These days, most work happens in teams. Why? The world is complex. Knowledge is distributed. Fast changing circumstances require quick response times. Innovation needs to happen at a relentless pace just to remain in the market. No single individual can have all the answers, even if he/she is "the boss". Therefore, collaboration becomes necessary to succeed.
Having been part of so many teams in the last two decades on both operational and transformation activities, I always made teamwork one of my guiding principles, but I could not pinpoint that elusive foundational ingredient that makes the difference between a “normal” team and a "high-performing" one. That is, until I became familiar with the illuminating and inspiring work of Amy Edmondson, who describes exactly that in two words – Psychological Safety. This is defined as "the belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes".
Extensive data, backed by 20 years of research and studies, supports the evidence of the impact of psychological safety on team work and ultimately business effectiveness.
A reference study in this area - cited by Amy Edmondson - is "Project Aristotle" by Google, whose aim was to identify what factors determine the success or failure of a team. Google spent 2+ years studying 180 real teams working together to find out if there is a “recipe” to make teams work successfully.
The findings are thought provoking. The factor with the highest impact is ‘How’ the team members interact and work together. ‘Who’ is in the teams, or ‘where’ the teams are, make little difference on their performance level. And, the factors that do not matter to team effectiveness are those that often drive performance measurement and how we ask teams to perform their work, such as co-location (sitting in the same office), individual performance, seniority and consensus-driven decision making.
Breaking down the “How team members interact and work together” factor, "Project Aristotle" points to Psychological Safety as the most important trait shared by high performing teams. This is followed by "Dependability" (team members can be relied upon to complete quality work on time), then "Structure and Clarity" (teams or individual roles, plans and goals are clearly set out). In fourth place we find "Meaning" (work in itself or the output matters to the team members), and finally at number five "Impact" (their efforts contribute to the organisation's goals, and generate change).
My lesson learned is that it is essential to assess the level of Psychological Safety in a business environment, and bring it in as a topic of conversation in the early phases of team formation (for new teams), or in any improvement and change effort (with existing teams) and to clearly articulate the impact of low levels or lack of it.
Although Psychological Safety can vary by team within the same organisation, a business will become most effective when it is embraced as a guiding principle and a core value by senior leaders - the people who ultimately set the tone and culture of a place, and have the most significant impact on overall business performance.
If you are interested to know more about how I work with teams and support them on the journey to high performance, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org .