Safety First

I'm a proud step dog dad.

My girlfriend has two yellow labs named Lily and Rosie and I love them like my own.

She adopted them after seeing an Instagram post from the local pound. As with many adopted pets we don't know their history, and unfortunately it seems men weren't kind to them. They often bark at dudes and it took them a little while to become completely comfortable with me.

Even now after a couple years, if I raise my voice or scold one of them they slouch into the corner, reliving old fears. It takes some effort to get their tails wagging again. A shift from believing they are safe to feeling unsafe has an overwhelming effect on them - even their appetites.

Their perception of safety controls everything.

I spent last week in Columbus, Ohio on a little tour delivering a new workshop called They Got My Back: Creating Psychological Safety on Your Team thanks to my friend Brett Buchanan, founder of Pathfinder Product Labs.

Over several days we gathered teams to have conversations about the importance and power of creating culture of Psychological Safety in their organizations. Bottom line, teams comprised of people who feel safe to contribute are more effective. As with most newfangled insights about team dynamics, this seems pretty simple.

Because it is.

Google made safety cool again a few years ago when they kicked off Project Aristotle with the hopes of discovering what ingredients created the most effective teams. They spent over two years tracking more than 200 teams, interviewing hundreds of Googlers and measuring over 250 attributes of team dynamics with the assumption the individual talents and skills of people on a team mattered most.

In the beginning they, like many of us might have, predicted finding the right alchemy of people, proficiencies, processes, and passions would allow them to assemble teams more likely to succeed. Makes sense, right? It must be about getting the right people.

This would have been great because (unfortunately) most of America still wants to live in a world where we can take shortcuts to success or hack our way past people. I mean, wouldn't it be awesome if we could find the perfect people and discard those who think differently, feel differently, or have different life experiences? Thankfully, of the most effective teams Google tracked there was a different sort of magic uncovered which empowered them to do great work.

The following elements were the real contributors to high performing teams:

  • Psychological Safety

  • Dependability

  • Structure & Clarity

  • Meaning

  • Impact

Their research shows Psychological Safety far and away leads the pack as the most necessary element for a healthy and effective team. They define Psychological Safety as follows:

Team members feel safe to take risks and be vulnerable in front of each other.

Here's another definition I like from their expanded findings in their Guide to Understand Team Effectiveness:

Psychological Safety refers to an individual’s perception of the consequences of taking an interpersonal risk or a belief that a team is safe for risk taking in the face of being seen as ignorant, incompetent, negative, or disruptive. In a team with high Psychological Safety, teammates feel safe to take risks around their team members. They feel confident that no one on the team will embarrass or punish anyone else for admitting a mistake, asking a question, or offering a new idea.

So, it seems, we can't create the perfect team by finding the perfect people. How we treat members of our team is more important than who is on the team.

How > Who.

There's an anecdote in Charle's Duhigg's New York Times article, What Google Learned From Its Quest to Build the Perfect Team, about two teams: Team A and Team B.

Team A has a bunch of very smart people who are subject matter experts. Their meetings begin and end on time and they get straight to business. It's clear who's in charge and there's no need for play, new ideas, discourse or any funny business. Not everyone needs to speak because it's not efficient.

Team B is pretty loose and is comprised of average performers. They kind of meander through their meetings, and often follow rabbit trails about a new idea or hear a different perspective. People speak roughly the same amount and feel free to express opinions without fear.

Which team achieves the best results and is most effective long-term?

It's not Team A with the all-star performers. Team B, though seemingly more average and less focused, is the more effective team every time.

Duhigg goes on to mention findings from a similar study done on team effectiveness by Carnegie Mellon, M.I.T. and Union College:

The researchers eventually concluded that what distinguished the ‘‘good’’ teams from the dysfunctional groups was how teammates treated one another. The right norms, in other words, could raise a group’s collective intelligence, whereas the wrong norms could hobble a team, even if, individually, all the members were exceptionally bright.

How > Who.

There is collective intelligence to be unearthed when groups gather together independent of the individual skills and talents of its members. For our teams to tap into the wisdom of the entire group, everyone must feel safe and welcome to contribute. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

The gift of this work on Psychological Safety isn't its profundity, it's the strength of the reminder that regardless of technological advancements, performance enhancements and deeper insights, much of what has unfailingly mattered about human interaction continues to matter. Existing on this planet has always been about people learning how to exist together. Which is messy and unpredictable.

One more great quote from Duhigg reminding us it's impossible to control the ever-changing variables of human interaction:

...when companies try to optimize everything, it’s sometimes easy to forget that success is often built on experiences — like emotional interactions and complicated conversations and discussions of who we want to be and how our teammates make us feel — that can’t really be optimized. 

When we prioritize Psychological Safety on our teams we get to relax from this idea that teams can and should be perfect - which means I can sooth my inner fear I must be perfect. Deep breath now. That feels nice.

This makes sense, doesn’t it? Try to get someone who's afraid of constant judgement to be creative or innovative. Even the highest performers will eventually either fold under the anxiety of feeling like they aren't accepted for who they are, or build a poisonous grudge guaranteed to infect the rest of your organization.

So what does it look like to focus on how we're operating on our teams? The main (crushingly obvious) behaviors Google found on teams with high Psychological Safety are:

  • Making sure every voice is heard and each person shares equally

  • Actually listening to one another so each member feels valued

  • Paying attention to the dynamics of a group and noticing when things are off

The power of Psychological Safety is rooted deep within our biological desire to survive. Though we’re living in a new context, our wiring hasn't changed. Simply because our world today is shinier and faster doesn't mean we're not still solely focused on protecting our existence.

A mentor of mine always says we become who we practice being. This wisdom applies to our individual personal development and equally matters in our organizations. The ability of our business to be competitive in the marketplace, to grow, to evolve, and to connect with our customers is directly linked to our dedication to creating safety for our tribe.

Safety first.


Header photo by Fabian Gieske on Unsplash.