The Science of Psychological Safety

Do any of these sound familiar?

“If I did what is best for the company, long-term, I’d have to shut down production for a while for repairs and overhaul. My daily report on production would take a nosedive, and I’d be out of a job.”

”I’d like to understand better the reasons for some of the company’s procedures, but I don’t dare to ask about them.”

I’m afraid I may not always have an answer when my boss asks something.”

(Reference: W. Edwards Deming (1982) Out of The Crisis. The MIT Press.)

When people lack psychological safety, when a foundation of trust has not been built, we allow the brain’s fear avoidance mechanisms take over.  Fear shuts down our ability to provide critical input, ask questions, and admit when we don’t have an answer.  We employ “Impression Management” (Leary and Kowalski 1990) to manage our perceived risks which then prevents us from engaging directly in conversations that promote learning.

Our brains are wired to maximize pleasure and avoid pain.  Therefore, at work we don’t ask questions even when we need clarification because our brains convince us that there is too much risk.  We don’t admit we lack the knowledge or ability to do what is asked of us for the fear of looking weak.  We reframe from offering ideas or of critiquing the status quo for fear of being perceived as intrusive or negative.  When we lack psychological safety, we are not able to contribute fully with the result being the collective team intelligence declines.

Why Teams are the New Focus of Research into Performance

The 90s and early 2000s were a time where management and leadership research was focused on how to create the perfect leader.  We celebrated the individual leader and sought to understand what qualities leaders who led organizational performance to new levels had and how we could develop those qualities in others.  We celebrated Steve Jobs, the Jack Welsh, Bill Gates, Elon Musk, and the Richard Branson’s of the world as outstanding examples of individual leadership.  But the times they are changing…

Increasingly what is being recognized as the key to organizational success goes beyond individual, heroic, leaders.  Today organizations have a growing reliance on teams as the force that drives high levels of performance.  Neuroscience and social psychology is now being used to understand more precisely the factors that make up high-performance teams.  The future of work success is the team and understanding how to support teams to develop the skills and abilities to work better together will be the leadership imperative of the future.

What the leading research into high-performing teams is indicating is that the most important factor determining team success is psychological safety.

Teams vs Individuals and Performance

Before we look at psychological safety and what the research is telling us, let’s take a moment to review some of the research into individual vs team performance.

A study of 200 cardiac surgeons (Huckman, R., Pisano, G. 2006) looked at survival rates of patients of individual freelance cardiac surgeons compared with bonded surgical teams.  An analysis of more than 38.000 procedures concluded that elite performance is not as portable as previously thought and is more a function of the “familiarity that a surgeon develops with the assets of a given organization”- a nice way of saying stars only shine due to their colleagues.

Huckman et.al reinforced their findings in other professional settings including in software development finding that team familiarity (the average number of times that each member had worked with every other member) was a better predictor of project success and on-time delivery than total experience of individual team members.

In a study with NASA (Foushee, et.al, 1986)., fatigued crews with experience flying together made significantly fewer errors, when placed under simulated pressure, than fresh crews who had never flown together.

Psychologist and business professor, Adam Grant, summarizes the above findings saying:

“So once we get the right people on the bus, let’s make sure they spend some time driving together.”

Andrew Carnegie once said:

“Teamwork… is the fuel that allows common people to attain uncommon results.”

Project Aristotle

In 2012 Google embarked on an initiative to understand better what were the factors that made up a high performing team.  Why did some teams stumble while others soared?  Code named Project Aristotle, Google analyzed 180 teams, conducted hundreds of interviews, and analyzed more than 250 attributes.  The findings were groundbreaking and resulted in fundamental changes in how Google puts teams together.

Prior to Project Aristotle Google had a hire policy of hiring only the top people who had proven track records placing them at the top of the top.  The thinking was that what made highly innovative and productive teams was smart people.  All that was needed was to put a group of “smart” people in room and wait for the magic to happen.  But the research didn’t support this.  The first findings showed no correlation between individual intelligence and team intelligence.  Factors such as structured role and goal setting also did not predict the highest levels of success.

As they looked for a way to understand what the data was telling them, they sent the research team back to the teams for more observation.  What became clear was that it was how the teams interacted with one another that was different in high-performance teams.  It was how they related to one another and the way that they were able to read one another.  Team members were more highly synced to their colleague’s emotions (high social sensitivity) and able to read when they were not agreeing, out of sync with the thinking of others, or had more questions to ask or viewpoints to share.

Another striking difference was the distribution of communication among members.  In high-performance organizations, communication was distributed more evenly among the members.  High-performance teams had conversations that allowed for higher order share and discovery conversations where people felt safe to take risks, disagree, and push the learning envelope.  They were in groups that had psychological safety.

Google’s findings are ground breaking and important as the findings were borne out consistently despite variables such as a team goals, processes, or even the style of the leader.

What is Psychological Safety?

Professor Amy Edmondson (1999) of Harvard is credited with coining the term “psychological safety” which she described as “the shared belief that a team is safe for personal risk-taking…that the team will not embarrass, reject or punish someone for speaking up.”  Furthermore, psychologically safe environments facilitate the willing contribution of ideas and actions to a shared enterprise and helps to explain why employees share information and knowledge, speak up with suggestions for improvements, and take initiative to develop new products and services.

Edmondson built on the work of William Kahn (1990) who observed that psychological safety enables personal engagement at work.  It facilitates a wiliness to employ or express themselves physically, cognitively, and emotionally rather than disengage or withdraw and defend their personal selves. Further, Kahn argued that people are more likely to believe they will be given the benefit of the doubt—a defining characteristic of psychological safety—when relationships within a given group are characterized by trust and respect.

Employee Voice

Several studies have pointed to the positive correlation between voice behavior, expressing ways to improve work practices and concerns about potentially harmful practices in organization (Liang and colleagues 2012).  Organizations with high levels of psychological safety had employees that were more likely to voice their opinions to support and improve the organization.  Furthermore, Detert & Edmondson (2011) found that a lack of psychological safety was responsible in explaining variance in voice behavior.  The results supporting the argument that a lack of psychological safety has a negative correlation in the wiliness of employees to speak up and voice their opinions.

Psychological Safety and Performance

Baser and Frese (2003) conducted a survey of 165 employees from 47 midsized German companies to determine the impact of psychological safety on process innovation and performance.

Organizational climate was defined as a broad class of organizational, rather than psychological, variables that describe the organizational context for individuals’ actions’ (Glick 1985).  Climate of initiative as formal and informal organizational practices and procedures guiding and supporting a proactive, self-starting, and persistent approach toward work which directly support process innovation.  The definition for psychological safety was adapted from Kahn (1990) and Edmondson (1999) as a formal and informal organizational practices and procedures guiding and supporting open and trustful interactions within the work environment. Thus, a climate for psychological safety describes a work environment where employees are safe to speak up without being rejected or punished.

The results showed that both climates for initiative and psychological safety correlated positively with firm performance (r=0.70).  The research concluded that companies with a high degree of process innovativeness but with low levels of climates for initiative and psychological safety were worse off than if they had not innovated at all.  Only companies that had a high degree of process innovativeness with high levels of climates for initiative and psychological safety did better. Therefore, innovation is not enough and needs to be complemented by climates for initiative and psychological safety.

Both climate factors are critical contingencies to the relation between process innovations and performance and are argued to help achieve a competitive advantage in two ways. First, climates for initiative and psychological safety support the quality of the implementation process. Second, both climate factors are important to the success of modern process innovations since these innovations are characterized by an increased focus on interdependency, personal responsibility, autonomy, and flexibility, making climates for initiative and psychological safety critical in ensuring enhanced organizational performance.

Effective process innovation can only be achieved if strong climates for initiative and psychological safety exist in the organization. Performance, irrespective of the degree of change in process innovations, are reliant on creating a positive and strong climate of psychological safety and initiative exist.

Organizational learning and Psychological Safety

Teams that are oriented to learning can reflect on the practice, develop competence, and adapt behaviors so that their group performs effectively.  Learning from experience is recognized as vital for organizations to respond to rapid changes.  However, research suggests that teams often reject the learning experience that could result from an examination of their failures, instead tending to prefer to defend and continue their established course of action despite clear evidence that this action is misguided (Edmondson 1999).  To learn from mistakes and other experiences, team members must recognize and challenge the limitations of their present thinking, openly consider feedback, create new ways of working, and take the risks to implement them in a circle of continuous improvement (Garvin 1993).

Established management practices have also been found to support the failure of teams learning from their experience.  Argyris and Schon (1978, 1996) distinguished between two types of interactions, Model I and Model II.  Model I avoids emotionally laded discussions and exercises unilateral control and is highly dominant among managers.  The more preferable Model II, values openness, joint responsibility, and mutual influence, which when applied correctly facilitates the communication and acceptance of information and feedback which results in successful learning.

Cannon and Edmondson (2001) found that teams with a high level of psychological safety are more successful in helping members appreciate that their performance can be improved.  Teams can reflect on experiences so that they can better understand the factors that hinder effective action while simultaneously helping members express their ideas to create combined new solutions.  Psychological safety therefore becomes the vehicle for teams to develop team learning and the learning of individuals from their teams.

The Role of the Leader in Fostering Psychological Safety

It is the role of a leader to ensure that people feel secure.  The roots of the word “secure” provide us with insight into the power that this feeling has for us.  Secure derives from “se” meaning without and “cure” meaning fear or care.  Herein lies the foundation for psychological safety.

Alfred Wong (2010) researched the role of leadership and found that leader values can result in team learning through their effects on team psychological and that team learning can promote individual learning.  Leaders’ own description of their commitment to participation, people, and productivity were correlated with employee reports of the psychological safety within their team that in turn predicted learning.  The findings supported the previous research (Edmondson 1996) that psychological safety promotes a climate of interactions that helps teams and individuals learn.

One of the interesting side notes to Wong’s research was the cultural facet of his work having researched Chinese companies and teams.  The Chinese emphasis on protecting relationships and social face have made it difficult for Chinese team members to discuss issues and mistakes openly and directly.  However, results from the study suggest that Chinese team members can reflect usefully on their experience to learn and that the leader values and psychological safety are important contributors to this openness.

The implications for organizations include the importance of supporting leaders in promoting the values of participation, people, and productivity and integrating the concepts of psychological safety where team members feel accepted and valued and together dig into issues and take risks to strengthen team and individual learning.

Conclusion

Psychological safety will be one of the driving forces of the modern organizations.  The importance of the team to organizational success has never been more evident.  The rapid rate of change and the complexity of business necessitates more complex organizational structures that are centered on teams that can process and adapt learning effectively to drive performance.  To maximize the learning potential of a team it is necessary to create the environment where individuals feel safe to question organizational practices and voice alternatives to the status quo.

In Part II of this series I will look at how organizations can promote psychological safety in practice.

References

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Cannon and Edmondson (2001).  “Failing to Learn and Learning to Fail (Intelligently):  How Great Organizations Put Failure to Work to Innovate and Improve.” Long Range Planning, 38, 299-319.

Alfred Wong, Dean Tjosvold, Jiafang Lu. (2010) “Leadership values and learning in China: The mediating role of psychological safety.” Asia Pacific Journal of Human Resources. March 15.