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PSYCHOLOGICAL SAFETY: NOTHING ELSE MATTERS IF YOU GET THIS WRONG

What’s the one quality or behaviour that most contributes to effective teamwork?



To answer that question, Google launched its Project Aristotle.


By analysing research studies and observing group dynamics and behaviour of 180 of its own teams, the project’s aim was to identify the one thing that makes a team successful.



LOOKING FOR PATTERNS


Google is good at finding patterns. Google was now looking for behaviour patterns of successful teams. They examined, in this order:


1. Is a team successful when members spend social time together outside work? No, that wasn’t it.


2. Could it be personality traits, for example, mostly outgoing extroverts or introverted shy people, or right combination of both? Does gender balance play a part? No clear pattern of that was emerging.


3. Does having a strong manager leading a team make a difference or should team structure be less hierarchical? No, that wasn’t what made the difference.


4. Educational background?


5. Having similar interests outside work? No significant patterns discovered there.


6. Meeting styles? Some team meetings are more tightly controlled where discussion is not allowed to diverge along tangents. Other team meetings are more free flowing, where attendees interrupt each other. Does that make a difference?


NORMS


Finally, researchers started looking at norms — unwritten ground rules about workplace culture.


They observed meetings where some teams interrupted one another, with individuals tolerating being interrupted. Other teams insisted on taking turns in conversational order.


Eventually researchers uncovered two behaviours all good teams shared.


CONVERSATIONAL EQUALITY


Firstly, in the course of discussion or working on a task everyone spoke roughly the same amount of time. There was equal distribution of conversation. No one person or small group dominated.


When everyone had a chance to talk, the team did well.


SOCIAL SENSITIVITY


Secondly, people in the good teams displayed social sensitivity, that is, the ability to gauge how other people are feeling by their tone of voice, facial expression and non-verbal cues.


This sensitivity can be measured by a Reading the Mind in the Eyes test, (often included in emotional intelligence training). This test presents photos of sets of eyes with a choice of four mental states e.g. confused, anxious, bored, amused. The goal is to match mental state with what can be read in the eyes.


These two attributes, conversational equality and social sensitivity, form part of group culture that displays what’s called psychological safety.


PSYCHOLOGICAL SAFETY


Harvard Business School Professor, Amy Edmondson, first referred to psychological safety in a 1999 study. Edmondson defined it as ‘a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject or punish someone for speaking up.’


How can team leaders ensure psychological safety in the workplace?


5 WAYS TO CULTIVATE PSYCHOLOGICAL SAFETY


1. Welcome suggestions for improvement and new ideas rather than automatically rejecting them or viewing as personal criticism.


2. Don’t tolerate people being rude or discourteous with each other.


3. It’s okay for people to share a little about what’s going on in their lives. (Don’t view it as gossipy chit-chat to be discouraged.)


4. Value EQ (emotional intelligence) as much as IQ (intelligence quotient) and upskill your people in that area with emotional intelligence training.


5. Encourage the ability to communicate and collaborate. (This is now a critical success factor in high-performing teams.)


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