For those of us who are students of engagement and team-building, we know how key trust, communication and leadership are. But when Google ran two-year study into what makes teams successful, it unlocked a surprising key to high performance and fertile collaboration. Dubbed Project Aristotle, the presented five key factors of great teams: psychological safety, dependability, structure and clarity, meaning, and impact. Of all of them, the most fundamental turned out to be psychological safety.
Much has been made of each of the five factors — and certainly it’s no surprise that they all go into team success: they connect to all the values we associate with a high-functioning workplace, whether we use different terms or not. But psychological safety carries even more weight. Even among the cream-of-the-crop kind of hires that make it into Google, it mattered more than anything else.
The professor who invented the term psychological safety is Amy Edmondson of the Harvard Business School — and even she was surprised by the results. “If you had asked me would psychological safety have been the big predictor of team performance at Google, I would’ve said, I don’t think so,” she noted in a recent podcast with HBR. “All those folks are going to be pretty able to take care of themselves, right? They’ve been told their whole life that they’re really smart,” she noted.
The need for psychological safety at work
But in the workplace, we need to feel safe about taking risks. We need to know that if we raise questions or concerns, speak up, offer our own ideas, or make mistakes, we won’t be punished or shamed for it: we’re safe. And you won’t be able to spark any kind of innovation or out-of-the-box thinking if your people don’t feel safe. That goes double for new hires — who are going to pick up on the workplace culture around them and follow the lead of their new colleagues.
There’s no technology that results in psychological safety in this case, though there are plenty of apps and digital tools that can help support it. But this one comes down to how you shape and maintain your workplace culture. It’s not simply a matter of step by step on this one either: there’s a hearts and minds aspect to maintain as an emotional thru-line. But there are some key bases to cover as you create psychological safety in your own workplace:
Start With Day One
New hires usually walk in raring to go, and may be brimming with ideas and filled with questions. It’s incumbent on your managers to make sure those ideas and those questions are neither rebuffed nor ignored. Keep lines of communication open, whether remote or on-site, and establish a policy of frequent check-ins and welcoming input from Day One. First impressions count.
Get Leadership Aligned
The fact that Google’s own high-input, high-energy teams stressed the need for psychological safety points to leadership’s influence: in a place filled with ambitious employees, team and project leaders play a pivotal role in harnessing that ambition or inhibiting it. Leaders need to work to make sure teams are thriving individual by individual, or engagement – and performance are going to suffer. But they also need to transmit balance and composure: during inevitable times of stress, it’s how leaders react that sets the tone for everyone and new hires in particular are a sponge. Stay calm, stay positive, and stay clear — if at all possible. Your teams will pick up on that.
Managers bear much of the responsibility for the level of conversation among their teams — and discussion is vital to solid team-building. Here’s too, there are lines that should not be crossed: a new hire’s attempt to articulate a concern needs to be carefully listened to and respectfully responded to A meeting in which no one talks but the facilitator is deadly — meetings should be seized as an opportunity for energized discussion and exchange of ideas. Nothing does more for a team than being able to collaborate to solve problems or provide support for each other. Build time and space into the day to day for simply getting the chance to talk.
Follow Through and Follow Up
Relationships are forged on a continuous cycle of exchanges and communications. As in the recruiting sphere, not responding to someone’s question, text, email or ping can have risks that go far beyond just a day of being out of touch. Newer hires, particularly younger millennials and Gen Z, are used to the immediacy of texts and social media; a delayed response from a supervisor, for instance, may be interpreted as ghosting, which may in turn be loaded with emotional implications. Psychological safety is defined as “a climate in which people are comfortable being (and expressing) themselves.” No one is going to stay comfortable if ideas are shared with no response. Managers and leaders need to make follow-through and follow-up a priority. Tools like Slack and other digital chat channels can help.
Encourage Controlled Risk-Taking
It’s not always possible to let your newest hires go out on a limb, but if you can provide that experience in a controlled setting, do so. Adrenaline and innovation can go hand in hand — and not just in the tech sector. The “Test fast, fail fast, adjust fast” approach (credit to Tom Peters for that chestnut) is something everyone in your organization should understand. The more opportunity for controlled risks that result in encouragement, not rejection, the better. The courage to take risks should be part of your workplace culture and viewed as part of a continuing commitment to develop your talent.
Google’s research upended the oft-shared assumption that it’s hard skills and a charismatic leader that push the envelope when it comes to performance. It’s also a reminder that there’s a business case to be made for psychological safety. Toxic workplace cultures have driven 20% of U.S. employees out of their jobs in the past five years. Further, when employees feel psychologically safe at work, there’s a 154% increase in the incidence of great work, and a full 33% decrease in the incidence of moderate to severe burnout. But the key to fully integrating psychological safety into your workplace culture is to make it normal — no one should be surprised that they trust leadership and each other, feel valued, and can safely express themselves. That should be the given.
About the author
Meghan Biro founded TalentCulture in 2008 to lead a conversation about the future of work with her peers in HR and leadership. These days, she is consistently included in lists of top online influencers and writes about HR tech and talent management at Forbes.com, SHRM.org and a variety of other media outlets.