No, it’s not leadership. Or vision. Or even goals.  

There is a lot of research that has gone into finding what makes the most successful and productive teams tick. We’re not going to lie, you often encounter reports of that research in books and articles on leadershipwhich is probably why the emphasis always seems to be on things that leaders can provide, like a vision, a sense of purpose, clear channels of communication, and so on.  

True, the one key ingredient is something that leadership can provide…and that others can (and must) too. Think of the best team you’ve ever been on—the one where it didn’t matter how hard the work was, or how crammed timelines pressured you. The one where everyone showed up to work and had a great time while winning. What about that team made you love it? (Conversely, if you’ve been on a miserable team, think about why it was bad. I’m guessing it wasn’t the tech stack or the cube layout.)  

Research has shown that the key ingredient that makes all of that great teamwork happen is something called psychological safety. If you can bring that to your organization, you are well on your way to having productive teams. And it is one of the main reasons we here at Sketch tend to be so bullish about an agile approach to organizations. 

Psychological Safety and Project Aristotle 

Google’s Project Aristotle isn’t well known to the general public, but it is probably one of their most interesting projects to date. Google essentially had some of their best minds spend two years looking into the traits that made productive teams productive, and that were notably missing in unproductive teams. They conducted over 200 interviews and tested out some 250 different team attributes.  

During this time, they came up with some interesting findings:  

  • Teams that were created by traditional means, matching up skills or dispositions, didn’t seem to do the trick. 
  • Yes, good teams needed dependable people, clearly stated goals, and sense of purpose (just like those leadership books say). But these were table stakes; they were necessary, but not sufficient, for good teamwork. 
  • Successful teams communicated differently: Everyone interacted in the same way, “at the same level,” if you will, without one person monitoring or controlling that communication. 
  • Team members displayed a pretty high EQ. They were successful at reading other team members’ emotions. 
  • The highest-performing teams had an atmosphere where team members’ ideas were heard and respected. This created a sense of safety within the team. 

It’s this last item that usually surprises people the most. Essentially, Google found that teams with psychologically safe environments better retained their members, were more likely to benefit from diversity, and, ultimately, were more successful.  

If we stop and think about it, this makes sense. Your A-list talent isn’t going to provide suggestions in a meeting if they feel their ideas aren’t welcomed, or are unduly criticized. The same happens if your talent feels micromanaged, distrusted, or simply misunderstood.  

Innovation thrives on the free exchange of ideas, but neither will happen if your team members do not feel it is safe to take risks, share opinions, or simply air grievances. That is why psychological safety is needed—to turn talented-but-just-OK teams into true collaborative powerhouses. 

How to Promote a Sense of Psychological Safety in Your Team or Organization 

Great—now what?  

How do you actually create that sense of psychological safety on your teams? Or throughout the organization? There is no one secret formula, of course. But here are six things you can try:  

  1. Give teams room to “play.” Most talented, motivated individuals have some side project they want to work on (just as the inventor of the laser, or java, or Facebook, or…). Give them the time to pursue those ideas! We know of some organizations that set aside one day a month for their developers to do exactly that, and their rates of innovation are much higher than the competition. 
  2. Flatten the hierarchy. People do not feel safe if they feel they must constantly justify their position or job. Flattening the hierarchy can reduce this natural defensiveness. Encourage sharing in meetings by making it more of a “show and tell” than “justify and defend.” 
  3. Master feedback. Set the tone, and expectations, when it comes to giving and receiving feedback. Involve team members in training if you have to. 
  4. Replace blame with curiosity. Flattening the hierarchy and regulating feedback are both tools for getting rid of a culture of blame within your organization. What should take its place is curiosity. Encourage team members to be curious about why something (a project, a feature, a process, an event) failed—but also encourage them to do so in a non-judgmental, non-finger-pointing way. 
  5. Work on “EQ.” Yes, being able to read the emotional states of others and adapt to them in the course of work is, in fact, a skill. And because it is a skill, it can be learned! 
  6. Make this part of your Agile transformation. If you are already undergoing a change initiative, such as an Agile transformation, it is the perfect time to think about psychological safety on your teams and to make the necessary adjustments to ensure it. For example, as you stand up agile teams, make sure they have adequate time to form proper norms and standards for communication. 

Your organization will have a culture, whether it is intentional or not. Low or high, Psychological Safety is a cornerstone of what that culture will be. So: Are you being intentional with the culture you want to build? What steps are you taking to improve psychological safety at any and all levels of your org? 

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