Psychological Safety: The Power of Teamwork

Silence and Other Potentially Fatal Errors

Late Friday night, in a busy Manhattan hospital, a night-shift nurse makes her rounds. As she reaches the bed of a 30-year old woman, she notices that her chart prescribes an unusually high dose of medication.

She wonders if she should call the doctor, because this has to be a mistake. But she quickly remembers how he referred to her as “incompetent” that morning. Instead, she administers the medicine as prescribed, and makes her way to the next bed.

The Science of Fearless Innovation

When Amy Edmonson, the Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at Harvard Business School, began her research on what makes effective teams, she had no idea that she was unlocking the door that gates the most innovative company in the world: Google.

Edmonson’s research was based around this question: Are hospital teams who make fewer errors stronger than those who make more?

To her surprise, the answer was no. In fact, teams with more errors were significantly stronger than those with less.

“How is that possible?” she thought.

Here’s how: The stronger teams did not fear making errors. They were more effective at providing excellent care, because they focused on the learning process of discovering the best way, as opposed to the end result of clearing a bed the fastest way.

The more successful teams created a collaborative culture, where members were encouraged to ask questions, run trial and error, admit faults, and discuss openly. Fearlessly.

Edmonson’s research is just one example of an entire library of resources that support the fundamentality of psychological safety.

What Is Psychological Safety?

Kristina Hahn, Head of Americas Partnerships Solutions and Innovation at Google, joined us for The 2017 Propelify Innovation Festival to explain how Google implements this management strategy.

“At Google, we don’t say ‘failure is not an option,’” she said. “Instead, we say failure to learn is not an option.”

Imagine how liberating it is to be fearless of failure. Go ahead, imagine.Psychological Safety: The Power of Teamwork

Unfortunately, it’s easier said than done. The problem with humans is that we care too much about what other people think. That’s why the nightshift nurse didn’t make the call.

Impression Management

We don’t jump out of bed every morning, eager to go to work in order to be seen as dumb, disruptive, disobedient, and disappointing. Shocking, I know. Luckily, these perceptions are easily combatted:

  • Don’t want to be perceived as dumb? Don’t ask any questions!
  • Don’t want your coworkers to think you’re disruptive? Don’t offer original ideas!
  • Don’t want to seem disobedient? Don’t criticize the current processes!
  • Don’t want to be disappointing? Don’t admit mistakes!

It seems ridiculous when you read it in black and white, but how often have you seen this happen at work, in school, or at home?

Every time we bite our tongues out of self consciousness, we rob ourselves and our colleagues of learning. We halt growth. We stifle innovation. We are so busy managing impressions, that we fail to contribute to creating better organizations.

Building Psychological Safety

There are 3 easy steps to encourage an open, collaborative, team-oriented work environment.

1. Frame problems as learning experiences, not execution tactics

Make sure your team knows that you are entering uncharted territory. Reiterate the importance of each individual’s opinions, strategies, and inputs. Everyone must know that their brains and voices are valued. This is what will encourage your team to collaborate.

2. Acknowledge your own fallibility

Management doesn’t always know best. Seniority doesn’t mean that your ideas are better; you might just be a better leader. Now, you’ll be even better at leading when you understand and admit to your team that you are still learning, too. This creates a safe space for open communication.

3. Model curiousity

Finally–and arguably most importantly–you must model curiousity. Simply stated: ask questions. It creates a need for voice, shows your team that you value their insight, and can help you avoid disasters that someone else saw coming.

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