The highest performing teams share one common trait: Psychological safety

Google conducted an extensive internal study looking into 280 teams. They found one single factor which sets high performing teams apart from team with lesser performance. It’s not team composition based on education, skills or personality traits. The single factor leading to high performing teams is psychological safety, as defined by Amy Edmonson as the believe that you can bring your whole self to work, speak up and voice your opinion without the risk of being penalized. Google found that the teams that felt psychologically safe exceeded their sales revenue target by 17% and that teams that did not feel safe missed their target sale revenue by 19%. Next to this Google also learned that teams with higher psychological safety are less likely to leave, they are more likely to harness the power of creative ideas and were rated effective twice as often by executives.How does this work? When people feel more psychologically safe, they engage in more learning behaviour which leads to an increase in their performance.

Almost two decades ago Patrick Lencioni, in his book ‘The five disfunctions of a team’, pointed out the importance of both interpersonal trust and fearlessly engaging in conflicts as the foundations for high performing teams. In our work with (leadership) teams in organizations it stands out that psychological safety is one of the most important conditions for this foundation to be build solid and strong. This raises the question: how do you build or increase psychological safety? It all starts with leaders taking deliberate action and setting the tone! Laura Delizonna from Standford University identifies the following five leadership behaviours to build psychological safety in organizations:

  • Approach conflict as a collaborator, not an adversary

We humans hate to lose even more than we love to win. A perceived loss triggers attempts to reestablish fairness through competition, criticism, or disengagement, which is a form of workplace-learned helplessness. True success is a win-win outcome, so when conflicts come up, avoid triggering a fight-or-flight reaction by asking, “How could we achieve a mutually desirable outcome?”

  • Speak human to human
    Underlying every team’s confrontation are universal needs such as respect, competence, social status, and autonomy. Recognizing these deeper needs naturally elicits trust and promotes positive language and behaviours.
  • Replace blame with curiosity

The alternative to blame is curiosity. If you believe you already know what the other person is thinking, then you’re not ready to have a conversation. Instead, adopt a learning mindset, knowing you don’t have all the facts. For example to state the problematic behaviour as an observation in neutral language, engage in the exploration and ask for solutions.

  • Ask for feedback on the delivery of this message

Asking for feedback on how you delivered your message disarms your opponent, illuminates blind spots in communication skills, and models fallibility, which increases trust in leaders

  • Measure psychological safety

Periodically ask the team how safe they feel and what could enhance their feeling of safety

At &samhoud, we help leaders to engage more in these psychological safety enhancing behaviours. How? First, we provide more insight in current behaviour. Second, we give tools to change the behaviour. And thirdly, we intervene on the system as a whole in order to create sustainable behavioural change.  

Would you like to know more about how you can build psychological safety and high performing teams in your organization? Contact our experts: Leonie Arkesteijn (arkesteijn@samhoud.com), Roosmaryn Spliet (r.spliet@samhoud.com) or Koen Husmann (k.husmann@samhoud.com). 

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