Workplace Culture and Psychological Safety


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One of the Human Resources topics I follow is workplace culture. I was struck this past week by an article discussing Google’s Project Aristotle, which analyzed what workplace culture best leads to high-performing teams. In this post, There’s No Quick And Easy Fix To Building A Successful Workforce, by Carol Anderson, April 26, 2016, on TLNT.com, the author discusses another blog post by Aamna Mohdin that concluded:

Google now describes psychological safety as the most important factor to building a successful team.

In short, just be nice.

See After years of intensive analysis, Google discovers the key to good teamwork is being nice, by
Aamna Mohdin, February 26, 2016, on Quartz.

Ms. Anderson disputed this conclusion, arguing that psychological safety and “niceness” are not the same thing. I agree.

I once worked in an organization where people were almost always “nice” to each other, but the important decisions did not get made, or did not get made in a timely fashion, or were not communicated effectively to the people who needed to know. In fact, “niceness” got in the way of good communications and decision-making. People were too afraid of hurting others’ feelings to make the tough calls and then explain their decisions to each other. The problem began in the executive suite and trickled down through most divisions in the organization.

According to a New York Times article entitled What Google Learned From Its Quest to Build the Perfect Team, by Charles Duhigg, published February 25, 2016, in Project Aristotle, Google realized it was important for teams to have norms and to communicate those norms.

The right norms . . . could raise a group’s collective intelligence, whereas the wrong norms could hobble a team, even if, individually, all the members were exceptionally bright.

But which norms made for the best teams? Google found two important behaviors that good teams shared:

First, on the good teams, members spoke in roughly the same proportion, a phenomenon the researchers referred to as ‘‘equality in distribution of conversational turn-taking.’’

. . .

Second, the good teams all had high ‘‘average social sensitivity’’ — a fancy way of saying they were skilled at intuiting how others felt based on their tone of voice, their expressions and other nonverbal cues.

To sum up these traits,

. . . all the team members speak as much as they need to. They are sensitive to one another’s moods and share personal stories and emotions. While [the successful team] might not contain as many individual stars, the sum will be greater than its parts.

In the Quartz article cited above, Aamna Mohdin summarized the Project Aristotle conclusions as follows:

the best teams respect one another’s emotions and are mindful that all members should contribute to the conversation equally. It has less to do with who is in a team, and more with how a team’s members interact with one another.

These traits are part of “psychological safety,” which has been defined by Professor Amy Edmonson of the Harvard Business School as:

a ‘‘shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.’’

‘‘a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject or punish
someone for speaking up,’’

‘‘. . . a team climate characterized by interpersonal trust and mutual respect in which people are comfortable being themselves.’’

The reason that Carol Anderson believed that these conclusions have nothing to do with “niceness” is that

. . . psychological safety, at its root, means that team members feel comfortable to say what they need to say, because they trust that their team will not shut them down, humiliate them or otherwise ignore their words. It is about getting all of the issues on the table in an environment where the team members can focus on solving the problem rather than on being defensive.

As I noted above, “niceness” can in fact interfere with the communications necessary for good decision-making.

Psychological safety wasn’t the only norm found to be important in Google’s Project Aristotle—having clear goals and a culture of dependability were also important—but this safety was critical. And it has to be forged through experience and gaining trust in your team members.

In my opinion, the conclusions of Project Aristotle relate directly to diversity issues as well. As the NYT article by Mr. Duhigg describes, Google learned that

. . . no one wants to put on a ‘‘work face’’ when they get to the office. No one wants to leave part of their personality and inner life at home.

That feeling of leaving a part of one’s self at home is what many workplace minorities describe—whether their “difference” is based on their race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, introversion, or any other category. A psychologically safe environment is critical to true progress on improving diversity in the workplace.

What difference has feeling a sense of “psychological safety” at work or lack of it made in your career?

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Filed under Diversity, Human Resources, Leadership, Management, Workplace

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