The #1 Thing that Makes a Successful Team

On Google’s quest to build the perfect team, they discovered who on the team matters less than how team members interact with one another. Google’s findings are converse to traditional ideas of team composition where the personality, background or skillset of individual members don’t seem to factor into what makes teams successful. What they did find were five factors, listed below in order of importance, of team dynamics that set successful teams apart from the less successful ones.

  • Psychological Safety
  • Dependability
  • Structure & Clarity
  • Meaning
  • Impact

Let’s dig into that top factor, the one that holds the most weight in determining what’s important for successful teams – psychological safety. A psychologically safe team is characterized by trust, respect, concern for team members and confidence in the ability of team members. It fosters an environment that calms people’s fear of rejection or disapproval when engaging in actions that have the potential to be judged or humiliated by others.

As humans, we are more or less hard-wired (and socialized) to care what other people think of us. So naturally, it can be quite a challenge to override our instincts to save face or avoid offending someone’s feelings instead of speaking our truth. Because we are so interpersonally risk averse, we tend to put a great emphasis on maintaining our comfort levels – we don’t want to ruffle anyone’s feathers. The perceived risks of speaking up feel very immediate and personal, while the outcomes of doing so are uncertain and more distant. This drive is so powerful that we can even put others’ lives at risk just to avoid a seemingly negative confrontation. For example errors in the emergency room (many of which impact the lives of patients) are less likely to be reported in hospital teams without psychologically safety.

It’s easy to see how this can lead to some serious negative outcomes, particularly at the organizational level. Besides mitigating major failure, psychologically safe teams tend to outperform their less psychologically safe counterparts. Specifically in creativity, employee engagement, task performance, commitment, learning and satisfaction.

How do you know if your team is psychologically safe?

What might be a better question is how vulnerable do team members allow themselves to be? After reading the list below, can you safely say that your team members feel comfortable with each of these actions?

  • Publicly propose a risky or untested idea
  • Admit to the team when you fail and offering lessons learned in the process
  • Disagree with a superior, or offer an alternative solution
  • Willingly give up time or resources to help out someone on the team
  • Stick up for a teammate
  • Volunteer to do something out of their wheelhouse
  • Display emotions when under pressure or stressed out

Psychologically safe teams demonstrate vulnerability. Each of these above behaviors leave the acting team member open for potentially negative feedback and/or failure. Members of a team with high psychological safety can count on their team to give each other the benefit of a doubt when they are taking risks.

What can you do to encourage more psychological safety in your team?

In short, it has to come from the top. Think about it this way: if your most entry-level employees are afraid to speak up or take risks, information isn’t being communicated to junior-level staff. That information is lost to the organization and lost to the leaders at higher levels. In addition, without psychological safety, your junior-level staff will eschew conveying their own ideas and observations. With each layer of hierarchy, more information is lost. If everyone is fearful of being the bearer of bad news or afraid to challenge their boss, then virtually nothing negative will reach those who sit at the senior management table. That is until something catastrophic happens. As evidenced by Boeing’s catastrophe, systemic problems might have instigated these tragedies and what’s even worse is that employees likely knew about these issues ahead of time but didn’t speak up for fear of retaliation. Unfortunately, many organizations look to change their culture on the heels of a disaster or failure.

Don’t wait until it’s too late to set the precedence for psychological safety in your team. It doesn’t have to take a tragedy to change a culture. We can help.

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