High-Performing Teams Need Psychological Safety. Here’s How to Create It
For most of us in Marcellus, this is our second go at managing a business. We got our first chance to run a business around 10-15 years ago when we were in our early thirties. At that point one of our earliest learnings was that “if we want to make groups of talented people collaborate in complex projects with multiple handoffs and several risky judgement calls, levels of trust within the team have to be very high.” But what we couldn’t figure out at that point was how to build trust amongst groups of highly driven and talented individuals. That’s why we found this HBR article to be a useful read. The answer apparently lies in something called ‘psychological safety’:
““There’s no team without trust,” says Paul Santagata, Head of Industry at Google. He knows the results of the tech giant’s massive two-year study on team performance, which revealed that the highest-performing teams have one thing in common: psychological safety, the belief that you won’t be punished when you make a mistake. Studies show that psychological safety allows for moderate risk-taking, speaking your mind, creativity, and sticking your neck out without fear of having it cut off — just the types of behavior that lead to market breakthroughs….
…psychological safety is both fragile and vital to success in uncertain, interdependent environments. The brain processes a provocation by a boss, competitive coworker, or dismissive subordinate as a life-or-death threat. The amygdala, the alarm bell in the brain, ignites the fight-or-flight response, hijacking higher brain centers. This “act first, think later” brain structure shuts down perspective and analytical reasoning. Quite literally, just when we need it most, we lose our minds.”
So, how can we increase psychological safety in the teams we work in? As is the norm in such articles, there is a long shopping list and we would recommend that you read the whole article to benefit from the list. Here are the three items from the shopping list which we thought were interesting:
“3. Anticipate reactions and plan countermoves. “Thinking through in advance how your audience will react to your messaging helps ensure your content will be heard, versus your audience hearing an attack on their identity or ego,” ….
Skillfully confront difficult conversations head-on by preparing for likely reactions. For example, you may need to gather concrete evidence to counter defensiveness when discussing hot-button issues. Santagata asks himself, “If I position my point in this manner, what are the possible objections, and how would I respond to those counterarguments?” He says, “Looking at the discussion from this third-party perspective exposes weaknesses in my positions and encourages me to rethink my argument.”
Specifically, he asks:
What are my main points?
What are three ways my listeners are likely to respond?
How will I respond to each of those scenarios?
4. Replace blame with curiosity. If team members sense that you’re trying to blame them for something, you become their saber-toothed tiger. John Gottman’s research at the University of Washington shows that blame and criticism reliably escalate conflict, leading to defensiveness and — eventually — to disengagement. The alternative to blame is curiosity. If you believe you already know what the other person is thinking, then you’re not ready to have a conversation. Instead, adopt a learning mindset, knowing you don’t have all the facts….
5. Ask for feedback on delivery. Asking for feedback on how you delivered your message disarms your opponent, illuminates blind spots in communication skills, and models fallibility, which increases trust in leaders. Santagata closes difficult conversations with these questions:
What worked and what didn’t work in my delivery?
How did it feel to hear this message?
How could I have presented it more effectively?”