‘There’s no team without trust’ Paul Santagata, Head of Industry, Google. Quote via HBR
When it comes to team performance, Google discovered that there’s a common denominator across top performing teams. Google undertook a two year comprehensive study on teams which revealed that psychological safety is key for performance.
Psychological safety is about creating a culture where team members don’t feel threatened with punishment or ridicule and can feel comfortable taking some risks. When they know they’re not going to be criticized for making a mistake, a fearless environment is created where team members can flex their individuality and be creative without fear of ridicule or ostracization that they’re not conforming to the well beaten path.
In 1999, Harvard’s Amy Edmondson published an influential paper in which she discussed the concept of the psychological safety of work teams. In her research with hospital teams, she discovered that some of the best teams made the most mistakes. Or at least, it seemed that way. In truth, it was not that they were making more mistakes than other teams, but that they acknowledged their mistakes instead of trying to cover them up.
Psychological safety means knowing that you won’t be punished or ridiculed when you make a mistake. It is grounded in neurology and difficult to achieve as humans are hampered by the primitive response of the amygdala. The amygdala is an almond shaped alarm bell near the base of the brain which triggers a ‘fight or flight’ response. It’s an automatic, primitive reaction to threatening stimuli remaining from early civilization when humans were constantly exposed to mortal danger - wild animals, the vagaries of weather, hostile tribes. When confronted with danger, the amygdala’s response would kick in to prompt a person to either fight for their lives or flee the situation. It does so by pumping out stress hormones and shutting down bodily functions that aren’t essential to running or fighting, including rational thought. When the amygdala kicks in, it disables the frontal lobes which are the part of the brain that allow you to process emotions and determine a logical response. Without the frontal lobes, you can’t think clearly.
While humans have evolved from the perils of primitive civilization, the amygdala continues to function in the same way. So when a person is provoked by a co-worker or belittled by a boss, the brain interprets it as a life or death threat and the amygdala alarm bell sounds, shutting down logic and reason. Just when we need our wits about us, we literally lose our minds! The threat we are facing handicaps the strategic thinking and logic we need to solve problems, communicate and collaborate in the workplace.
The more we can feel psychologically safe in the workplace, the less our brain is going to react irrationally, and the better we can perform.
While fear provokes the shutdown of our resources and logic, there are other emotions we can foster which precipitate helpful responses and build resilient psychological resources. Barbara Frederickson at the University of North Carolina found that trust, curiosity, confidence and inspiration broaden the mind. We become more open-minded and motivated and have a better sense of humor. We improve our ability to find solutions when generating positive emotions.
Some would argue that there’s no way of creating a stress free environment in the workplace as there will always be deadlines, problems to solve and other difficult situations to confront. However, there is a difference between a psychologically safe environment and an environment which is stressful because it is threatening. Work can feel challenging and call upon our resources and collaboration to meet challenges, but there is a difference in doing this supportively, collaboratively in a way that all participants feel safe, as opposed to approaching problems and conflicts by competing with and undermining each other. At this point, the team is no longer a team, but a collection of individuals each fighting their own fight. When a workplace is challenging but not threatening, not only does it minimize amygdala alarms going off, but it is more likely to produce increased levels of oxytocin in the brain which is an important chemical in building trust. When team members can trust each other, it makes it easier to take risks, speak your mind and be vulnerable.
Learning from Google’s study into high performing teams, there are a number of takeaways we can note.
In contentious situations, focus on how to reach a solution that is mutually desirable, rather than siding with who is right.This negates the conclusion of there being a resulting ‘loser’. It’s hard to get over losing, and a loss will result in knock on effects as an aggrieved team member subconsciously attempts to ‘get even’ and restore their sense of fairness, usually by competing further, criticising others or attempting to sabotage the decided course of action. Alternatively, they may disengage from the project altogether. Discourage the concept of there being a ‘winner’ and ‘loser’ in any situation of conflict by switching the focus to seeking win-win outcomes. If you switch focus to outcome, and support the team to solutions everyone can stand behind, this will encourage greater collaboration and diminish an adversarial culture.
Santagata shared a useful reflection with his team to remind them that in even the most conflict fuelled situations, the other party is just like them. Santagata asked his team to contemplate that someone they disagree with -
This prompts us to recognize the common humanity we share, regardless of perspective or opinion, and get back on track to trying to find a win-win solution.
Where you have to disseminate messages and decisions that you anticipate are not going to be met well, plan how you are going to present it. The idea is to try maintain as much psychological safety as possible and minimize the chance that the audience hears the message as a personal attack. Prepare for how listeners will respond and likely counter arguments. Be prepared with your evidence, conviction and how you’ll respond in different scenarios.
Address problematic behavior as an observation, using neutral and often passive language with staff, for example, ‘there’s been a slow in progress on project X’. This frames the problem as an observation as opposed to an accusation. The more you can shift from blame the better, since blame and criticism escalate conflict.
Follow up the observation with an invitation to explore the cause, for example ‘I imagine there’s multiple factors at play - any ideas we could talk through together?’
Ask for their input on the solution. When a team member is exhibiting problematic behavior, they might need more support. Try asking directly, ‘What needs to happen here?’ or ‘How could I support you?’
At Google, Santagata’s team regularly undertake surveys to gauge the level of the team’s psychological safety on an ongoing basis. You can easily create a quick survey adapted to the context of your team. Tailor some general questions to your needs - for example, ‘How confident do you feel of not being criticized for making a mistake?’
In Amy Edmondson’s latest book, The Fearless Organization, she argues that talent is not enough to drive a successful organization, but rather that organizations should foster a safe culture so that creativity and teamwork can flourish. A safe culture doesn’t mean wearing rose coloured glasses and talking each other up with constant positives, but rather to allowing for vulnerability and mistakes as part of the process.
When we can create a working team environment that mitigates threat, fear and intimidation, staff can let their amygdala relax, keep their frontal lobes working, and optimize their strategic and logical thinking to achieve high performance.