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Psychological Safety: Secret of Effective Teams


Thu Oct 22 2020

Psychological Safety: Secret of Effective Teams

When Google studied its most successful teams, the company discovered the secret isn't in the who; it’s in the how.

When Google’s people operations department (its version of human resources) set out to study what made the company’s most high-performing teams tick, the team was surprised by the results. It turns out it isn’t a magic combination of skill sets, individual traits, educational backgrounds, or even cultural backgrounds that makes a team successful. It is something more.


During the span of two years, Google studied the attributes of more than 180 of its teams. The people operations department discovered that a team’s success didn’t depend on who was on it; it depended on how the employees felt as team members. How the team members interacted, structured their work, and viewed their contributions had the greatest effect on that team’s success.

Many dynamics contributed to employees feeling this way on their high-performing teams. But Google discovered one to be the most crucial above all: the dynamic of psychological safety.

What Is Psychological Safety?

Google defines psychological safety as a state of being. It’s the feeling team members have when they believe they can take risks without feeling insecure or embarrassed. They feel safe to be vulnerable in front of one another.

Why is this important? When workers feel they are safe to take risks, they are not afraid to fail. They are open to trying something new and to challenging the status quo. They become more creative and innovative. They perform at a higher level because they strive for the best as a team instead of striving to protect themselves as individuals.

How Is Psychological Safety Created?

Psychological safety isn't the responsibility of leaders alone. It takes an entire team to co-create this environment. Here are three steps to start the shift.


1. Establish conversational turn-taking. When a team functions in harmony, each member speaks an equal amount of time. One or two people do not dominate the discussion. Everyone feels like they had the opportunity to contribute, and no one holds back. This type of balance doesn't happen automatically. It takes intention and practice. Often it’s as simple as being aware of who isn't speaking and welcoming them into the conversation. But there are other approaches too. I work with a leader who has discovered an ingenious way to achieve this balance. If he or anyone else on the team notices someone hasn’t contributed, they hand that person a small rock. If someone has the rock, it’s their turn to speak. The rock is passed quietly, discreetly, and is a way of saying, “I’d love to hear what you think.”

2. Self-check negative behavior. If a team has a history of destructive behaviors such as sarcastic comments, demeaning remarks, or other micro-inequities, it's a leader’s job to call out those behaviors and discourage them. Then, it’s up to the entire team to monitor one another and themselves to ensure these behaviors don't continue. If they do, the behaviors can erode relationships and impede progress toward psychological safety. A team functions best when individual ego is out of the room and there’s mutual respect among each member.

3. Have high social sensitivity. Much of what we communicate is nonverbal. We convey as much information in our tone of voice, facial expressions, and body language as we do in our words. When a team has a culture of mutual respect, the people on it have a heightened awareness of what their colleagues are communicating. They are sensitive to how other team members feel and react. This is a key component of psychological safety.

Google’s research turned up an additional fascinating fact: According to a report by Julia Rozovsky from Google’s people operations team, the employees on teams with psychological safety also perform more strongly as individuals. They are less likely to leave the company, more likely to embrace diverse ideas, bring in more revenue, and are more likely to be rated as effective by management.

If you want similar results for a team you lead or a team you are in, start by embracing a culture of respect, social sensitivity, and the idea that it’s everyone's responsibility to co-create a psychologically safe environment.


Editor’s note: This article was originally published as "What Is the Secret of Google’s Best Teams?"

on INC.com.

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