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Safe Space: How Psychological Safety Can Make Your Team More Effective

By News Creatives Authors , in Leadership , at August 27, 2021

Part 2 of our digital transformation series: how interpersonal risk is related to innovation

When it comes to effecting change, they say the best approach is any approach that you’ll stick to—and that certainly goes for digital transformation. Nevertheless, in our experience working with large companies, we’ve seen that some strategies work better than others. For example, we recently shared why starting small should always be your Plan A for your digital transformation: because of how it aids you in validating your ability to execute, arms you with evidence of success to fend off skeptics, and nets you additional resources to invest.

Beyond starting small, there are other tenets that we follow internally that we strongly believe to be universally useful and necessary in any organization that embarks on its own digital transformation. Chief among them is the importance of establishing a culture of psychological safety. This is especially true for the teams who are doing the heavy lifting on your digital transformation projects. Because while psychological safety is important for everyone, it’s especially critical for employees being asked to be creative, move fast, and to take risks. 

What is psychological safety?

Psychological safety refers to an individual’s perception of the consequences of taking an interpersonal risk. The term was first popularized by organizational behavioral scientist Amy Edmondson of Harvard. She postulated that psychological safety is essential whenever people face uncertainty and interdependence—two words that often come up when people talk about digital transformation.

At Google, we’ve come to appreciate the value of psychological safety through our own research. Between 2012-2014, Google People Operations (what we call HR) set out to understand what sets apart high performing teams using data and statistical analysis.

The results? Who is on a team matters less than how the team members interact, and that a sense of psychological safety within the team was the most important of the five predictors identified. Our guide on team effectiveness on our Re:work With Google site has all the details.

An emphasis on psychological safety is something that we try to keep at the core of our culture. In fact, our managers’ performance is evaluated by their direct reports in part on how well they create a psychologically safe environment in their team. 

For example, there’s the blameless postmortem, a cultural tenet of Google’s Site Reliability Engineering (SRE) methodology. In a blameless postmortem, engineers “focus on identifying the contributing causes of the incident without accusing any individual or team of bad or inappropriate behavior,” say John Lunney and Sue Lueder, two Google Site Reliability Engineers. Why is this so important? “If a culture of finger pointing and shaming individuals or teams for doing the ‘wrong’ thing prevails, people will not bring issues to light for fear of punishment.”

Psychological safety is also something that differentiates the best-performing DevOps organizations from lower-performing teams. Specifically, our DevOps Research & Assessment (DORA) program identifies a generative culture as one of the key factors that sets high and elite performers apart.

In other words, based on the research, we empirically know that teams with a culture that doesn’t ‘shoot the messenger’ but values learning and safety will have higher throughput—shorter lead times, increased deployment frequency, and better stability metrics.

So what does practicing psychological safety look like?

Harvard’s Edmondson suggests three exemplary behaviors:

  1. Frame the work as a learning problem and not an execution problem 
  2. Acknowledge your own fallibility
  3. Model curiosity and ask lots of questions 

Bringing it back to digital transformation, when you embark on a large program, the initial focus is often on staffing plans and workstream charters. Thinking about ‘how we will be’ is often lost in the hustle and bustle of mobilizing, but this is exactly the right time to explicitly address it, setting the foundation of how all parties will work together. This is why we emphasize psychological safety when we kick off our largest customer programs.

The kickoff workshop can take the form of the co-creation of ‘golden rules’ for how we’ll work together, or a manifesto of behaviors that everyone signs up for. But the key is a shared expectation that everyone will adhere to creating an environment of psychological safety, leaders, and team members alike.

Of course, each team’s rules and behaviors will have their own particular flavor. What’s really important is that you sustain them beyond the kickoff. We’ve found that something salient to create a ritual or habit can be particularly effective for this; it could be as simple as a quick ‘check-in’ to ask people what’s on their mind before a meeting starts. Or it could be something deliberately a little bit ‘off the wall’; for example, in a recent coaching cohort, the group decided to start each workshop by drawing an emoji representing their mindset that day—and explaining their choice to their peers. Aside from getting to examine your peers’ scribbling skills, it adds a degree of structure to the start of a meeting which is normally free-form small-talk and gives the whole group permission to connect quickly to make the discussion more productive.

How do you start today

Kickoffs aside, there is one thing that everyone on your team can do, starting today, and which takes no practice at all: when communicating remotely, turn on your webcam! It’s the next best thing to having everyone in the same room, sitting in a circle.

So much of our interpersonal communication is non-verbal in nature. Without eye contact and body language there’s no telling whether a colleague is silent because they are attentively listening, distracted, or in resentful disagreement.

At Google, we are convinced of the positive power of being seen that we made it the default setting in Google Meet. Unlike most other video conferencing solutions, before joining a virtual meeting we present you with the choice of turning off your camera, not the other way around. It’s also why we worked hard to make sure Google Meet can display up to 49 participants’ video feeds simultaneously.

This might have felt like a big step, pre-pandemic, but it’s really only a start; and there are also several additional, small tactics to make the conversation equitable. 

As mentioned earlier, creating a ritual to more equitably ‘share voice’ helps ensure there isn’t a ‘two class’ meeting where some people speak and everyone else listens. There are also a range of Meet add-ons to track ‘talk time’ within a meeting, identifying if anyone is ‘hogging’ the conversation and helping to nudge each participant to share and be heard.

All that said, being seen and heard isn’t right for everybody. When fielding questions and answers (Q&A) from your team in the traditional way, you are likely to solicit primarily the opinions of those most extroverted and/or those most senior—even in a psychologically safe environment. You will hear the most passionately held opinions, not necessarily the most insightful or pertinent ones. You also won’t hear the silent majority. This is where a simple Q&A software tool can be a game changer. Whether you use the feature integrated into your video conferencing solution (like Google Meet) or you use use third-party software as a service, fielding questions from your team in written form and letting the entire team upvote those questions/suggestions with the most merit or urgency gives voice to those whose natural state it is to not raise their own voice. And it gives you the confidence that the top ranked questions/comments are deserving of your attention and thoughtful consideration. Of course, this only works if you fully commit to the tool and announce that you will ONLY answer questions posted there! You can find more ideas in Google’s distributed working playbook.

In summary, psychological safety is as much about unlocking the full potential of your teams as it is about honestly recognizing the interdependent and uncertain nature of the challenge ahead.

And the earlier you can begin to model the Edmonson’s suggested behaviors, establish “golden rules” and ensure everyone can be seen and heard, the more natural it will feel, the easier it will be to maintain, and the greater success you will have on your digital transformation journey. 

For more insights about how to succeed with your digital transformation team, stay tuned for our next article, where we’ll discuss the benefits of building small, cross-functional teams.

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