Psychological Safety: The key element for a highly productive team
Psychological Ownership

Psychological Safety: The key element for a highly productive team

In psychologically safe teams, team members feel accepted and respected.

Joao Gamas profile image
Dec 12, 2019 • 5 min read

In one engagement not long ago, my client was focused on building perfect teams. The company was in a fast growth phase, and had decided it was time to “make work scalable”. The teams already worked physically together in order to innovate faster, see mistakes quickly, find better solutions to problems, and achieve better job satisfaction - but it was clear that bureaucracy was creeping in. As the number of meetings increased, one could see that it took exponentially greater number of people to product a linear increase in productivity. The number of people quadrupled, but overall productivity seemed to only increase by half.

It was time to get serious about productivity and they called a director meeting (which I was invited to give my two cents in) to talk about an improvement strategy. (Gulp!)

The proposed plan was to setup a policy to rank all the employees and, based on linear regression analysis, adjust pay scales to match the ranking. In my mind I already knew the next logical step they would take: institute a rule to lay off the lower 10% at scheduled intervals. (Double gulp, wide eyes!). 

The plan was presented by HR on a video conference call, and during questions one participant pointed what seemed to be a contradiction in the plan: while one of the raking criteria was “Being a team player”, the ranking itself meant each employee would be in competition with each other (specially if there was a possibility that those in the bottom might be let go).

“I hate talking to engineers” was the first thing we heard back. That answer, though not really an answer, gave me pause. I immediately knew what he was driving to - that someone was focusing on the rational aspect of the policy and missing the point completely. The thought that the carefully detailed policy was being scrutinized generated frustration and that was visible by the condescending tone of the “I hate talking to engineers” comment.

But of course, it was he who had missed the conundrum the policy presented, and the depth of insight the engineer had presented. Would they really increase productivity by picking the “MVP” (Most Valuable Players) while generating a culture of competition?

I though back at Google’s project Aristotle, where they spent untold millions of dollars measuring nearly every aspect of its employees’ lives to identify exactly what made the most productive teams. Google’s People Operations department scrutinized everything from how frequently particular people eat together (the most productive employees tend to build larger networks by rotating dining companions) to which traits the best managers share (found to be good communication and not micromanaging).

Like so many IT companies, Google’s top executives believed that building the best teams meant combining the best people. And they attempted various combination methods, based on interests, the type of rewards that motivated them, personal friendships (socialization outside work), hobbies, educational background, character traits, tenure, and even introversion levels. They attempted to identify group norms (traditions, behavioral standards and unwritten rules that govern how people function when gathered - which can be unspoken or openly acknowledged).

No matter how researchers arranged the data, though, it was almost impossible to find patterns — or any evidence that the composition of a team made any difference. There was nothing showing that a mix of specific personality types or skills or backgrounds made any difference. The ‘who’ part of the equation didn’t seem to matter. They identified some behaviors that seemed important, but often one productive teams’ norms conflicted sharply with another productive teams’.

This then reminded me of the finding of a group of psychologists from Carnegie Mellon, MIT and Union College that in 2008 used a statistical approach to measure the intelligence of groups. They wanted to know if a collective IQ was distinct from the smarts of each member. They found that teams that did well in one test assignment usually did well in all the others - while teams that failed at one trial seemed to fail at most. Their illuminating conclusion was that “good” teams differed from “dysfunctional” teams by how teammates treated each other - and not the individual intelligence of each member.

The twist on the finding was that not all “good” teams behaved equally. While some groups had strong leadership that distributed the work around the members, other groups found ways to take advantage of each ones’ strengths. But they noticed two behaviors that were consistent: members spoke in roughly equal proportions (either by rotating leadership or by open contribution of ideas); and they had high “social sensitivity”, or a high emotional understanding of each others reactions. 

It was just like the study done on the best performing surgical teams (those performing difficult patient surgeries). It was found that the best teams also had the most identified issues during the surgeries. But more identified “problems” should suggest a lower skill level - but instead it correlated with the fastest patient recovery times and the best success rates. The answer to that puzzle was that the surgical teams that were most inclusive (that most allowed everyone to identify improvement opportunities) were the ones that had the highest count of learning objectives and were also the ones that incorporated the most innovative (and productive) ways to work.

And here I was witnessing the exact opposite than inclusion. The “I hate talking to engineers” was not a comment that added any value, but instead was designed to exert dominance over other teammates. Instead of evaluating the possible hidden contribution, the group was allowing a counter-productive behavior to control the outcome. 

And this is why I am a coach. My contribution is not being the smartest person in the room - it is in being able to identify behaviors and expose them. Culture is changed not by brute force, but by talking about these situations and learning from them. it is a process of growing that looks very much like that of children - where each individual can have a chance to experience and get feedback on a better way.

So I did what I had to do. Keeping in mind that this situation is nobody’s fault, I exposed the facts by abstracting what is actually happening so everyone can see what I see:

“How about we take a moment to evaluate the current situation? We are holding a meeting to evaluate a proposal that will impact all employees in the organization. The gut reaction of each person will be very telling of how this change will make them feel. Their immediate questions are those that will expose their biggest concerns about this project, and we must listen to them intently if we want this to be a success. Concerns are often hidden in between messages and we need to ask more questions to understand where the concerns come from. The only rule we have is that we cannot dismiss the input of any team member.”

This comment spurred apologies - but that is not what this is about. It is about creating a team norm where each individual feels secure in contributing. And these are those learning moments where we can talk about these behaviors and make them part of our culture.

5 minute read
Revision #4
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Created on Dec 12, 2019 22:03,
last edited on Dec 12, 2019 22:03