More effective teams through psychological safety

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Are you trying to create the best conditions for your employees and still have the feeling that the teams are not able to perform to their full potential? With this feeling you are probably right! You are even in the best of company. In 2015, Google was interested in the same phenomenon: why do some teams perform better than others even though they have almost identical prerequisites?

Aristotle would be proud

Finally, Google published the results of their two-year research project "Aristotle". Over 200 interviews were conducted with Googlers. More than 250 attributes of about 180 active teams were recorded and evaluated. The declared aim of the study was to find out what makes a good team and how a good team works together.

 

Some of the results are old acquaintances and are already being implemented - sometimes better, sometimes worse - in companies. For example, it is not surprising that clear structures, reliability of management and colleagues, as well as a personal relation to the work increase the effectiveness of a team.​

The cause of a good team

However, the most important factor for the effectiveness of teams and organisations is much less known. Or have you ever heard of psychological safety at work? Google found that psychological safety is not just another variable, but a prerequisite for the clear structures, perceived reliability or personal connection we make to work.

 

Amy Edmondson, a professor of leadership at Harvard Business School, published a book in late 2018 entitled The Fearless Organization - Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation and Growth. It defines psychological safety in the workplace as "the knowledge that one is not punished or humiliated when one speaks with questions, comments, concerns or mistakes. Sounds natural at first, but let's take a look at reality.

The truth that no one says

 A survey conducted by the German Trade Union Federation (DGB) in 2019 shows that almost every second employee is afraid of the boss. 44% of employees do not dare to raise problems with their superiors. 30% of employees under the age of 25 experience an anxiety-stricken working atmosphere. According to their own statements, only 11% work in an open climate. 

What does this say about psychological security in German companies? If the workforce is afraid to ask questions, comment on the status quo or express ideas? What do you think this means for their effectiveness or innovative strength?

How can you do better than that?

If you want to build effective teams, you need to create an environment where it is natural for your employees to ask questions, create ideas and voice concerns. There must be no fear of making mistakes. But it doesn't help to preach these qualities like corporate values. They must be lived and above all experienced. In theory this sounds simple, but in everyday working life it is much more difficult to build up this kind of trust. At the end of this article you will find three steps that show how to build trust. Due to the different working environments it is always advisable to have psychological experts on board. 

 

Interesting, isn't it? In perhaps the most digital company of modern times, where creative ideas and innovation are vital for survival, the human factor is more important than ever.​

Money versus security

The Great Place to Work organisation is also convinced that working on and with psychological safety is worthwhile. According to them, teams with high psychological safety work up to ten times more effectively than teams motivated by incentive systems such as bonuses or extra pay.

Woher kommt die Effektivitätssteigerung?

The members of a psychologically safe team are permanently in a latent state of brainstorming. Why? Because ideas, criticism and questions, no matter how unpleasant they are, are always allowed and "coped with". Interaction is faster, more productive, more creative and less complicated. Through the "healthy friction" that goes along with psychologically safe, authentic communication, products and concepts become more thoughtful and polished. Since failure is no longer equated with job loss, people venture further into the unknown and find new unconventional ways.

What can we do for our psychological safety?

The premium version is of course the external psychologist who examines the individual team and organisational dynamics and changes them together with the managers and teams. But even without these, optimizations are possible. Here are a few approaches:

Step 1 - Who doesn't ask remains stupid

 

What you can theoretically start with tomorrow is that you ask your team members in suitable situations: "Assuming there is no best practice, no fixed processes. How would you solve the problem? What would you need for this? How can I help you?". You may find that at the beginning the interviewees tend to be reserved (or anxious). Here you can see how psychologically secure this person feels. 

Asking the question is not difficult. Now comes the crucial part: delivering. Find out what the interviewee needs, find a compromise if necessary and support the person/team in their own way of working.  Make it happen, create trust. But beware, check-ins 

à la: "And, how's it going, you have everything you need now", undermine the budding trust. Instead, ask him/her if he/she can cope with the new way of working or if there is a need for further optimization.

 

Step 2 - Building on trust

 

If the confidence in the team increases through Step 1 (or similar measures), the attentive observer may recognize that more questions are generally asked and information is more readily exchanged. This also indirectly increases creativity. Perhaps you even perceive a positive change in the well-being of the team members. Now you can build on the trust by giving the team self-organizing tasks, e.g. creating the shift plan for next month. In this way you show the team that you trust their competence. Working together in a team on things that specifically affect the team can also promote psychologically safe work.

 

Step 3 - Fuck-up-Feedbacks

 

This method is something for advanced students. If your team has reached a good "psy-safety-level" it should be encouraged to pass on negative feedback, learnings and blockers to the next hierarchy level. Such "fuck up sessions" can greatly improve psychological safety if done properly. The frequency should not exceed twice a quarter. These sessions should always be about the thing (the process, the project, the product, the service). Fuck-up-feedbacks are open, value-free feedback sessions in which an elected team representative or the whole team is present. If these sessions are taken seriously by superiors, immense potential opens up. 

 

On the organizational side, for example, structures and processes can be streamlined, problems can be identified at an early stage or alternative solutions can save money. On the team/employee side, this type of exchange means absolute esteem, which has an extremely motivating effect. But also here applies: Walk the talk! If you set up such feedback, you have to address the most promising suggestions. The team should be informed about progress and setbacks. Because if these sessions are scheduled and not taken seriously, it can even damage psychological security. As I said, it is something for advanced users or should be done under moderation.

  • How aware were you of the relevance of psychological safety in the workplace?

  • Are there examples of psychological safety from your daily work?

If you want to work sustainably with your teams on their performance and effective cooperation, we would be happy to become your sparring partner.

Raphael Herkommer

Business Psychologist Die CONUFACTUR