Most of the important things accomplished in the workplace as well as society are done not by individuals but by groups of people. Workgroups and teams at their best are able to accomplish far more than a collection of individuals on their own. Effective collaboration is essential and this begins with psychological safety.
Feeling psychologically safe in our environment is a basic requirement, yet all too often we may take this for granted. Think about the last time you joined a new team or workgroup. How long before you felt comfortable speaking up, challenging assumptions, and making mistakes? Maybe you still feel uncomfortable doing so.
When you feel unsafe due to negative or disrespectful behaviors in the group, you are unlikely to contribute effectively. On the other hand, when you do feel safe and comfortable to deliver your best self in a group setting, you are more likely to make contributions that benefit the group as a whole.
Group Norms Determine Performance
As I wrote about previously, researchers from Google’s Project Aristotle concluded that understanding and influencing group norms were key to improving Google teams. They determined that the right norms can raise a group’s collective intelligence, whereas the wrong norms can hobble a team—even if all the individual members are exceptionally bright.
Specifically, the researchers at Google found that group norms of 1) taking turns speaking and 2) listening with empathy were the most important factors for improving team outcomes.
Harvard Business School professor and author of the book Teaming, Amy Edmondson, found that when team members feel safe to take risks and be vulnerable in front of each other—what she terms psychological safety—this was by far the most important of five dynamics that set successful teams apart.
“Psychological safety makes it possible to give tough feedback and have difficult conversations without the need to tiptoe around the truth,” says Edmondson. “In psychologically safe environments, people believe that if they make a mistake, others will not penalize or think less of them for it.”
Psychologically Safe in Your Workgroup or Team
To determine the level of psychological safety in workgroups or teams in your workplace, look for signs of judgment, unsolicited advice giving, interrupting, or sharing outside the meetings. These things get in the way of psychological safety, according to researcher and author Brene Brown in her book Dare to Lead.
To counteract those behaviors and provide psychological safety, Brown suggests initiating and modeling behaviors that include listening, staying curious, being honest, and keeping confidences. Then and only then will all members of the group feel confident to speak up, offer new ideas, and challenge potential groupthink.
Highly effective workgroups and teams require trust, respect, cooperation and commitment. When people are able to take turns speaking and listening to each other with empathy, these group norms can bring about greater outcomes. First establishing psychological safety as a foundation to build upon is critical. Think safety first.