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build Tool: Foster psychological safety

Of the five key dynamics of effective teams that the researchers identified, psychological safety was by far the most important. The Google researchers found that individuals on teams with higher psychological safety are less likely to leave Google, they’re more likely to harness the power of diverse ideas from their teammates, they bring in more revenue, and they’re rated as effective twice as often by executives.

Organizational behavioral scientist Amy Edmondson of Harvard first introduced the construct of “team psychological safety” and defined it as “a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking.” Taking a risk around your team members may sound simple. But asking a basic question like “what’s the goal of this project?” may make you sound like you’re out of the loop. It might feel easier to continue without getting clarification in order to avoid being perceived as ignorant.

To measure a team’s level of psychological safety, Edmondson asked team members how strongly they agreed or disagreed with these statements:

  1. If you make a mistake on this team, it is often held against you.
  2. Members of this team are able to bring up problems and tough issues.
  3. People on this team sometimes reject others for being different.
  4. It is safe to take a risk on this team.
  5. It is difficult to ask other members of this team for help.
  6. No one on this team would deliberately act in a way that undermines my efforts.
  7. Working with members of this team, my unique skills and talents are valued and utilized.

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

  1. Frame the work as a learning problem, not an execution problem.
  2. Acknowledge your own fallibility.
  3. Model curiosity and ask lots of questions.

In promoting the results of Google’s research internally, the research team has been running workshops with teams. In the workshops, anonymized scenarios have been used to illustrate behaviors that can support and harm psychological safety. The scenarios are role-played and then the group debriefs. Here’s an example scenario:

Psychological Safety Scenario | Ideas & Innovation

Uli is a long time manager known for his technical expertise. For the past two years he’s worked as manager of team XYZ, which is responsible for running a large scale project. He upholds very high standards, but in the past few months Uli has become increasingly intolerant of mistakes, ideas he considers to be “underpar,” and challenges to his way of thinking.

Recently, Uli publically “trounced” an idea offered by an experienced team member and spoke very negatively about that person to the wider team behind their back. Everyone else thought the idea was strong, well-researched, and worth exploring. Ideas have since dried up.

Uli’s ideas drove the recent project proposal, but it was ultimately rejected by the executives because it lacked creativity and innovation.

Debriefing questions:

  • What behaviors do you see that reflect psychological safety?
  • What behaviors may signal that psychological safety is lacking in the scenario?
  • Why is psychological safety so important? What difference does it make in a team? What have you seen on your teams?

If you’re a manager, consider these recommendations when coaching team members and teammates.

Make it your own

Manager Actions for Psychological Safety

This guide can help managers think about how they model and reinforce psychological safety on their teams. Based on research, this guide offers actionable tips for managers and team members to help create team environments where everyone can contribute.

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