What do you think makes a team successful? What separates a high-performing team from an average team? Google worked hard to answer these questions through what they called Project Aristotle.
Their results showed that the most successful teams had specific traits. The number one trait was psychological safety. So what’s the deal with psychological safety? The short answer is that it’s when team members feel safe to take risks and be vulnerable with each other.
When Google was picking apart psychological safety, they consulted with a Harvard organizational behavioural scientist. She suggested asking employees how strongly they agreed or disagreed with 7 simple questions:
- If you make a mistake on this team, it is often held against you.
- Members of this team are able to bring up problems and tough issues.
- People on this team sometimes reject others for being different.
- It is safe to take a risk on this team.
- It is difficult to ask other members of this team for help.
- No one on this team would deliberately act in a way that undermines my efforts.
- Working with members of this team, my unique skills and talents are valued and utilized.
We took these questions and realized that we could use some additional data points. We wanted to see which of these characteristics were consistent across team members and where there was disparity. For example: are there certain people who would never hold a mistake against you? Are there others who would? So we asked each question twice, priming it differently:
The results let us see the difference between the average for those we’re most comfortable with and those we’re least comfortable with. Prompts that had higher disparity between these two answers pointed to interpersonal issues. Prompts with similar answers were more about our culture.
Why bother measuring psychological safety?
If you’re trying to make your team more successful, you first need a baseline to compare with. A lot of people will think they have a good feel for their team’s psychological safety. But it’s surprising what you’ll learn when you actually measure it. I know I was. Each team member has their own comfort level and communication style, so everyone’s experience is personal. You can’t apply your own feelings to others.
The exercise of analyzing your team’s psychological safety is a pretty eye-opening process. When you’re answering the questions, it makes you think about your feelings and the team’s dynamics. Even though the prompts ask you about how others make you feel, everyone here said they thought a lot about their own actions. So it’s actually a great way to get a head start on making improvements.
What do you do next?
Dive deep into your data. Depending on the results, there may be different ways you want to present it to the rest of the team. Either way, keep the survey and its results so that you can retest and see your progress.
If there are some trouble areas
With psychological safety, it’s really important not to single anyone out. Don’t view this as a problem that needs to be dissected and addressed. Instead, focus your team on new ways of working together. Process, environment, and people all drive feelings of psychological safety. You have to be willing to shake those things up. Have a look at what managers can do to foster psychological safety and get inspired by Google’s re:Work content on teams.
If the results are mostly positive
Highlight your strongest areas and give the team a pat on the back. But don’t get complacent! Our survey showed that we were doing well with psychological safety, but there were areas that were weaker than others. Now we’re picking apart our culture to see what drives these feelings, and ultimately that will help us improve the responses. We’ll know if it’s working because we’ll reuse the survey and compare the results.
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