Why are some teams more successful than others?
Google has been on the top of many top employer surveys. In the last couple of years, its People Analytics team interviewed hundreds of employees and analyzed data about people in more than 100 active teams over two years to understand why some teams succeed and why some other’s stumble and fail. The company found that there are five key dynamics that sets successful teams apart from others: psychological safety, dependability, structure and clarity, meaning of work and impact of work. The top in the list is ‘psychological safety’ – a concept introduced by Amy Edmondson, who describes it as “a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes.”
In the book “Smarter, Faster, Better” by Charles Duhigg outlines how the company approached psychological safety. To create psychological safety, team leaders needed to model the right behaviors. They were given Google checklists:
- Leaders should not interrupt teammates during conversations because that will establish an interrupting norm
- They should demonstrate they are listening by summarizing what people say after they said it
- They should admit what they don’t know
- They shouldn’t end a meeting until all team members have spoken at least once
- They should encourage people who are upset to express their frustrations, and encourage teammates to respond in nonjudgmental ways
- They should call out intergroup conflicts and resolve them through open discussion
Duhigg also notes that while the checklists had dozens of tactics, they come down to two general principles: Teams succeed when team members can speak up and when they show that they are sensitive to how one feels. And although there may be many reasons to undermine psychological safety in situations where one has to cut-off a debate, make a quick decision or ask the expert, in the long run, it’s much more productive. That’s because a team amplifies its internal culture.
But does psychological safety mean moving away from accountability and excellence?
Not necessarily. As Edmondson notes in this TED Talk, the two are correlated. Creating a psychologically safe environment increases motivation. “If you only do psychological safety, it’s possible you’re creating a comfort zone. And if you’re only talking about people’s accountability for excellence and not making sure they aren’t afraid to talk to each other, then you’re in the anxiety zone,” she adds.