Psychological Safety


Fred Perrotta

When Google studied their internal teams to learn why some succeeded and some failed, they found 5 key norms for successful teams.

  1. Teams to need believe that their work is important.
  2. Teams need to feel their work is personally meaningful.
  3. Teams need clear goals and defined roles.
  4. Team members need to know they can depend on one another.
  5. But, most important, teams need psychological safety.

Charles Duhigg goes into greater depth with Google's research and findings in his book, Smarter Faster Better.

By way of a definition, Duhigg writes:

Psychological safety is a "shared belief, held by members of a team, that the group is a safe place for taking risks." It is "a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject, or punish someone for speaking up... It describes a team climate characterized by interpersonal trust and mutual respect in which people are comfortable being themselves."

Like many good ideas, psychological safety sounds obvious and easy.

Yet, how many teams have you worked on that had zero psychological safety? How many "teammates" have you worked with who would routinely "embarrass, reject, or punish" you or your coworkers?

Google found that all of its good teams shared two behaviors:

  1. "[A]ll the members of the good teams spoke in roughly the same proportion... The conversations didn't need to be equal every minute, but in aggregate, they had to balance out."
  2. "[T]he good teams tested as having 'high average social sensitivity' -- a fancy way of saying that the groups were skilled at intuiting how members felt based on their tone of voice, how people held themselves, and the expressions on their faces."

In short, everyone on the team should have a voice and be mindful of how others feel. What a novel idea. Perhaps our society can learn something from this research.

Lessons for Leaders: Creating Psychological Safety on Your Team

[T]he teams with the highest levels of psychological safety were also the ones with leaders most likely to model listening and social sensitivity. They invited people to speak up. They talked about their own emotions. They didn't interrupt other people. When someone was concerned or upset, they showed the group that it was okay to intervene. They tried to anticipate how people would react and then worked to accommodate those reactions. This is how teams encourage people to disagree while still being honest with one another and occasionally clashing. This is how psychological safety emerges: by giving everyone an equal voice and encouraging social sensitivity among teammates.

As leaders, we have to be the first to establish psychological safety. We have to model these behaviors if we expect the rest of our teams to do the same.

Until psychological safety is a norm within a company, leaders must make sure that everyone speaks up and feels safe doing so.

To create psychological safety... team leaders needed to model the right behaviors... Leaders should not interrupt teammates during conversations, because that will establish an interrupting norm. They should demonstrate they are listening by summarizing what people say after they said it. They should admit what they don't know. They shouldn't end a meeting until all team members have spoken at least once. They should encourage teammates to respond in nonjudgmental ways. They should call out intergroup conflicts and resolve them through open discussion.

I have definitely been guilty of interrupting or at least of being the first to jump in and speaking too fast for anyone else to have the space to contribute. I don't need to be the first to speak up and should never be the only one to speak up.

On the plus side, I'm happy to admit what I don't know. As a first-time CEO, that includes almost everything.