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  • A compelling piece of recent research about team effectiveness comes from Google’s Aristotle Project. It’s among the best and most thorough investigations of what makes corporate teams work well together. The key finding was that the number one predictor of team effectiveness is “psychological safety”. As Google’s re:Work site puts it:

    “Psychological safety refers to an individual’s perception of the consequences of taking an interpersonal risk or a belief that a team is safe for risk taking in the face of being seen as ignorant, incompetent, negative, or disruptive.”

    There are other team effectiveness factors, too, like dependability and structure and clarity—but psychological safety tops the list. If we ever needed a reminder that humans today continue to live out the challenges of our ancestral, risk-filled homelands, this should do it. When people feel safe with each other, they perform well. When they don’t, they can’t.

    While managers in particular have a definite impact on the sense of safety in a group, every member of the team has a role to play. Without a group exploration of safety or its absence, it’s too easy to view the lack of safety as someone else’s problem. When everyone on a team takes responsibility for building a safe environment for all, teams can make real progress.

    While the norms of safety may vary from one environment to another, a team’s sense of psychological safety functions as a reservoir of goodwill and trust. Everyone on the team is always adding to the reservoir or draining it.

    Here are four things any team can do to build its reservoir of psychological safety:

    Bump up your self-awareness: a lot of unsafe environments are created unintentionally when people aren’t aware of the effect they’re having on others. On the other hand, if you’re feeling unsafe and don’t realize it, there’s not much you can do about it. Pay attention to what’s happening within yourself and with other people. That’s the basis of psychological safety.

    Listen to each other: One of the fastest ways to grow your self-awareness is to really hear what other people are saying: not just the words they are using, but their tone of voice and the emotional content of what they say.

    Include each other: Barriers decrease the collective sense of safety (why do those walls need to be there in the first place?) and reduce your ability to stay self-aware. Keep barriers down, stay committed to transparency, and let rich interactions stimulate connections.

    Speak up for yourself: Psychological safety is a group effort. But your point of view—even if it’s challenging to express in the moment—is essential for building the group’s self-awareness.

    Try It: Have a conversation with your team about psychological safety. Consider how the group’s ways of behaving are adding to or draining the safety reservoir. What small changes can you make to your patterns of interaction that will increase the supply?

    Image: By Editor5807 [GFDL or CC BY 3.0 ], from Wikimedia Commons