Is Your Organization Psychologically Safe?

The February 28, 2016 edition of The New York Times Magazine, called “The Work Issue,” is devoted to the topic of the American workplace. The real stand-out for employers is, “Group Study: New research reveals surprising truths about why some teams thrive and others falter.” It describes Google’s Project Aristotle, a years-long research initiative reviewing previous sociological and organizational psychological research. Their conclusion: Successful teams result when participants feel “psychologically safe.”

Psychological Safety (PS), defined as, “a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking,”* arose in the 1960s. It may be more relevant than ever in 2016, where workplaces require teamwork to tackle complex, multi-disciplinary challenges. Successful collaboration among diverse, functional groups is essential for organizations to succeed in an intensely competitive environment. Google heavily relies on teams, prompting their investment to research the topic. A review of their lessons and other research papers provides ideas for practical application by any size employer.

Employers who wish to reap the benefits of PS must start at the top. Research by Harvard Business School identifies the benefits when leaders model PS:

  • Learning is enhanced at both the personal and organizational levels.
  • Risk-taking is more commonplace, leading to innovation and better problem-solving.
  • Culture becomes more engaging, which attracts and retains higher-skilled talent.

PS is encouraged by an organization’s intentional effort to help build “high-quality” relationships among employees. This “bottom up” approach provides employees a psychological freedom that encourages engagement and even loyalty.

Are your work teams effective? Google identified these characteristics of a psychologically safe team:

  • Team members contribute at about the same level. If a group is dominated by  a few voices, PS does not exist.
  • Participants are comfortable with going “off topic,” sharing personal challenges and activities. This “wasted time” contributes to team members connecting and understanding each other’s subtle emotional cues.
  • Team members admit failure, fears, or weaknesses, confident they will receive support.

Embracing PS offers employers new opportunities for effectively managing the fastest-growing segment of their workforce: Millennials. Known as communicators who desire frequent feedback, guidance, and discussion, Millennials are criticized for not acting more independently. Millennials’ penchant for frequent dialog (practiced in a workplace where they feel psychologically safe) enhances organizational learning, teamwork, and problem solving! Learn from decades of research and the deep pockets at Google: A psychologically safe organization can achieve greater levels of success.

*“Psychological Safety and Learning Behavior in Work Teams,” Amy Edmondson, Harvard University