At Google, leadership was unsure why some of their teams were high performing while others struggled to meet goals, so they launched Project Aristotle to research and determine which factors contributed to greater collaboration. To their surprise, they were able to rule out any strong patterns or correlations between racial or gender dynamics, personality types, experience levels, or education. Instead, “group norms,” or the group’s unwritten rules, had a profound influence on behavior. The most influential norm was the presence of psychological safety or the “shared belief... that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking” according to Amy Edmondson, a professor at Harvard Business School. When psychological safety was present, teams were able to accomplish more, faster, because they knew they could rely on one another for support.
How can you tell if your team feels psychologically safe? Looks for these three signs:
- Everyone in the group speaks up equally. Individuals feel confident that the team will not embarrass, reject, or punish each other for speaking up. The most successful teams allow every member a chance to share their input, rather than one person dominating conversations.
- Conversation is candid. Because the best teams feel safe sharing their thoughts, they are able to be more direct. These teams are also comfortable sharing personal stories and will band together even more so afterward.
- Finally, high “social sensitivity” is demonstrated. Successful teams are better able to read each other’s social cues and emotions and respond appropriately. This "soft skill" was present in nearly all the successful teams at Google.
Takeaway: Prioritize creating a safe environment for your team to get the best results from them. Monitor personal interactions and chat with team members (or collect anonymous surveys, if necessary) to gauge the overall level of trust and comfort. While establishing trust takes time, try this quick exercise to begin to encourage empathy.