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Does Psychological Safety Make for Higher Performing Teams? Google Got It Half Right.

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It’s hard to believe that only 25 years ago, the search engine, and Google, were still in their infancy. Since then, Google has led more than just technological innovations. They have also been leaders in hiring and management best practices. Their approach includes using data and analytics to inform HR decision-making and identify areas for improvement.

In the 2010’s Google initiated a project called Project Aristotle to understand the factors contributing to the success of teams and to identify ways to improve teamwork and collaboration within the company. The published report, and its related research, resulted in a key finding that psychological safety (the belief that one can speak up and voice thoughts and ideas without fear of retribution) was a crucial factor in determining a team’s success.

the 4 stages of psychological safety

What did Google miss?

The report identified the factors that can contribute to the success of a team or organization, such as clear communication, good leadership, shared goals and values, and a positive and supportive culture. Together, these culminate in the idea that an environment of psychological safety is conducive to teamwork and collaboration.

Psychological safety is the foundation of highly functional teams, but it does not go far enough. What Project Aristotle brought to the forefront was a game changer, but it did not specifically focus on how to implement the study findings and develop a plan for assuring continuity. In addition, psychological safety is only half the story regarding high-performing teams.

I recently read a book by leadership consultant Timothy R. Clark called The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety (2020). The book was conceived as a practical handbook for creating and maintaining psychological safety in the workplace.  

The book emphasizes that on the highest-performing teams, employees feel (1) included, (2) empowered to ask questions and take risks, (3) able to contribute to their fullest potential, and (3) encouraged to challenge the status quo.

A lack of psychological safety can lead to disastrous results

Numerous case studies conclude that companies without employee psychological safety become stagnant and cannot compete. Several no longer exist or are shadows of their former selves.

  • Kodak, once a leader in the film and photography industry, failed to adapt to the digital age (even though they developed digital imaging technology) and ultimately filed for bankruptcy in 2012.
  • Once a dominant player in the home video rental market, Blockbuster failed to adapt to the rise of streaming services and went bankrupt in 2010.
  • Previously a leading department store chain, Sears filed for bankruptcy in 2018 after struggling for years to compete with online retailers and other brick-and-mortar stores.

In all three cases, many experts attributed the decline to a failure to listen to employee suggestions and ideas for adapting to changing markets and consumer preferences.

People can’t have a voice without respect

In The Four Stages of Psychological Safety, Clark outlines two criteria that he believes are foundational: Respect and people having a voice. When people feel respected, they are more likely to feel confident voicing their opinions and ideas. This can lead to a more diverse range of perspectives and ultimately benefit the company by promoting innovation and creativity. Without it, people stop speaking up and companies slip into mediocracy.

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Research by the Integro Leadership Institute supports the idea that respect is a foundational requirement for high-performing teams. According to the research, respect creates an environment where trust can flourish and where a team can move through the stages of the Tuckman Model of team development.

Beyond Psychological Safety – the other half of the story

While psychological safety is necessary, foundational, and a predictor of high-performing teams, it is insufficient. Harvard Business Professor Amy Edmondson, whose research made psychological safety mainstream, says, “A common misperception about psychological safety is that it means lowering standards or giving up accountability.” Edmonson says she has “spilled a great deal of ink” trying to correct this misconception. The diagram explains how Edmondson sees the relationship between psychological safety and accountability.

A recent article in FORBES written by Clark reinforces that. “Psychological safety is not a shield from accountability.”

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Overall, psychological safety is about creating a work environment where employees feel comfortable expressing themselves and taking risks without fear of negative consequences. It does not mean that there are no rules or accountability. As the diagram indicates, it is not either psychological safety or accountability. It is psychological safety and accountability that leads to high-performing teams.

You must make it clear that people are allowed and even encouraged to learn from their mistakes and that you want to give them the ability to contribute and do meaningful work. Let your team ask questions and admit when they don’t know the answer. Allow them to speak up when they disagree or see something that might “go off the rails.” And at the same time, as a leader, you must set high expectations and hold team members accountable to those expectations.

The next step: Applying the framework to your team

Building high-performing teams require data to measure employees’ level of trust.

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We encourage our clients to use a tool called the Employee Passion Survey. In addition to trust, it measures how well an organization is meeting employee needs for respect, inclusion, learning, and contribution – critical factors in psychological safety. Here is a sample survey assessment profile.

Contact us to discuss your team taking the Employee Passion Survey to assess trust and psychological safety within your organization.

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POSTED ON: Employee Engagement