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Das Online-Magazin der Angestellten Schweiz

Safety instead of the Whip: What Makes Teams More Effective

Forget about the individual performance of team members, consensus-driven decision making or teams sitting together in the same office. They are not the important factors that make teams more effective. As a research project at Google and a study at Harvard University show, one other factor is by far the most important: psychological safety. What exactly is psychological safety and why is it so important? This article will enlighten you.

Imagine you are a nurse. You must give medication to a patient according to the doctor's instructions. You have great doubts whether the prescribed very high dosage of a pill is correct. Should you call the doctor to make sure? This doctor has treated you brusquely on several occasions and doubted your competence. You’d rather not irritate him again, you don’t call him.

What would you have done if you knew that the doctor appreciates your initiatives and is glad about such queries? You would have called him immediately, of course. He would have explained to you the specific circumstances of this patient. Not only would you have been sure that nothing was wrong, you would also have gained valuable knowledge.

What is the difference between the two situations? In the first you feel very uncomfortable, because you fear or even expect a negative reaction. Psychologically, you are in an unsafe situation. You’d rather not take any risks – which might increase the risk for the patient, however.

Certainly you can relate to exactly how the nurse feels – because you've been in the same situation many times at work. Maybe it's even part of your daily work routine. You are in a state of psychological unsafety.

Biting the Tongue vs. Bringing up the Problem

In an article in the newspaper Tages Anzeiger Christian Fichter characterizes psychological unsafety by the fact that you have to constantly pretend and bite your tongue at work. You can't be yourself, you're in constant fear of being crushed when admitting mistakes or addressing drawbacks.

High psychological security, on the other hand, can be recognized according to Christian Fichter by the fact that employees meet at eye level, have roughly equal shares of speech, and talk not only about trivial matters but also about risky ones. They do this in an informal manner that shows that each team member has an inner interest in the common success.

Psychological Safety Triggers Learning

The first to address the issue of psychological safety was Amy Edmondson, a Harvard University professor specializing in leadership. She published a study on the subject as early as 1999. (See also her TED Talk, in which she explains why she started studying psychological safety.) To measure a team’s level of psychological safety Amy Edmondson asked team members how strongly they agreed or disagreed with statements like: “If you make a mistake, it is often held against you”, “members of the team are able to bring up problems and tough issues”, “people of the team sometimes reject others for being different”, “it is difficult to ask other members of the team for help”. These questions were studied and evaluated in different teams.

“The results of the study supported the proposition that team psychological safety affects learning behavior, which in turn affects team performance.” This is Edmondson’s conclusion of her study. In other words: teams with high psychological safety are more prepared to learn and are thus more effective.

An important reason for that, according to Edmondson, is “that people’s beliefs about how others will respond if they engage in behavior for which the outcome is uncertain affects their willingness to take interpersonal risks”. Not taking risks means no learning. Our introductory example illustrates this and shows that in the worst case it can be dangerous. In the less serious case, chances may be missed (because nobody dares to criticize a project or make suggestions, for example).

Research at Google confirms the facts

A company that has incorporated the idea of psychological safety is Google. As part of a large-scale research project, Google investigated what the performance of its team depends on. The result could not have been clearer. By far the most important of 60 factors was psychological safety. Other important factors were dependability, structure and clarity, meaning and impact. Not significantly connected with team effectiveness at Google are factors like consensus-driven decision making, the individual performance of team members, teams sitting in the same office, the workload size or the team size. This might certainly surprise many a manager!

If psychological safety is the most important factor for the effectiveness of teams, what should be done to foster it? Amy Edmondson suggests three simple things:

  • Frame the work as a learning problem, not an execution problem
  • Acknowledge your own fallability
  • Model curiosity and ask lots of questions

Google suggests to their managers that they solicit input and opinions from the group, share information about personal and work style preferences and encourage others to do the same.

Psychological safety is a management task

It is obvious that establishing psychological safety is a leadership task. According to Christian Fichter, leaders must show compassion, provide support, be trustworthy, be open and have integrity. He advises that psychologically trained specialists be consulted to determine the extent of psychological safety.

Psychological safety must not remain a mere intention or a paper tiger. It must be established, implemented and lived. Mere lip service is of no use!

Now is the right time to take care of psychological safety – for different reasons. Pressure at work is increasing, as are the uncertainties in the working world – a counterweight is needed. The shortage of skilled workers is also becoming an increasingly acute problem. Employers who can offer a psychologically safe working environment will be more attractive to potential employees. If they are clever enough to offer it, they will be winners in the labor market, and their employees, too.

Hansjörg Schmid

Dienstag, 22. Feb 2022

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