Life is full of surprises if you don’t have information, facts, and truth. Without traffic data, you can’t predict accurately how long it will take to get to your destination, and you can be surprised by an accident or construction closure. Without clearly knowing the operating hours of your favourite restaurant, you won’t know if it will be open when you arrive. Without truthful data about your health – blood pressure, heart rate, cholesterol, body mass, genetics, etc. – a surprising health issue can arise without warning.
For business leaders the same is true. We need good data to inform sound decision-making. And as much as we can seek information externally, one of the primary sources of information about our firm comes via our employees. We need to be confident in the accuracy and timeliness of information flow. However, that flow can be blocked, slowed or interrupted by several factors.
Truth, Transparency and Psychological Safety
In 2012, Google undertook an internal study to understand the characteristics of great teams. Codenamed Project Aristotle, the study collected quantitative and qualitative data over a two-year period, from over 180 teams across multiple business units and regions.
The results were surprising. The characteristics one would expect in high-performing teams – experience, skills, team size, diversity, extroversion, and colocation of the members – did not show up as indicators of high performance. Instead, the best teams demonstrated five surprising traits :
- Psychological Safety – members of the team feel they can be open, vulnerable and take risks without fear of reprisal or consequences.
- Dependability – members deliver on their promises and have high accountability.
- Structure and Clarity – people know their roles, expectations, and process exist within the team to get things done.
- Meaning – there is a personal sense of purpose in the work.
- Impact – team members feel the work of the team makes a difference and is important.
What also came through in the data is that psychological safety in the workplace is by far the strongest indicator of team success and productivity relative to the other four.
Amy C. Edmundson is the world’s most well-known champion of psychological safety. She teaches at Harvard Business School and was named one of the top 50 Business Thinkers by the Thinkers50 in 2019.
Her work and research confirm the same findings as the Aristotle Project, that high-performing teams have a shared belief around safety. Psychological safety unlocks team productivity by encouraging diverse opinions, healthy debate, and experimental thinking.
Psychological safety does not happen by accident. Creating a culture of psychological safety in the workplace involves:
- Setting the stage – reminding people that we are in a complex, uncertain, challenging world. “Call attention to the uncertainty.” We all need to balance advocacy and inquiry. We spend lots of time advocating (usually for our own position) and telling without enough inquiry. There needs a healthy level of candor that is both compassionate and humble.
- Reinforcing the purpose, and why we are going to work hard against the challenges. It makes sense that we should listen to experts, but for complex problems (wicked problems) you also need diverse, non-expert perspectives because expertise can sometimes blind us to new ideas.
- Inviting Participation – the art is asking open questions. Questions like: “What options are you thinking of? What ideas do you have?”
- Responding productively – speaking in an appreciative way AND forward-looking. Teamwork often requires an abundance mentality; stepping back and realizing that many situations are not win-lose, but win-win by expanding the opportunity.
“Psychological safety is not at odds with having tough conversations – it is what allows us to have tough conversations.”
– Amy C Edmundson
Safety allows teams to wrestle with brutal facts, to confront uncomfortable and even unpopular perspectives. Often key perspectives and issues are not addressed when people fear being seen as an outlier, non-credible, or even stupid. In a safe environment, there are no dumb questions except, as is said, the ones that do not get asked.
The Problem with Confidence
Confidence is a virtue, a sought-after trait that many of us strive for. Through the acquisition of experience and skills, we gain our confidence to do certain activities.
It also plays a role in interpersonal relations; people tend to be influenced by confident leaders, experts, and professionals. We equate confidence with competence. That’s why we see confidence portrayed so often by political leaders and candidates.
But confidence has a dark side too. Overconfidence blinds us to new ways of thinking. It can limit our willingness to challenge our own processes and assumptions, to learn, and to listen to different perspectives. In group situations, a confident person or position can make others feel that their opinions and thoughts are inadequate, and therefore they become reluctant to share them. Often the HiPPO – Highest Paid Person’s Opinion – is given the most weight.
There is also an interesting bias at play when it comes to confidence. Known as the Dunning-Kruger effect, people with low ability tend to have an internal illusion that they are more capable than they are. In reality, psychologists have found that there is only a 9% overlap between confidence and competence.
At the opposite end of this spectrum of competence and confidence, people with high ability often underestimate themselves. This categorization is sometimes known as impostor syndrome.
The antidote to overconfidence is humility. A balance of both confidence and humility, like a see-saw, is both needed to be successful and to ensure complete information is tabled by those around you. The sweet spot, if you like, is the midpoint between the two extremes.
Gaining Leadership Clarity
Effective leadership requires clarity. To ensure clarity, leaders need to constantly work to encourage the safe and complete sharing of information, solicit feedback and divergent viewpoints, and continue to work on themselves to remove bias, overconfidence and increase humility.
Taking Next Steps Towards Psychological Safety in the Workplace
If you would like to learn more about how to improve your business culture and team performance, feel free to reach out to one of our business consultants. Remember to take advantage of our free online resources such as the guide below: