Psychological Safety in Workgroups & Teams

October 25, 2018

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.

Valuing Diverse Personality Types in Workgroups

September 10, 2013

Today’s workgroups are made up of people from a variety of cultures, ethnicities, ages, and backgrounds. They also include different personalities.

High performing workgroups are those that embrace and leverage these personality differences in order to achieve outstanding results.

In my line of work I use many diagnostic tools and assessments to help evaluate clients in the environment where they work. These can be useful as they provide valuable insight into how individuals differ from the people they work with most closely.

Each of these tools and assessments typically involve a four square grid where people are placed in one specific quadrant. Yes, they put people into boxes, but more importantly, they provide a common vocabulary in order to converse about what it means to be different.

Not better or worse, just different in how we think, respond and operate in the world.

This common vocabulary can then enable better understanding and ultimately movement with regard to changing behavior to help improve communication, engagement, collaboration, and overall efficiency in the workplace.

Whether using the popular Meyers-Briggs Type Indicator, Keirsey Temperament Sorter, DISC profile or any number of tools, the fundamental principle of all models basically provide four types of personalities—expressive, analytical, driven and social.

Each personality type is valuable to the success of a team. All of them are vital to getting things done. And the team’s leader can come from any of them.

Most importantly, it is the dynamic interplay between these four types that make a team of people truly creative in finding and implementing effective solutions.

You can find examples of these four personality types in every workplace, even popular television shows. Think of Seinfeld where Kramer is the expressive, burst in to rooms, big personality; George is the analytical, wanting to know all aspects of a situation before making a decision to act; Elaine is the driven, assertive person who can never find a man smart enough and rich enough; Jerry is the social, friendly guy who brings together and maintains the cohesiveness of the group.

After first identifying our own type and realizing the gifts and challenges it provides, next comes understanding the value of the other types and appreciating how they can also contribute to team results.

Jim Collins, author of the best-selling Good to Great, says it’s not only important to get the right people on the bus, but to get each of them in the right seat on the bus.

Without making too much of an over generalization, different personality types lend themselves to different work. Those who are the analytical type may not be happy or successful in a traditional sales or public relations position. An expressive or social type may find a research position far too confining.

In the words of Albert Einstein, “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”

A workgroup must take into account how the work is shared among diverse personality types. Just because one person has a certain job title or job function doesn’t mean he or she should be confined to that specific work. Let your team members determine how best to accomplish the work.

For any whole to be greater than the sum of its parts requires maximizing the potential of each individual and leveraging the efficiencies found in true collaboration.

In their book Extraordinary Groups: How Ordinary Teams Achieve Amazing Results, Geoffrey Bellman and Kathleen Ryan write “extraordinary groups cultivate a positive mind-set about differences, choosing to see them as intriguing, informative, and essential—rather than irritating, divisive or threatening.”

Bellman and Ryan found in their research of extraordinary groups that this ability to express and work with these differences as critical to their success. Holding these differences in a way all individuals can move forward together rather than pulling the group apart is a core distinction between an ordinary and an extraordinary group.

To enable more creative and innovative solutions to business problems requires utilizing the creative potential of diverse personalities in workgroups. This means not only welcoming and respecting our differences, but also learning to collaborate with and maximizing the collective wisdom found in this mix.

Trust, Direction and Support in Group Development

December 10, 2009

Bruce Tuckman’s model for group development goes a long way in helping to define the evolutionary process of effective workgroups. According to Tuckman, successful workgroups go through the following phases in this order: forming, storming, norming and performing. These four steps are necessary and inevitable for groups to grow, face challenges, tackle problems, find solutions, and deliver results. Group members who understand this model can face the storming phase with a little less stress. Group leaders should also understand how trust, direction and support shift throughout this group development process.

As you might expect, trust is absolutely essential for any group to be effective. In fact, some might argue that trust can often mean the difference between success and failure. Group leaders should be aware that the forming phase of group development is when group members are assessing leadership. This assessment includes whether or not they can trust the leader of their group. Establishing trust is especially important at this time because the next phase is when the leader may very well be the only one who is trusted. Storming is when people are least likely to get along and are looking for someone to hold the group together. A leader who inspires trust can help weather the storm. Once the group successfully passes through this storming phase, they can transition to the norming phase. The norming phase is when group members learn to trust the process and this can happen only if they pass through the storming phase effectively. Finally, the performing phase is when group members learn to trust each other. This shared trust, gained through group experiences in the previous phases, significantly enable optimal group performance.

It can also be especially helpful to look at how a leader’s direction and support are applied during each stage of group development. The direction and support I am speaking of here are based on those of the Situational Leadership Model developed by Ken Blanchard and Paul Hersey. In this model the direction and support an employee requires from his manager shifts as the employee learns his or her job. In a similar manner, the collective group’s need for this direction and support also changes depending on what stage of development the group is in.

The forming phase of a group is when direction is especially important in order to establish the necessary groundwork so the group can be productive. This is when a leader must lay out clear goals and objectives for the group as well as establish specific roles and responsibilities for each member. As I mentioned earlier, this is an especially important time for the leader to inspire trust. Support is not so important at this time. On the other hand, the storming phase is when a leader is looked to for both direction and support. Storming is when the group is most volatile and vulnerable. This combination of clear direction as well as unwavering support for each member helps the group to continue in the face of such a challenging time. Leaders who are able to balance this dual need for both high levels of direction and support enable the group to move forward to the norming phase. Norming is when the need for direction is low and support is high. This is a time when the group is finding its way and each member needs a high level of support to inspire confidence so he or she can carry out the group’s objectives effectively. It is a time when good leaders are able to inspire group members and help them become solid performers. The final stage of performing is when an effective leader’s need for both direction and support are low because of the work done previously. In the performing phase, theoretically all members of the group are now competent and confident in their ability to carry out the group’s goals and objectives.

Group leaders who understand the importance of trust throughout the four phases of group development can improve overall group performance. Gaining trust must be earned, of course, but the sooner this can be accomplished within a group setting, the smoother the transition through these phases. In the same way, a better understanding of when to apply higher levels of direction and support to group members can also improve the passage through the phases of group development. Trust, direction and support all play a role in engaging employees and the wise leader knows how to apply them in a workgroup setting.

Mark Craemer                     

Dipping Below the Waterline

November 29, 2009

My wife and I recently got married and we merged her 9-year-old with my twin 5-year-olds to form one larger family. The roles for all five of us needed to be redefined because of this big and wonderful change in the way we live. The old way of doing things needed to be updated. And despite the fact that this family merger was extremely good for each of us individually and collectively, adjusting to the changes required paying close attention to both the mechanics as well as the emotions involved. The changes required ongoing discussion and clarification of our new roles and responsibilities within this family group.

Regular clarification and discussion around changing roles and responsibilities should also take place in workgroups where new members join and others leave or when there is a change in focus or direction. When a workgroup reaches a level of productivity that is no longer satisfactory is also an excellent time for this.

The Waterline Model (developed by Roger Harrison, Ron Short and John Scherer) is a useful diagnostic tool for helping such groups who seem to be working harder than ever yet not operating as effectively as possible. It is also useful when there is dissonance within the group that reduces overall efficiency. This is because groups often get stuck not because of technical issues, but because of structural problems with regard to goals and objectives or roles and responsibilities.

The Waterline Model’s notion of task versus maintenance is useful to keep in mind whenever you are working with a group of people. For instance, when your group is working to accomplish something but gets stuck, it is helpful to stop talking about the task at hand and drop under the waterline to talk about maintenance of the group. Maintenance, in this sense, means delving into the relational aspects within the group. It means talking about the feelings, attitudes or perceptions that are inhibiting you from doing your part to fully participate in accomplishing the group’s goals.

When a workgroup’s progress gets stymied, it is more often than not the roles and responsibilities of each member that needs to be examined. In fact, more than 80% of workgroup dysfunction can be associated to this lack of clarity. This is because members may not be clear at a given time on what they are each supposed to be doing to help meet the group’s objectives. Job titles and job descriptions only go so far in addressing this. Without greater clarification around the specific role each member plays and the associated responsibilities within that role, the group can continually spin its wheels or go entirely off track. And these roles and responsibilities will likely change over time.

Shifting the focus from task to maintenance means taking the necessary time to clarify the roles and responsibilities of each member of a group. Talk about what may be keeping individuals from doing their part to contribute to the group goals and objectives. Give every member of the group an opportunity to speak up and communicate what may be preventing him or her from doing their best. Though it may seem like you don’t have time for this, the task at hand will always take longer and the problems will go deeper below the waterline if not addressed. These problems deeper below the waterline include such things as group dynamics as well as interpersonal and intrapersonal problems. And these can take a lot longer to rectify.

So whenever your workgroup gets stuck, take the time to stop doing and start talking. Check in with individual members of the group to figure out what needs to be said to get things unstuck. Making time for this regular maintenance will make your tasks go that much smoother and more efficiently.

Mark Craemer                                                            

Effective Work Groups & Jazz

November 6, 2009

The other night a friend and I attended a concert featuring a jazz quartet. I was a bit disappointed with the overall performance, but couldn’t quite put into words why. My friend suggested there was a lack of “dialogue between the musicians.” All of them were technically proficient, he said, but it was as if they were each playing in a separate space with no notion of what the others were doing. The bass player kept an up tempo, but when the tenor saxophonist blew unexpected low notes, the drummer failed to echo back with a similar retort. The interplay lacked any depth because of missed opportunity for a dramatic call and response between the musicians. My friend’s explanation helped me appreciate the difference between a band simply playing a jazz composition and one creating a stirring and memorable performance.

It also made me think about how work groups can function well, but not necessarily thrive. For a work group to be especially effective there is also a requirement for dialogue among the individuals. Dialogue in this sense, however, is more than simply talking together. The kind of dialogue I’m suggesting for an effective group requires: 1) the opportunity for a personal check in with each other, 2) open ended questions that expand the conversation, 3) active listening that demonstrates true understanding, 4) brainstorming free from real-time editing, 5) embracing diversity to ensure all voices are heard, 6) resolving conflicts as they arise, and 7) resisting group think even when it is easiest to so.

Think about a time when you were part of a work group that was especially satisfying. I suspect there was something dynamic about the group. I further suspect it was satisfying because you accomplished your goals, overcame challenges, and everyone contributed to the success. More than likely, you were challenged and under stress, but were also stimulated because of the energy from the group.

Like the best jazz ensembles, effective work groups are dynamic, diverse, and challenging. A leader needs to provide the group with just enough structure to maintain focus without blocking creative thinking. Providing a safe and trusting environment can encourage individuals to play off each other’s ideas and build something greater than solo thinking alone. A certain synergy becomes present when everyone is actively involved and engaged in the work at hand. And this is worth striving for.

All work groups can be more effective. And it takes a concentrated effort by every member to actively participate in the dialogue to make it satisfying for everyone.

Mark Craemer