Recently I wrote a couple of articles, here and here about Google’s 2016 Project Aristotle and how it identified psychological safety as the preeminent predictor of success and productivity in a workplace team and the other factors affecting them. In this piece, we’ll look at the implications for leaders – what leadership strategies have the most leverage in creating feelings of psychological safety among team members.
Google’s Project Aristotle commenced in 2012 with the objective of identifying why some of their teams worked well, while others were less effective.
And Google, being Google, didn’t do things by halves. The project brought together statisticians, organisational psychologists, sociologists, engineers and researchers. The multidisciplinary group examined reviews of decades of academic studies on team dynamics and productivity, and then performed their own analysis of teams at Google and the individuals within them.
They identified that the answer lay in group norms (a group’s traditions, behavioural standards and expectations) and that the norms creating psychological safety were the most vital to the success and productivity of a team.
There are learnings in this analysis for organisations and individuals, in terms of what they can do to develop leadership strategies that use these factors to optimise group structures and performance.
The first thing leaders need to do is to encourage an environment in which people feel they are able to speak out and share their thoughts without fear of judgement from other team members. This applies to non-work issues as well as work issues. Invocation of the ‘what goes at work, stays at work’ cliché – and it’s opposite, is not conducive to open, honest relationships between team members.
In summary, the key word here is trust. And trust is something that earned, not claimed or given under duress.
Leaders need to demonstrate that they are worthy of being trusted by showing that they trust their team members. How leaders do this depends on their own style. It could be sharing some personal information, or being approachable and helpful, and confidential where appropriate, in dealing with their team members. But there are two things not to do – don’t play the blame game and empathise. Try to learn from mistakes rather than punishing them.
The bottom line is that a team that feels as though they can trust each other feels safer, more productive and more valued contributors. The message to leaders can be distilled to two simple words, be nice. No matter how much pressure you may feel from above (or below), no matter how much you might want to vent your frustrations – take a deep breath and simply be nice to your team members.
This doesn’t have to mean that there won’t be times when you have to make hard decisions, like letting people go, but it does mean that you should do it in an open, empathetic and caring way.
If you’d like to discuss the implications for your company, leadership roles or how executive coaching can drive positive change for you, why not visit our website.