Psychological Safety at Work (and everywhere)

A friend shared an article with me about team effectiveness. It resonated with me and prompted me through a sequence of interesting...
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March 20, 2020
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A friend shared an article with me about team effectiveness. It resonated with me and prompted me through a sequence of interesting articles and perspectives. So I thought sharing it might be useful to many of my friends, because it provides a framework to think and talk about effective teamwork.

At the bottom of this article are a few links to the underlying article about Google’s two-year Project Aristotle and related resources that formed the basis for these observations. I believe it’s worth the time to review these links.

While there are many potential takeaways from these links, here are the highlights I noticed:

  • Team effectiveness is the new talent advantage, instead of just individual “employee performance optimization.”
  • For the most part, highly effective teams can have drastically different “group norms.”
  • A teams “collective I.Q.” is independent from the individual I.Q.’s of its members, because the collective I.Q. is based on the “group norms” instead of individual knowledge and talents.
  • Carnegie Mellon researchers “concluded that what distinguished the ‘good’ teams from the dysfunctional groups was how teammates treated one another” and the right group norms could raise a group’s collective I.Q.
  • The top 5 group norms, or key dynamics, of an effective team are: 1) psychological safety, 2) dependability, 3) structure and clarity, 4) meaning of work, and 5) impact of work.
  • Of these 5 key dynamics, psychological safety is “far and away the most important.” “Google’s data indicated that psychological safety, more than anything else, was critical to making a team work.”
  • Two conditions are present when a team experiences psychological safety: 1) team members have equal distribution of “talk time”, and 2) team members individually exhibit above-average social sensitivity. It’s not clear if these are causes or effects, but regardless they are both signals of team psychological safety.
  • Equal talk-time means every team member has a chance to express their opinion and does express their opinion sometime during the team’s collaboration.
  • Social sensitivity refers to the emotional intelligence and ability to recognize and respond to other team member’s gestures, expressions, and emotional cues.
  • Psychological safety “describes a team climate characterized by interpersonal trust and mutual respect in which people are comfortable being themselves.”

I don’t think there’s a succinct way to summarize this, but a paragraph (which I’ve split up below for easier reading) from the NY Times article is pretty good:

What Project Aristotle has taught people within Google is that no one wants to put on a ‘‘work face’’ when they get to the office. No one wants to leave part of their personality and inner life at home.

But to be fully present at work, to feel ‘‘psychologically safe,’’ we must know that we can be free enough, sometimes, to share the things that scare us without fear of recriminations. We must be able to talk about what is messy or sad, to have hard conversations with colleagues who are driving us crazy.

We can’t be focused just on efficiency. Rather, when we start the morning by collaborating with a team of engineers and then send emails to our marketing colleagues and then jump on a conference call, we want to know that those people really hear us. We want to know that work is more than just labor.”

In other words, whatever teams we are on, we all deserve the team’s trust and respect–trust so we can share our thoughts and respect so we can feel like we’ve been heard. These team dynamics lead to a level of effectiveness that can’t be achieved in their absence. Ignoring these dynamics, or pretending like they are present when actually they are not, will probably lead to team defectiveness–not team effectiveness.

Although beyond the scope of the referenced articles, I think there are some typical individual dynamics that consistently undermine psychological safety and team effectiveness. All of these emphasize the individual over the team, and in reality they might be considered variants of the same anti-team dynamic. And since I made them up, I called them whatever I wanted, but you might prefer different names (or even know some people who personify these dynamics). Here’s a brief list of how I would designate these team “distractors:”

  • The hero, who seeks individual credit over team performance
  • The Hero, who causes distress and conflict in order to be the person who resolves the distress and conflict (I think this is formally recognized psychological disorder)
  • The usurper, who seeks to disempower teammates by effectively removing their ability to make decisions or implement solutions
  • The diverter, who consistently diverts conversation and tasks away from an organized effort, even if by raising other legitimate concerns
  • The interrupter, who cuts off others and prevents their thought contributions
  • The distruster, who advocates distrust as a proxy for transparency
  • The bottleneck, who seeks exclusive control over channels of communication and action
  • The villain, who utilizes overt or discrete forms of anger and violence to instill fear in others

I prefer not to focus too much on aspects of ineffective teamwork. It just seems like it might be helpful to clarify what psychological safety is by defining what is isn’t, by identifying some examples that obstruct psychological safety. I’ll leave it at that.

I also don’t want to focus on the effects of ineffective teamwork. It’s probably sufficient to state the obvious–that ineffective teamwork is less effective than the team’s true potential. And ineffective teams are less likely to retain stability on the team and foster the other key dynamics mentioned above. Of course, these aren’t the formal intentions of any team.

Lastly, if we do identify teams that are less effective than their potential, the identification of an ineffective team is only the first step. In order to address team ineffectiveness, we must look further at the factors contributing to that ineffectiveness. If psychological safety is the most critical source of team effectiveness, then the lack of psychological safety might be the most likely source of team ineffectiveness, and we should start our evaluation there. This presents the highest likelihood of finding and resolving the sources of team ineffectiveness.

Thanks for reading this far. If you think this is worthwhile, or if you have some additional perspectives on this topic, I would love to hear your thoughts.


This is the original article from Google–https://rework.withgoogle.com/blog/five-keys-to-a-successful-google-team/

This is a longer NY Times article by Charles Duhigg that builds on the original Google article–https://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/28/magazine/what-google-learned-from-its-quest-to-build-the-perfect-team.html?_r=0

This is a Google resource for evaluating team effectiveness–https://rework.withgoogle.com/guides/understanding-team-effectiveness/steps/introduction/

This is a recent Inc. summary of the Google article–https://www.inc.com/michael-schneider/google-thought-they-knew-how-to-create-the-perfect.html

[This post was originally published August 29, 2017, on LinkedIn by Jeff Holman.]


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Jeff Holman
Jeff Holman draws from a broad background that spans law, engineering, and business. He is driven to deploy strategic business initiatives that create enterprise value and establish operational efficiencies.

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