A High Performing Culture Requires Psychological Safety

Did you know that developing strong leaders does not necessarily translate into strong teams? You may have developed the best leaders, but unless you cultivate a culture defined by openness, learning, and trust, it will all be for naught.

That is because most of us do not work individually or independently. Most of us work in teams. Our success is dependent on our ability to leverage the collective capacity of the group we belong to. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts – if you are able to build a high performing team. Google recently shared what they learned on their quest to build a high performing team, and the results are fascinating.

They attributed their success to “Psychological Safety”.

The concept of “Psychological Safety” was developed by Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson. Her conclusion was that a prerequisite for a high performing team is psychological safety with a “climate of openness”. Edmondson studied medical teams at hospitals to identify what distinguished the best performing groups. Her initial thesis was that the best teams made the fewest medication mistakes. To her surprise, she found that best performing teams actually made more errors.

It wasn’t that the best teams were actually making more errors, but that the best teams were admitting to errors in order to grow in the spirit of continuous improvement. In the process, the better performing teams only got better. Team members were encouraged to innovate, learn from mistakes, and contribute their ideas. The “climate of openness” facilitated the difficult discussions.

Edmondson outlines three requirements for psychological safety:

  1. The leader must define work as a learning opportunity.   State that there is enormous uncertainty ahead; and along the way, we will make and learn from our mistakes. Mistakes are treated as a learning opportunity. The leader needs to be clear that each team member’s input really matters. No one on the team has all the answers, but together, we will develop amazing solutions.
  2. The leader must acknowledge fallibility. Be honest and transparent. Make simple statements that encourage team members to speak up, such as, “I don’t have all the answers and really need your ideas.” Everyone’s ideas matter.
  3. The leader must model curiosity by asking questions. The more questions you ask, the more team members need to generate answers. Your curiosity will create a culture where curiosity is encouraged and appreciated.

The Level Five leader is the kind of person who will develop these three characteristics of psychological safety required for a great culture. Such a leader exudes a paradoxical combination of humility and persistence.

Without both qualities, there is no chance that a team will fall into the “learning and high performance zone”. Without humility, a leader will not forecast the uncertainly ahead, will not profess fallibility, and will not model curiosity with questions. Without persistence, standards and accountability will suffer. Stay tuned to future blogs as we further develop these concepts.

What kind of leader are you? What about your direct reports? Would your team members agree that you exhibit both humility and persistence?

Do you insist on accountability? Does your culture include a “climate of openness”? Do your teams openly admit errors?

If you are committed to take the steps required to build high performing teams, we can help.