What Drives Team Success?

Ever wondered what distinguishes exceptional teams from others?

Psychological safety.

Coined by Harvard Professor Amy Edmondson, psychological safety has been found to be at the heart of great teams. She defines psychological safety as "a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking" and explains that psychologically safe environments exude "a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject, or punish someone for speaking up."

It is important to remember that psychological safety is not the same as trust.

"Trust is the expectation that other people's future actions will be favorable to one's interests. Psychological safety refers to a climate in which people are comfortable being (and expressing) themselves. Although both constructs involve a willingness to be vulnerable to others' actions, they are conceptually and theoretically distinct. In particular, psychological safety is centrally tied to learning behavior, while trust lowers transaction costs and reduces the need to monitor behavior."
  - Amy Edmondson: Psychological Safety, Trust, and Learning (2004)

Organizations have to focus on performance. The challenge is to keep learning even while performing at peak levels. A useful model to understand what really happens in organizations is a 2 x 2 matrix. On one axis, we have performance pressure (accountability for results). On the other axis, we have psychological safety.

Image result for psychological safety and accountability

When psychological safety as well as accountability levels are low (apathy zone), employees are apathetic and constantly jockey for positions. Bureaucratic organizations where currying favor rather than sharing ideas is the norm typify this zone. When accountability is high but the necessary psychological safety is absent (anxiety zone), employees are stressed and anxious. They are wary to experiment, to offer new ideas, or to seek help. Burnout is a frequent outcome. Banks and consulting are typical examples. Environments in which psychological safety is high but without performance pressures (comfort zone) are breeding grounds for complacency. There is hardly any sense of urgency and doing the minimum is the norm. Family businesses and small firms can be found in this quadrant. The learning zone (where psychological safety and performance pressures go hand in hand) is the ideal quadrant to be in. High performance teams belong to this quadrant.
Why is this a big deal? The issue of psychological safety is central to organizational learning. Though the concept of the learning organization has been around for over two decades, one cannot find many organizations that can be said to have reached Level 5 of the learning organization model. As pointed out by Professors David Garvin, Amy Edmondson, and Francesca Gino in their HBR article “Is Yours a Learning Organization?” (HBR March 2008), the conceptual framework is too abstract to afford practical implementation.

To learn, employees cannot fear being belittled or marginalized when they disagree with peers or authority figures, ask naïve questions, own up to mistakes, or present a minority viewpoint. Instead, they must be comfortable expressing their thoughts about the work at hand."

Three building blocks are suggested for the learning organization – a supportive learning environment, concrete learning processes and practices, and leadership that reinforces learning. Critical to a learning environment are psychological safety, an appreciation of differences (opposing viewpoints are encouraged), openness to new ideas (however counter-intuitive they may sound), and a time for reflection.

In what is easily the most extensive experiment of its kind, Google’s Project Aristotle has come to very similar conclusions. Project Aristotle, started in 2012, with key findings made available late in 2015, is a landmark study of teamwork and team performance. Project Aristotle identified five critical factors for team success:
Psychological safety: How comfortable do you feel taking risks on the team without feeling insecure or embarrassed?
Dependability: Can you depend on your teammates and hold them accountable? Can you expect team members to consistently achieve excellence?
Structure and clarity: Are goals and roles clearly defined?
Meaning of work: Is everyone on the team working on something that is personally important to them?
Impact of work: Do you believe that the work you are doing matters?
The project identified that psychological safety was the most important. Without psychological safety, the other four don’t matter.
Think and answer honestly:

Have you ever refrained from sharing your ideas or thoughts at work because you were worried about how people might react?

If you answered no, you are in an incredibly wonderful workplace, or you are lying.
Even with substantive evidence from pioneering organizations, the reality is quite different. Most organizations simply do not provide the building blocks for learning. Particularly troublesome are onboarding practices that consciously or otherwise drill stereotypes or conformist views in the hope of achieving a level of standardization. Human beings are unique and need the space to be themselves rather than the caricatures of mundane job descriptions. Across 142 countries, the proportion of employees who feel engaged at work is just 13 percent. As Tony Schwartz of the Energy Project and Christine Porath of Georgetown University argue, “Work is a depleting, dispiriting experience, and in some ways, it is getting worse."

For employees to be satisfied and productive, four core needs have to be met: Physical (with opportunities to renew and recharge), Emotional (being valued and appreciated), Mental (opportunities to be creative, focused, and defining when and where to get work done), and Spiritual (doing more of what one enjoys the most and feeling connected to a higher purpose). A survey of over 12,000 employees at different levels, sectors, and industries suggests that most organizations fail on at least two of the four dimensions. When will organizations realize that the way people feel at work profoundly influences how they perform?

Daniel Cable of the London Business School, Francesca Gino of Harvard Business School, and Bradley Staats of the University of North Carolina have shown (Reinventing Employee Onboarding; MIT Sloan Management Review; Spring 2013) that traditional methods of onboarding have serious weaknesses. They question the assumption that organizational values are something to be taught to and adopted by newcomers.

“This creates a tension: When newcomers are ‘processed’ to accept an organization’s identity, they are expected to downplay their own identities, at least while they are at work. But subordinating one’s identity and unique perspectives may not be optimal in the long run for either the organization or the individual employee because suppressing one’s identity is upsetting and psychologically depleting.”

Traditional approaches to management and the default operating principle in organizations is that employees are expected to “wear a mask” so as to conform to the organization’s norms. 

A people-centered organization places its people ahead of even customers. Because, in the final analysis, people alone are true sources of differentiation and therefore of a competitive advantage – not technology, not other resources, and not capabilities. Consider a simple example: In a highly competitive industry with wafer-thin margins, Costco pays its average workers 65% more per hour than its main competitor, Sam’s Club. Further, it provides benefits even to part-time workers. Result: Costco’s employees generate twice the sales of Sam’s Club employees.
The most astonishing disconnect is that senior leaders across industries are unanimous in their assessment that when employees are valued, energized, focused, and purposeful, they are able to deliver superior performance consistently; yet, the same leaders have difficulty answering how much they have invested in meeting people’s physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual needs.

All is not lost yet. Simple steps to build psychological safety include framing work as learning problems as opposed to execution problems, an acknowledgment of fallibility by leaders (that in turn leads to a tolerance for honest failure), being accessible, encouraging team members to share their errors and failures, seeking and providing help, clarifications, feedback, and information, showing that reporting of errors or difficulty is not the same as poor performance (on the contrary, not reporting errors or difficulty might be viewed as poor performance), and devoting some time to share personal triumphs, tragedies, and challenges.

You can watch Amy Edmondson's fascinating Ted talk here:


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