Most of us don't want to look bad at work, at home or in just about any setting. Humans seek acceptance, and tend to avoid rejection. We want to fit in. When we look bad in front of others, it can be upsetting and possibly even embarrassing. Which means that we sometimes hesitate when we need to speak up or have ideas to contribute. Because people often fear criticism, being wrong or feeling stupid, even if the threat of this is only imagined, it can have a profound impact on their willingness to participate and ultimately a team's performance.
The problems we face today are vastly more complex than those we faced 30–40 years ago. Many work environments are about solving these complex problems, which requires creative and often collective thinking.
If you have a group of skilled people, brought together to solve a complex problem where the solution is uncertain, this team is going to need to work together and rely on each other to solve it. Since teams are created in different companies with different cultures, which can have wildly different expectations, what will best enable that team to work together effectively?
Effective teams have one fundamental ingredient: trust.
How do you create trust between team members to achieve high performance?
The answer is you create pyschological safety. According to Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson, who coined the term, "psychological safety is a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes”.
Said more simply: make it safe to contribute.
When teams form, team members test boundaries to identify where they fit. It is natural in a group setting to identify what the ‘norms’ are. We quickly learn whether our ideas are valid, whether people talk over us, if other people’s ideas are dismissed, if someone dominates the conversation. Often we revert to our natural role in the team as dominating, influencing, analysing or stablising. Understanding our behaviours and preferences, creates relatedness and a foundation for psychological safety. (Tools such as DiSC can be a great framework for creating team relatedness).
Impact of psychological safety on the effectiveness of teams
- When there is space to question each other, we work together better as a team and often arrive at a better result.
- The person with perceived authority (e.g the project manager or the client) does not necessarily have all the answers; sometimes they are just trying to create momentum.
- If everyone is heard, each member of the team feels their input is valuable.
- We instil a sense of responsibility and accountability among team members.
Characteristics of effective teams
- An individual’s belief that a team is safe for risk taking.
- Teammates feel safe to take risks around their colleagues.
- Teammates feel confident that no one on the team will embarrass or punish anyone else for admitting a mistake, asking a question, or offering a new idea.
- Teams that feel safe are more likely to take risks, admit mistakes, collaborate, or even take on new roles.
Frame the work as a learning problem
When it is safe to contribute, motivation and accountability increase and we learn together as a team. Psychological safety can create a comfort zone where people are safe and empowered. The alternative, demanding high performance while not ensuring that the team is able to work together, can create an environment of fear, hesitation and isolation. The learning zone provides the balance between psychological safety and high accountability. Without the freedom to fail, share ideas and speak up early, innovation is stifled and the freedom to learn what works and what doesn’t is diminished. The sweet spot of the learning zone is where we see high performance in dealing with uncertainty and interdependence.
How this is achieved
Training your team to:
- ask questions with the intention of learning from your teammates
- avoid placing blame and focus on solutions
- solicit input, opinions, and feedback from teammates
- invite and acknowledge input from others.
Create a social contract and enshrine these behaviours in it.
If there is uncertainty in a project and a requirement for interdependence within the team, then it is vital that the team has psychological safety:
- Create a climate of openness with clear statements such as ‘I may miss something, I need to hear from you’.
- Ask your team to ensure that every voice is heard.
- Create an environment where people feel safe to take risks and be vulnerable in front of each other (give people permission to take risks).
- Encourage each team member to be curious and ask lots of questions.
- Develop a social contract.
- Watch Amy Edmondson’s TED Talk
- Train the team in psychological safety.
- Deal with problems as they arise , without judgement. Focus on the person’s behaviour not the person’s character.
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