Why is it that some teams perform better than others? Are the individuals who make up the best teams exceptional? Are they the most diverse – or the most homogenous? Are they headed up by the strongest leaders?
Based on my years of experience, none of these is the silver bullet. Teams of all kinds have the potential to perform brilliantly… or the opposite. But there is one thing which unites those top-performing teams: psychological safety.
Teams which have high levels of psychological safety are characterised by mutual respect and trust. It’s only when those are established that a team can begin to perform at its best.
Let’s break down a few of the effects psychological safety has on team performance.
It makes conflict productive
Conflict can make or break a team. If done right, it drives innovation and healthy communication. But if done wrong, it can waste time and cause toxicity. And it seems like the key difference between these types of conflict is whether a team feels psychologically safe.
In The Fearless Organization, Amy Edmondson cites a 2012 study which suggests that “psychological safety can make the difference between conflict being put to good use and conflict getting in the way of team performance.”
The study found that the presence of conflict in teams with low levels of psychological safety correlated with lower performance. But in teams with high psychological safety, conflict was actually linked to better performance. The researchers “attributed this result to the ability to express relevant ideas and critical discussion without embarrassment or excessive personal conflict”.
It encourages innovation
Without high levels of psychological safety, you may still find that a team does just fine. Everyone shows up, does their job, and goes home. But you’re unlikely to find much innovation, which requires lateral thinking, risk taking, and the inclination and ability to look critically at the bigger picture.
If people are afraid that their ideas will be ignored or laughed at, they’re unlikely to share them. If they’re spending all their energy on avoiding trouble, they won’t have any left for creative thinking. And if they feel no loyalty towards their team, they’re unlikely to care about improving the organisation overall.
It prevents micromanaging
In an New York Time article, Charles Duhigg examines Google’s Project Aristotle, an initiative which aimed to figure out why some teams performed better than others. One of the insights was that “good communication and avoiding micromanaging is critical” in leaders.
At root, micromanaging comes from a lack of trust. The manager isn’t confident that their team will complete tasks correctly, so feels the need to get overly involved. In a psychologically safe team, trust is built through open communication and honest feedback. The manager therefore stops feeling the need to micromanage, saving everyone time and stress.
It underpins other important factors
Of course, psychological safety is not the only factor affecting teams’ performance. But it does form the foundation for many of the others.
As Duhigg notes, behaviours “like making sure teams [have] clear goals and creating a culture of dependability” are also key to success. “But Google’s data indicated that psychological safety, more than anything else, was critical to making a team work.”
No matter how talented and reliable employees are, no matter how clear their goals and meaningful their work, they need to feel safe contributing ideas and asking for help if they’re going to bring their best to a team.
It increases collective intelligence
There are many teams full of smart, hard-working individuals. But a team isn’t just people who happen to be in one place. It’s people working together to achieve something they couldn’t do alone.
Duhigg gives the example of two teams. Team A is composed of exceptional people who only speak on their topic of expertise, and don’t engage in “idle chitchat or long debates”. On Team B, in contrast, “people may speak over one another, go on tangents and socialize instead of remaining focused on the agenda. The team may seem inefficient to a casual observer. But all the team members speak as much as they need to. They are sensitive to one another’s moods and share personal stories and emotions. While Team B might not contain as many individual stars, the sum will be greater than its parts.”
For all these reasons and more, psychological safety is the single most important factor in creating high-performing, resilient and innovative teams.