To Unite Your Team, Build Psychological Safety (Team Series 1/10)

Regina Zafonte
5 min readDec 3, 2019

If somebody was to ask me about the most valuable skill you can develop to thrive in the work world — being an excellent team player is at the top. A company is not about individuals, it is about a team, and knowing how to work with others effectively will add tremendous value to your life and the lives of others.

On one end of the spectrum, there are dysfunctional teams where personal agendas prevail and sabotage occurs. On the opposite edge, there are great teams where everybody is growing, rowing in the same direction, and eliciting each other’s best. The most important part of a great team is that it can satisfy a fundamental human need, which is to feel a sense of belonging through community.

So, what are the magical ingredients that go into a high performing team? In 2012, Google embarked on a quest to find out the answer to that question — how to build the perfect team? They launched a major study codenamed Project Aristotle, inspired by the philosopher’s quote, “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” They spent two years studying 180 teams and concluded that excellent teams at Google have the following five components: psychological safety, dependability, structure and clarity, meaningful work, and impact.

#1 Quality Of A Great Team: Psychological Safety

Have you ever been in a room with your team where you wanted to contribute or speak against an idea, but you stopped yourself because you thought, this could be stupid, I could get laughed at, people will think I’m dumb, or aggressive, or something worse? So, you choose silence. You rob yourself of taking a risk and potentially innovating. This strategy works for you because you are protected from those doom and gloom scenarios that you conjured in your mind. Psychologist call this impression management, a conscious or subconscious process of regulating information in social settings.

Perhaps, a few seconds later, another part of you pushes through the discomfort and you speak up. Oops, your worst fear is realized as you are interrupted and even shunned. There is an absence of psychological safety, a climate where people feel comfortable being and expressing themselves. Harvard Business School Professor Amy Edmondson says psychological safety is the “belief that it’s absolutely okay, in fact, it’s expected, to speak up with concerns, questions, ideas, and mistakes.” Not having this condition can spell disaster, making teams rife with inefficiencies.

Unfortunately, most teams are not as psychologically safe. Gallup data reveals that just three in ten U.S. workers strongly agree that at work, their opinions seem to count. With no psychological safety, teams are holding back from interacting and potentially making mistakes. It is when the co-pilot does not feel comfortable telling the pilot that something is wrong, or it is when the nurse does not want to speak up in the operating room for fear of reprisal from the doctor so the patient’s wrong organ is extracted. Essentially, teams do not get to be at their best when they feel restrained.

In a fascinating challenge, Peter Skillman, former VP of Design at Palm and AuthorTom Wujec had a team-building competition where participants had to build a marshmallow tower made from spaghetti, tape, and string. The only requirement was that the marshmallow had to sit at the top. He ran this competition with different groups, such as kindergarteners, business school students, and lawyers. The winner…reaching a whopping 26 inches were kindergarteners, while the average score for business school students was 20 inches. This experiment showed that it is more about team interaction than the caliber of individual skill. Kindergartens’ felt comfortable to take chances, fall flat on their faces, and try again. There wasn’t even an incentive that they get to eat marshmallows if they won! Business students were censoring their actions, sizing up everybody’s power in the group, and holding back their experimental approaches. They were ensconced in too much drama and not enough risk-taking. The lawyers…well, they may have been more preoccupied with arguing in and out of their minds.

Edmondson has confirmed that psychological safety predicts quality improvements, learning behavior, and productivity. When there is an opportunity for you to speak and feel fully listened to, you are more likely to take risks without feeling insecure or embarrassed and know that even if you fail, your teammates and managers will have your back. Gallup data supports these benefits including, “a 27% reduction in turnover and a 12% increase in productivity.”

Ways To Build Psychological Safety:

In her TEDx talk, Edmondson offers three simple things individuals can do to foster team psychological safety:

1. Frame the work as a learning, not an execution problem. Recognizing that there is uncertainty and that all members are involved in figuring things out. Reminding your team that we need everybody’s brains and voices in the game.

2. Acknowledge your fallibility. Thinking you may not know everything, so being willing to listen fully to others is essential.

3. Model curiosity and ask questions. This practice creates an environment where people can always speak up when they have simple or complex questions. This can also lead to surprises that can surface exciting discoveries.

Being a part of a good team is a special experience because you get to be exactly who you are and have opportunities to grow in the process. Surrounding yourself with supportive high achievers will level up your abilities. The best teams have psychological safety, the conditions where you feel comfortable to take interpersonal risks and know there will be no consequences because it is an environment without judgment; those freewheeling contributions are necessary for innovation.

Quote of the day: “Alone we can do so little, together we can do so much.” -Helen Keller

Q: What does your manager do to build psychological safety in your team? Comment and share with us, we would love to hear from you?

[The next blog will explore the other characteristics that comprise excellence in teams]

Psychological safety is necessary for building excellent teams