Is your team in 'psychological danger'?

embers of the Calgary Stampeders reach for a ball following a team practice while preparing for the Canadian Football League's 102nd Grey Cup Championship in Vancouver, British Columbia.

What one factor do all successful teams share? Image: REUTERS/Andy Clark

Lauren Joseph
Lead, Electronics Industry and Global Leadership Fellow , World Economic Forum
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In a business context, values such as diversity, trust and respect can often have people rolling their eyes and delivering sarcastic renditions of Kumbaya; and with all the jargon and pontificating who can blame them?

But let’s hold the sarcasm for a moment and consider this: Google is one of the most successful businesses in modern history. It attracts some of the most brilliant minds in the world and is pioneering some of the most important innovations of our time. And the number one thing underpinning the most successful teams at Google, as identified by Google itself, is something many senior executives have never heard of: “psychological safety”.

This was identified as the most significant success factor in teams across the organization. According to Google, if you can create an environment of psychological safety, where “team members feel safe to take risks and be vulnerable in front of each other”, it will underpin everything else needed for extraordinary performance, such as dependability, structure and clarity.

This is not news. The academic community has identified this as key to effective collaboration in diverse teams for some time now. Amy Edmondson, who coined the term psychological safety, argues that if uncertainty and interdependence exist in a given work environment (arguably the majority of modern workplaces), teams require psychological safety to function.

Cornell professor Kathleen O’Connor, who coaches teams on effective collaboration, says that when psychological safety is absent from the workplace, teams lose the individual knowledge and expertise each member brings to the table and begin to experience what is known as the Common Knowledge Effect.

When this effect is at play, says O’Connor, “teams tend to focus on shared information”, and as a result they have “trouble capitalizing on the diversity of knowledge and expertise in the team”. The very same knowledge and expertise those people were recruited for to begin with. This often leads to poor performance, poor decision-making and missed opportunities for innovation.

Do these 3 things sound familiar?

1) Being wrong is avoided like the plague

Creating psychological safety requires us to do the one thing many of us have been taught to avoid at all cost: being comfortable with being wrong. Because admitting you are wrong can have a disastrous effect on the way others perceive you, many of us tend to hold back in the name of self-protection. Even more dangerous is challenging a co-worker or superior on their ideas and pointing out when they may be wrong. As Edmondson says: “We are so busy managing impressions that we don’t contribute to innovating.”

Fostering a healthy culture of debate within the team can be a way to make “being wrong” OK. One way to do this is formally appointing roles within the team, such as a devil’s advocate. O’Connor suggests that openly and intentionally allowing team members to take turns at being devil’s advocate empowers them to disagree and debate within the safety of “playing a role”. She explains that it is important to decouple an opinion or argument from the personality of the person espousing it. This then allows the team to focus on the facts and ideas as opposed to the person bringing them.

2) Blame is more important than gratitude

It is important for managers and team members to be able to hold one another accountable for results and behaviours. However, this can easily become confused with blame, particularly in the wake of failure. In their article “Making Dumb Groups Smarter”, Cass Sunstein and Reid Hastie refer to this as “blamestorms” or “circular fire squads”, where managers view failure as an opportunity to “point fingers, humiliate the guilty and throw a few overboard”.

When there is a sense that everyone is on trial, people are less likely to bring their full selves to work. In the name of self-protection, they will lay low, agree and try to maintain team harmony at all costs. This type of response to failure reinforces the “psychological danger” that may have caused the failure to begin with and prevents the team from viewing the failure as the rich opportunity for learning that it is.

In contrast to focusing on blame, psychologically safe environments embrace mistakes and treat failure as learning. One surprising way to do this is for managers to show gratitude for the work and effort invested, regardless of a negative outcome. While this may sound like giving everyone a “prize for participation”, Sunstein and Hastie explain that it is especially crucial for managers to show their staff gratitude in the wake of a failure because that is when the team most needs to feel supported. This then lays the foundation for teams to view the failure as opportunity to learn and improve.

3) Outlying views are ignored

When team members observe that outlying views are regularly dismissed, they are less likely to share ideas or knowledge that stray from what the rest of the group knows. This is another symptom of the Common Knowledge Effect.

At a recent lecture at London Business School, Kathleen O’Connor ran a hiring experiment. Groups needed to hire a CFO from a pool of three candidates where the resumes were clearly rigged in favour of one candidate. Each group member was given a set of information on the three candidates and had to choose one prior to entering the group meeting.

The majority of groups who participate in this experiment are rarely able to choose the best candidate despite having all of the necessary information at their collective disposal. Participants across the board tend to give disproportionately less weight to valuable information held by one or few people in the group. The people who voice the most common information tend to have the most influence on the discussion, largely because group members prefer to hear information that confirms their own view. Similarly, those who raise less common points tend to have less credibility within the group and therefore less incentive to continue voicing their opinions. This effect can be amplified if the information is coming from an already less influential member of the group, such as a more junior member of the team.

One way managers can work around this is by actively listening for outlying or contrarian views and rewarding them. Even if the idea is not perfect, acknowledging it and demonstrating genuine interest in understanding its merits demonstrates to the rest of the group that uncommon knowledge is welcome and valued.

The key to an enjoyable working life

While it may be easier to focus on tasks and time management, focusing on team dynamics may just be the key to a more productive and enjoyable working life. While we can’t always choose our circumstances, every team has the choice to prioritize team dynamics and create the conditions that are necessary for exceptional performance.

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