on what’s most important for the team, not individual egos. Some simple approaches to building psychological safety you can try right away.
As managers, we all want high-performing teams. Just like 10x engineers, 10x teams make a huge difference in the success of a business. But what makes one team more productive than another? Is it the combined intelligence of its members? Is there an ideal mix of gender and age?
Google recognized the value of its high-performing teams so much that they invested hundreds of hours of research in order to figure out what makes a team more effective than the next. The project was known as “Aristotle.” Google’s researchers collected mounds of data on their teams, including factors like team size and individual members’ backgrounds.
What they ultimately found was that the “who” of a team didn’t really matter. How the team interacted was a much stronger indicator of performance. These behavioral standards and unwritten rules regulating how we act within a team are called “group norms.”
Aristotle researchers found a few group norms common to Google’s high-performing teams. The first relates to how much each team member speaks, a.k.a. “equality in distribution of conversational turn-taking.” On high-performing teams, members spoke in roughly equal amounts. For some teams, this meant people took turns leading conversations. On other teams, each member spoke equally during each meeting or each task. What really mattered was whether talk-times evened out at the end of the day.
The second group norm relates to empathy and being able to sense how others feel based on signals like tone of voice, facial expressions, and body language. Employees on high-performing teams demonstrated a higher level of what psychologists call social sensitivity, or intuiting how others feel. Google researchers tested this with an exam known as the “Reading the Mind in the Eyes” test. It involves showing someone photos of people’s eyes and asking them to describe what the people are thinking or feeling. Members of the high-performing teams scored above average on the test; members on low-performing teams scored below average.
The third and most important aspect of a high-performing team, according to Aristotle research, is psychological safety.
Psychological safety is defined by Harvard Business School professor Amy C. Edmondson as a “shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.” It entails “a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject or punish someone for speaking up”, Edmondson wrote in a study published in 1999. “It describes a team climate characterized by interpersonal trust and mutual respect in which people are comfortable being themselves.” On high-performing teams, members feel they can take risks without fear of being sidelined.
Patrick Lencioni and The Table Group found similar results in their research on the development of teams. In their book The 5 Dysfunctions of Teams, two of the five dysfunctions relate to missing psychological safety.
The first dysfunction is lack of trust, which manifests in many ways. One way is that team members conceal their weaknesses and mistakes from one another instead of working together to overcome them. This lack of trust leads to increased fear—fear of judgment, backlash, or punishment. This also means members hesitate to ask for help when it’s needed, or conversely, offer help to others.
Lack of trust leads to people jumping to conclusions about others’ intentions, without trying to clarify them. Not surprisingly, those conclusions are often negative. These misinterpretations, coupled with dysfunctional teams’ tendency to hold grudges, leads to a snowball effect that worsens over time. Eventually you’ll see team members avoiding spending time together and dreading every meeting.
The second team dysfunction that relates to psychological safety is the fear of conflict. People often want to avoid conflict and yet it can be very healthy for a team to openly discuss their disagreements in order to come to a shared understanding. If your team meetings are routinely boring, chances are your team is suffering from conflict avoidance—and not as effective as it could be.
We’ve all sat in meetings where it’s obvious there is some disagreement but nobody wants to speak up. The silence is deafening, even distracting. Controversial topics critical to team success are never raised, and the team loses out on hearing all of the members’ differing opinions and perspectives.
Engineering Psychological Safety
So what do you do if you sense a lack of psychological safety on your team? Here are some techniques and exercises you can try:
Show Vulnerability as the Leader
One of the simplest ways you can start to build psychological safety in your team is to show vulnerability. Being vulnerable as a leader helps people realize that you’re also dealing with challenges, just like they are. You’ll form stronger relationships with your teammates.
Try opening up about a challenge you are facing, or something difficult in your personal life. Ask someone for help or take responsibility for something that went wrong. Showing that you have weaknesses, make mistakes, and aren’t too proud to ask for help will encourage your team members to open up in the same way.
Share Personal Histories
The Personal Histories exercise comes from The 5 Dysfunctions of Teams and allows members the opportunity to be vulnerable in a low-risk way and understand one another on a more personal level. The goal of building that understanding is to help the team avoid making false assumptions about other people’s behavior and intentions.
The exercise has everyone in the room answer the following three questions:
- Where did you grow up?
- How many siblings do you have, and where do you fall in that order?
- Please describe a unique or interesting challenge or experience from your childhood.
You can customize the questions if you’d prefer. The point of the exercise is to get people to share something deep, something that will foster basic human understanding. After the exercise is complete, ask team members to share what they learned about one another that they didn’t already know.
Team Effectiveness Exercise
The goal of this exercise—also from “The 5 Dysfunctions of Teams—is to allow team members to give one another direct and actionable feedback on their performance and help them understand how their performance affects the team. If you’ve ever been part of a Scrum team, you may find some similarities here with a sprint retro, except this exercise is a little more personal.
Have each team member write down answers to these two questions:
- What is each person’s single most important behavior that increases the strength of the team?
- What is each person’s single most important behavior that decreases the strength of the team?
Once everyone has written down their answers, start by reading out the behaviors that increase team strength, beginning with your answers. Go around the room and have all team members read their answers aloud. Ask for clarifying information where necessary. Next, again starting with you, read the behaviors that decrease team strength. At the end of the exercise, ask everyone to summarize what they heard from the team and the one or two key takeaways about their performance they plan to work on.
When you begin building up the psychological safety of your team, you’ll notice positive behavioral changes. Team members will be more willing to admit to their weaknesses and mistakes. You’ll hear them ask for help and be less defensive when questioned about their areas of responsibility.
Greater mutual trust will also lead to a more open and collaborative environment, where the team feels almost like a family. Gone will be time wasted on self-preservation, posturing, and politics. Your team will focus on the important issues, and tackle the challenging issues head-on.
That open communication is critical to the team’s (and your) success. It’s worth it to strive to create an environment that respects group norms and instills a sense of psychological safety. You won’t merely increase your odds of leading a high-performing team. You’ll probably have fewer boring meetings as well.
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