Psychological Safety in Groups

In the last decade, Google has spent millions of dollars hacking into their employees' lives in an effort to figure out ways to help them become their most productive and creative selves. And in 2012, they began "Project Aristotle" to investigate why a small number of their work teams were off-the-charts productive and creative, while the majority were something like "good enough," and a minority just crashed and burned. 

As they tried to figure out what made the exceptional teams tick, for a long time all they came up with was: not much. It didn't seem to matter who was on the team, how intelligent they were, what kind of skills they had, what the gender balance was, or how leadership was structured. To make matters worse, the truly powerful teams often looked a lot different from each other. 

Eventually, the researchers came across the one concept that made all the seemingly conflicting data make sense: Psychological Safety. 

To begin to understand the concept of Psychological Safety, we first have to recognize one simple fact: none of us want to be seen by others as ignorant, incompetent, intrusive, or negative.

But this gets tricky whenever we have to:

  • Try to do something we haven't mastered yet
  • Ask a question
  • Admit a weakness or a mistake
  • Propose new ideas
  • Offer feedback or critiques

All of these things represent a significant interpersonal risk. And we often have to do every single one of them when we're at work. 

What makes a work environment or a team Psychologically Safe is the shared belief that the team is a safe place to take these risks. Everyone on the team knows that if they do take a risk and it does fall flat, that their belonging in the group is not at stake. This doesn't just mean fired or not-fired; it also means that team members know they're safe from subtler forms of being "cast out:" shaming, humiliation, being left out of conversations, or otherwise shunned or avoided. 

In a Psychologically Safe environment, you can take these risks not without some discomfort, but without the fear of punishment or retaliation. You might even be able to take them with gusto, knowing that your team is there to back you up no matter what and will probably even celebrate when you fall flat on your face. These risks are necessary for LEARNING, which is necessary for INNOVATING. 

Turns out this was the secret sauce of Google's most impressive teams: people embraced the vulnerability of these interpersonal risks, knowing that their jobs and their relationships to their teammates were not in jeopardy (and in fact, were actually strengthened by this ethos of mutual risk taking). And because of all the learning they were able to do, their creations and innovations massively outpaced the majority of other work teams in the company. 

So what happens when Psychological Safety isn't present? To certain parts of our brain, a threat to our social system is a threat to our survival. It responds to this perceived threat in the same way it would respond to a serious predator: by pulling the fight or flight cord in your brain and body. Because what's more important: learning something new, or not dying? Learning goes out the window and we become mired in "Status Management," where instead of focusing on the task at hand, our resources are spent on navigating our uncertainty about one another and protecting our standing in the group. Bummer. 

So, how do we create Psychological Safety? 

In studying Psychological Safety, researchers spend a lot of time observing "belonging cues," the countless, tiny behaviors that signal connection, safety, and belonging. In his book, "The Culture Code: The Secret of Highly Successful Groups," Daniel Coyle outlines the different kinds of signals that make up belonging cues:

  • Close physical proximity, often in circles
  • Profuse amounts of eye contact and physical touch (handshakes, fist bumps, hugs)
  • Lots of short, energetic exchanges (no long speeches)
  • High levels of mixing; everyone talks to everyone, in roughly the same proportion
  • Everybody takes risks, and everybody shares their vulnerability
  • Intensive, active listening; few interruptions
  • Lots of questions; humor and laughter
  • Small, attentive courtesies (thank-yous, opening doors, etc.)
  • Paying attention to one another’s emotional states and responding to them

And all belonging cues have three characteristics in common:

  1. Energy: they invest in the exchange that is occurring
  2. Individualization: they treat each person as unique and valued
  3. Future orientation: they signal the relationship will continue

In the same way that a pair of lovers re-affirm their connection over and over again by saying, "I love you" in every imaginable way, groups and teams need to continually re-affirm a similar message, "Every voice matters. We’re in this together, and we can do hard things by supporting and encouraging one another. Connection and belonging are a given.”

Psychological Safety is important because it is what allows human beings to combine themselves to create a system that can think and operate as ONE THING, a unit that is capable of greater intelligence and creativity than any individual could be alone. Furthermore, being part of a group like this gives us the profound experience of belonging to, of being part of, something larger than ourselves. This makes going to work and being at work intrinsically meaningful and rewarding. If we're going to spend the majority of our waking hours at work, with these people, we may as well have a good time doing it. 

It's also important to note what Psychological Safety is NOT:

  • Avoidance or suppression of conflict, triggers, or controversial topics
  • Everyone liking each other, false or sanitized “nice-ness”
  • People sharing the same values and opinions

Daniel Coyle writes that, “one misconception about highly successful cultures is that they are happy, lighthearted places. This is mostly not the case. They are energized and engaged, but at their core their members are oriented less around achieving happiness than around solving hard problems together. This task involves many moments of high-candor feedback, uncomfortable truth-telling, when they confront the gap between where the group is, and where it ought to be.” 

I'll leave you with this thought...

In his book, "The Culture Code: The Secret of Highly Successful Groups," Daniel Coyle writes, "When you ask people inside highly successful groups to describe their relationship with one another, they all tend to use the same word… family." 

Wouldn't it be great if there was more of that kind of feeling in the world? 

Works and Websites Referenced in the Creation of this Article

"The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups," by Daniel Coyle

The Harvard Business Review article on Psychological Safety: https://hbr.org/2017/08/high-performing-teams-need-psychological-safety-heres-how-to-create-it

The New York Times article on the Google Studies: https://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/28/magazine/what-google-learned-from-its-quest-to-build-the-perfect-team.html

Google's own page about creating Psychologically Safe teams: https://rework.withgoogle.com/blog/five-keys-to-a-successful-google-team/

Ted Talk by Amy Edmonson, who studies Psychological Safety at Harvard: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LhoLuui9gX8