Hello, I'm Chris Martin I'm on the
faculty at Georgia Tech and I'm going to be talking about why psychological
safety matters for teamwork. To begin let's consider restraint.
We have little restraint when we're children, but we learn as we get older to not do or say everything that comes to mind, which is useful because it helps us
do coordinated things like work in teams. However, adults can use excessive
restraint. No one speaks their mind as in the Emperor's New Clothes scenario. One reason can be a lack of confidence but in teams there can be a culture of
excessive fear. People share the feeling that saying risky things will upset
people who have more authority, make you look cold or uncaring, or make you seem
stupid. In other words people anticipate punishment. When there's a shared feeling among people in a team that risk taking is never worthwhile, that team lacks
psychological safety. As Amy Edmondson defines it, psychological safety is the
shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal
Or, in William Kahn's words, it's being able to show and employ
oneself without fear of negative consequences of self-image, status, or
career. The concept of psychological safety can be traced to work done by MIT
professors Edgar Schein and Warren Bennis in 1965. However, most contemporary work has been done by Amy Edmondson. When she was studying drug errors, Edmondson wanted to know if better medical teams make fewer mistakes. Surprisingly, she found teams that are rated better on standard measures were making more
mistakes. What characterized teams that were making fewer permanent mistakes? Psychological safety. People felt it was safe to point out mistakes, so those
mistakes were fixed and caught. In fields like medicine and engineering, people are collaborating on complex endeavors. Mistakes will occur so these difficult
conversations need to happen.
Even though psychological safety is a new term, there have always been groups where it's normal for people to speak up regardless of their rank, or where leaders are unhappy when their ideas are not criticized. Here are some examples. First, consider the Sun people who live in the Kalahari. They hunt animals by tracking them to the point of exhaustion so
members of a hunting group have to interpret clues about an animal's
location. Young hunters can challenge the ideas of older hunters and, if they have a solid case, the group follows their advice. In the industrial world, we have
Alfred P Sloan, head of General Motors. He once concluded a meeting with these words: "Gentlemen, I take it we are all in complete agreement. I propose we postpone further discussion until our next meeting to give ourselves time to
develop disagreement and perhaps gain some understanding of what the decision is all about. We also know the hazards of low psychological safety. There have been plane crashes because a co-pilot was afraid to say something to the pilot,
including the 1977 collision of two Boeing 747s on Tenerife, the 1982 air
Florida crash in the Potomac, and the 2013 Asiana Airlines crash at San
And we have evidence about the effectiveness of high psychological safety. Google found that the best predictor of innovation in a team was
psychological safety. To understand psychological safety think about how
eyes operate. Each eye has a blind spot where there's a tunnel of nerves instead of receptors. But each eye makes up for what the other eye can't see. This
interdependence happens easily because eyes don't have the capacity to worry
about looking ignorant, incompetent, or intrusive. In teams you should see
similar interdependence. Each person has to rely on the perspectives of others to
fill in gaps. That doesn't happen if people are worried about risk taking. If
you're in a team that's psychologically safe, you're doing well if you're not
what should you do? Amy Edmondson suggests that peers do distinct things
before, during, and after discussions.
She has a separate list of things that
leaders can do, but I'm going to focus on peers here. Before you begin, remind
people why psychological safety matters. Remind people that it's not possible to
look good or be right all the time when collaborating on an endeavor with
uncertain outcomes. That's a quote from Amy Edmondson. Also, don't start with an
adversarial mindset where you're trying to outshine others. In competitions where
there's just one gold medal, that mindset can be useful but in a team, thinking of
other members as adversaries keeps you from being curious about your mistakes.
During a discussion, acknowledge your limits, you can do that by saying, "I don't
know" or "I made a mistake." Also make it clear that you're eager to hear criticism that people have to offer. When you express a
critical idea, be assertive and respectful. Don't use sarcasm or express disdain. Use a neutral, honest voice. When you get criticism, consider
such criticism to be part of a perfectly normal work process. You can even set up a way for people to provide criticism at any time; you can create an online
document for example, where people can provide feedback without talking, after
meetings. Continue to be interested in criticism. This way you create a shared expectation that normal work involves criticism and revision. In general, make
it safe to fail. Structure your work so people are rewarded rather than
embarrassed when they fail at something and the team learns from that failure. Lastly, measure psychological safety. You can do that by running a survey with these questions. 1. if you make a mistake on this team, it is often held against you.
2. People on this team are able to bring up problems and tough issues 3. People on this team sometimes reject others for being
different. 4. It's safe to take a risk on this team. 5. It is difficult to ask
other members of this team for help. 6. No one on this team would deliberately
act in a way that undermines my efforts. 7. Working with members of this team,
my unique skills and talents are valued. Ask people how strongly they agree or
disagree in an anonymous survey. The items with "R" next to them should be
reverse scored. Disagreeing with them should produce a higher score than agreeing. Then compute the average score and repeat the survey over time. To sum it up, before the work, remind people why psychological safety matters
and avoid an adversarial mindset.
During the work, acknowledge your limits and embrace criticism. After the work, show continued interest in criticism and learning from mistakes. Also, make it safe to fail without embarrassment. And, if
necessary, measure psychological safety. We hope that you'll use this concept to
evaluate the dynamics of your team now and after you graduate to create a
workplace where projects are more likely to succeed because people feel like it's okay to take interpersonal risks.
Remember: Psychological safety is the shared belief that anyone on a team can take these risks..