Why psychological safety is the key to successful teamwork

18th May by Lee Robertson

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We talk a lot about the demise of hero leaders and rise of team-based leadership, but how healthy is the culture of teamwork in your organisation? Is there a true spirit of collaboration or a fiercely competitive edge disguising friction, a clash of personalities and difference in opinion?

Much has been written and shared about what the key ingredients are when it comes to putting together effective and high-performance teams, but two pieces of work stand out.

When Google decided it wanted to better understand what made its teams successful so it could replicate this across the business, Project Aristotle was born. It looked at what defined a team and effectiveness and then collected as much of a dataset as it could to measure effectiveness. In its conclusion, it found what really mattered was not so much who was on a team, but more about how the team worked together.

Its most striking finding was that psychological safety was the number one factor when it came to assembling the perfect team. In teams where psychological safety is high, the trend is for members to feel secure enough to take risks around their teammates. Everything functions well because the team members have a high level of confidence that they will not be embarrassed or persecuted for asking difficult questions, proffering new ideas or admitting to making mistakes. There is unequivocal trust with a complete absence of blame, and they have total dependability.

Other factors matter too, such as clarity and structure, meaning and impact, but the key learning is that for teams to be truly effective, they must have belief and faith in one another.

Microsoft’s more recent Art of Teamwork report also found that trust and vulnerability were key components in harnessing a team’s strengths. Microsoft like Google was also keen to understand what makes teams successful and, in its report, offers its findings as a toolkit to nurture and maintain healthy team dynamics.

The Art of Teamwork includes powerful case studies which share its learning and we see the importance of psychological safety through the eyes of the INOVA medical simulation centre where trust and vulnerability are exercised every day in building successful teams. Maybelle Kou, program director at INOVA is quoted as saying: “We create an environment where doctors can make mistakes without fear of repercussions. That’s an oxymoron in medicine where you are expected to be perfect, but humans make mistakes.” It is this ritual that prepares and enables doctors to work more successfully in real life situations.

Trust is knowing you can be vulnerable with someone and not get hurt, while vulnerability exposes our emotions and can show how much we might be struggling with an issue or trauma. Its significance to business is that those teams who are in a psychologically safe space are braver and as such, can take bigger risks and accomplish potentially more ambitious goals.

Psychological safety is just one strand of what binds effective teams together, but it is chief when it comes to engagement and allowing a team to work together to realise its highest potential.

When a workplace becomes a pressure cooker due to internal or external pressures and teams are not properly aligned, problems can manifest in a change of behaviour, breakdown in communications, conflict between team members and burnout or stress if the responsibility and accountability is not divided equally. Where new teams have been put together or are struggling with their remit, interventions like team coaching can help better gel the team’s dynamics, bond members, align them around purpose, quash negativity and foster a healthier collaborative team spirit.

Teams need to be built on trust and mutual respect, camaraderie, strong communication, inclusion, and diversity to function well. Above all though, they must have psychological safety in place so they can support and challenge one another to be truly great.