Cultivating Psychological Safety for High-Performing Teams

By Karen Carmody, MBA, PCC. Google conducted an extensive four-year study called Project Aristotle to determine what its best teams had in common. Google researchers identified that “psychological safety” was the most important characteristic of their most effective teams. The term psychological safety was first coined by Dr. Amy Edmondson, a scholar and Harvard Business School professor who published a study that proposed that regardless of its makeup, a team’s success will largely boil down to its members “tacit beliefs about interpersonal interaction,” and whether they have “a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking.” For more about team performance, read these select Arden Coaching blogs.

Neuroscience research shows that fear expends cognitive resources and redirects them from brain parts that process new information. When people experience fear, their ability to think analytically and problem solve is impaired. In other words, people are unable to do their best work when they are afraid.

Edmondson says a team can create psychological safety by doing the following:

  1. Set the Stage – Leaders need to communicate honestly and transparently about the risks the business faces. By raising awareness about volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) challenges, it underscores the rationale for team members to speak up and creates psychological safety. 
  2. Work to Learn – Leaders need to frame work as a learning problem instead of an execution problem. Creating an environment where team members are allowed to learn from their mistakes instead of being punished for them is a tenet of psychological safety. 
  3. Acknowledge Our Own Fallibility – Leaders need to role model, admitting their mistakes and making their commitment to identifying ways to learn and improve. This shows team members that they do not know everything and that they are not perfect.
  4. Be Curious – Leaders need to proactively ask team members questions to solicit their observations and ideas. This provides the necessity for team members to speak up. It will signal to them that feedback and input is welcome and will increase the likelihood of them taking risks.

Psychological safety fosters collaboration, encourages innovation, supports productive conflict, mitigates failure, and increases accountability on a team. With so many teams working remotely and with increased stress and uncertainty from the global pandemic, the need for psychological safety has been heightened. 

To learn more about creating psychological safety and developing your high-performing teams, schedule a consultation with Karen.