Three Leadership Insights into Psychological Safety and Team Success

Imagine the following scenario: You are in a meeting with ten other coworkers. Your team leader sets forth a plan for an upcoming deadline. The deadline is unrealistic, and you know it. You want to say something, but this team leader does not like to be confronted or contradicted. You look around the room, uncomfortable. You wonder if there are others that feel the same way you do. You think about the amount of time this deadline will take from your family and other projects. The team leader asks for a show of hands for those in agreement with the plan—immediately, everyone raises their hand, including you. You feel frustrated and stuck.

How often have you been in a similar scenario? Have you ever wondered what compelled you to raise your hand and not speak up?

The answer is Psychological Safety.

“No one comes up with a good idea when being chased by a tiger.” – Anonymous board member of Tesla to Elon Musk as quoted by Wired in “Dr. Elon & Mr. Musk.”

The physiological response triggered in your body when you are being chased by a tiger is the same as when you are forced to respond to a situation where you do not feel psychologically safe. Our brains don’t greatly discern the difference between physical and psychological safety.

In 2012, Google initiated a project to discover why some teams were successful and some struggled. Code-named Project Aristotle, the study asked the central question: What makes a team successful? What they found was SO much more than successful teams. They found the deeply human experience that is the key to allowing us to be our best and most creative selves (from The Psychological Safety Playbook).

Project Aristotle revealed this when they debunked common myths about teams and unearthed a fascinating discovery—that the most successful teams weren’t necessarily the teams with the brightest and best in their field, or the most motivated or well-awarded team members. Successful teams did not necessarily need to socialize outside of work or be from similar backgrounds or share similar goals or values.

Rather, the primary determinant of a team’s success hinged on a new and exciting concept in the field of teaming—Psychological Safety.

Psychological Safety is
a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes, and that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.
Amy Edmondson, The Fearless Organizatin
Disconnect between what team members are thinking and what they say.

When a team member does not feel psychologically safe, the entire team suffers. It is not just their individual idea that is missed, but the exponential opportunities to create generative ideas from that idea. Creativity and innovation are lost. It is a microsecond decision, based deep in the primal brain, to protect oneself from the potential for judgement and shunning of the group.

Psychological safety allows team members to feel more engaged and motivated, which also leads to better decision-making and an overall culture of continual learning. In addition, psychological safety also holds the key to four other factors of team effectiveness (see graphic below) that only prove to be valuable if psychological safety is at work within a team. In essence, within the team setting, nothing matters until psychological safety matters.

VMS’ Marne Maykowskyj and Giuseppe Nespoli host a leadership training workshop called Amplify Results that specifically deals with how to implement strategies for creating and sustaining successful teams. If you would like to learn more about your role in creating a psychologically safe team, check out our course: Amplify Results Leadership Training

A few thoughts from the Amplify Results Leadership Course toolkit as you work with your team:
  1. Let go of perfectionism. Focus your attention on the process NOT on perfection. Reevaluate your own personal relationship to ‘failure’.
  2. Embrace failure. Create an environment where team members are comfortable failing and see its benefit from an educational and innovative perspective. Failure IS learning.
  3. Increasing your emotional intelligence. As a team leader, be aware of the power you have in the room and how you influence others. Take a training course like Amplify Results.
About the Authors

Marne Maykowskyj, MSOD, VMA

Marne has 25+ years of experience designing and facilitating experiences from the built environment to building community. From one-on-one coaching to small team development to large-group statewide summits, she has successfully facilitated events that make a difference. Marne truly lives what she does by looking for the beauty in all her interactions. She enjoys delicious conversations with friends, spending time with family, and learning everything she can.

Giuseppe Nespoli, MSOD, VMA

Joey has 15+ years of experience designing and facilitating on-target, impactful workshops and trainings for a wide range of audiences and industries. He loves working with teams and organizations to identify opportunities for improvement–from team building to leadership development and change management. An active dad after hours, he enjoys all precious hours with his children, cooking, playing, and running around.