Collaborative, project-based teams make great things. Teams that offer psychological safety are more productive and creative. This is true for adults and children—especially children. “Every child deserves an education that guarantees the safety to learn in the comfort of one’s own skin.” What we have learned in industry through continuous iteration works also for students. Build psychologically safe teams where they can collaborate on shared passions. Let them self-organize affinity groups around identity, shared interests, and lived experience. Allow them a home of opportunity where they can bring their own comfort and control their context.
Students and teachers are in the anxiety zone.
In Silicon Valley, software engineers are encouraged to work together, in part because studies show that groups tend to innovate faster, see mistakes more quickly and find better solutions to problems. Studies also show that people working in teams tend to achieve better results and report higher job satisfaction. In a 2015 study, executives said that profitability increases when workers are persuaded to collaborate more. Within companies and conglomerates, as well as in government agencies and schools, teams are now the fundamental unit of organization. If a company wants to outstrip its competitors, it needs to influence not only how people work but also how they work together.
Google’s People Operations department has scrutinized everything from how frequently particular people eat together (the most productive employees tend to build larger networks by rotating dining companions) to which traits the best managers share (unsurprisingly, good communication and avoiding micromanaging is critical; more shocking, this was news to many Google managers).
Norms are the traditions, behavioral standards and unwritten rules that govern how we function when we gather: One team may come to a consensus that avoiding disagreement is more valuable than debate; another team might develop a culture that encourages vigorous arguments and spurns groupthink. Norms can be unspoken or openly acknowledged, but their influence is often profound. Team members may behave in certain ways as individuals — they may chafe against authority or prefer working independently — but when they gather, the group’s norms typically override individual proclivities and encourage deference to the team.
As the researchers studied the groups, however, they noticed two behaviors that all the good teams generally 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.’’ On some teams, everyone spoke during each task; on others, leadership shifted among teammates from assignment to assignment. But in each case, by the end of the day, everyone had spoken roughly the same amount. ‘‘As long as everyone got a chance to talk, the team did well,’’ Woolley said. ‘‘But if only one person or a small group spoke all the time, the collective intelligence declined.’’
Within psychology, researchers sometimes colloquially refer to traits like ‘‘conversational turn-taking’’ and ‘‘average social sensitivity’’ as aspects of what’s known as psychological safety — a group culture that the Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson defines as a ‘‘shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.’’
Psychological safety is ‘‘a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject or punish someone for speaking up,’’ Edmondson wrote in a study published in 1999. ‘‘It describes a team climate characterized by interpersonal trust and mutual respect in which people are comfortable being themselves.’’
What Project Aristotle has taught people within Google is 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. But to be fully present at work, to feel ‘‘psychologically safe,’’ we must know that we can be free enough, sometimes, to share the things that scare us without fear of recriminations. We must be able to talk about what is messy or sad, to have hard conversations with colleagues who are driving us crazy. We can’t be focused just on efficiency. Rather, when we start the morning by collaborating with a team of engineers and then send emails to our marketing colleagues and then jump on a conference call, we want to know that those people really hear us. We want to know that work is more than just labor.
Google, in other words, in its race to build the perfect team, has perhaps unintentionally demonstrated the usefulness of imperfection and done what Silicon Valley does best: figure out how to create psychological safety faster, better and in more productive ways.
‘Don’t underestimate the power of giving people a common platform and operating language.’
Google researchers undertook a massive multi-year research project to understand the effectiveness of teams. They wanted to know why certain teams at Google performed highly and others did not. Was it the size of the team? The blend of personality types? Or even their physical environments? Over time it became clear that who was on the team didn’t matter so much as how the team operated. More specifically, the social norms that determined whether or not everyone got a voice, and whether or not the team members felt that if they made a mistake, they knew it could be openly discussed without fear of embarrassment. Incredibly, group traits like “conversational turn-taking” and “sensitivity to nonverbal cues” matters more than the intelligence or experience of the team members.
That’s encouraging news for those of us who don’t get to perform with John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley.
There’s a term for this: psychological safety. The researcher Amy Edmondson demonstrated that teams can appear to be strong on the surface: people like and respect each other, and they get along well. Despite that, they may have an environment where everyone sits silently while the boss talks at them, or where people feel ashamed to be vulnerable and open up about their fears. They might all love hanging out together after work, but nobody can bring themselves to tell someone when they’ve got toilet paper stuck to their shoes. If we want a climate where people can accomplish groundbreaking things, we need to know our voice will be heard and where we’re not afraid to take risks.
The best jazz bands, like the best Google teams, provide the space to take risks. We already know jazz artists have hyperaware senses and can pick up on nonverbal clues. But everyone also gets a voice. In jazz, it’s assumed that unexpected contributions can come from anyone. Getting a “voice” also means every band member takes a turn soloing. Each player spends time as both leader and follower. Miles was always attune to the contributions of everyone. If he realized someone hadn’t had a solo in a while, he’d lean over to them and whisper in his gravelly voice that they should take the lead.
Followership in jazz is worthy of the highest respect—it’s known as comping. Comping is listening and responding without overshadowing. Followership needs to be active, not passive. It’s not about sitting back and letting someone else do all the work. You take an indispensable role in giving space, riffing, experimenting, and supporting. And yet leading and talking are more valued than following and listening in our work culture.
“We call it ‘psychological safety,’ ” she said. Psychological safety is a “shared belief, held by members of a team, that the group is a safe place for taking risks.” It is “a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject, or punish someone for speaking up,” Edmondson wrote in a 1999 paper. “It describes a team climate characterized by interpersonal trust and mutual respect in which people are comfortable being themselves.”
Julia and her Google colleagues found Edmondson’s papers as they were researching norms. The idea of psychological safety, they felt, captured everything their data indicated was important to Google’s teams. The norms that Google’s surveys said were most effective— allowing others to fail without repercussions, respecting divergent opinions, feeling free to question others’ choices but also trusting that people aren’t trying to undermine you— were all aspects of feeling psychologically safe at work. “It was clear to us that this idea of psychological safety was pointing to which norms were most important,” said Julia. “But it wasn’t clear how to teach those inside Google. People here are really busy. We needed clear guidelines for creating psychological safety without losing the capacity for dissent and debate that’s critical to how Google functions.” In other words, how do you convince people to feel safe while also encouraging them to be willing to disagree?
“For a long time, that was the million-dollar question,” Edmondson told me. “We knew it was important for teammates to be open with each other. We knew it was important for people to feel like they can speak up if something’s wrong. But those are also the behaviors that can set people at odds. We didn’t know why some groups could clash and still have psychological safety while others would hit a period of conflict and everything would fall apart.”
When I worked for Google as a Site Reliability Engineer, I was lucky enough to travel around the world with a group called “Team Development.” Our mission was to design and deliver teambuilding courses to teams who wanted to work better together. Our work was based on research later published as Project Aristotle. It found that the primary indicator of a successful team wasn’t tenure, seniority, or salary levels but psychological safety.
Think of a team you work with closely. How strongly do you agree with these five statements?
1. If I take a chance and screw up, it will be held against me.
2. Our team has a strong sense of culture that can be hard for new people to join.
3. My team is slow to offer help to people who are struggling.
4. Using my unique skills and talents comes second to the objectives of the team.
5. It’s uncomfortable to have open, honest conversations about our team’s sensitive issues.
Teams that score high on questions like these can be deemed to be “unsafe.” Unsafe to innovate, unsafe to resolve conflict, unsafe to admit they need help. Unsafe teams can deliver for short periods of time, provided they can focus on goals and ignore interpersonal problems. Eventually, unsafe teams will underperform or shatter because they resist change.
“Comedy writers carry a lot of anger,” said Schiller. “We were vicious to each other. If you thought something was funny and no one else did, it could be brutal.”
So why, given all the tensions and infighting, did the Saturday Night Live creators become such an effective, productive team? The answer isn’t that they spent so much time together, or that the show’s norms put the needs of the group above individual egos.
Rather, the SNL team clicked because, surprisingly, they all felt safe enough around one another to keep pitching new jokes and ideas. The writers and actors worked amid norms that made everyone feel like they could take risks and be honest with one another, even as they were shooting down ideas, undermining one another, and competing for airtime.
“You know that saying, ‘There’s no I in TEAM’?” Michaels told me. “My goal was the opposite of that. All I wanted were a bunch of I’s. I wanted everyone to hear each other, but no one to disappear into the group.”
That’s how psychological safety emerged.
After looking at over a hundred groups for more than a year, Julia and the Project Aristotle team concluded it was something unexpected (group norms) were the key to better teams.
In particular, one factor stood out more than others: creating “psychologically safe environments.” Teams that encourage safe discussions and different viewpoints succeed more.
On the good teams, members spoke in roughly the same proportion, what researchers referred to as ”equality in distribution of conversational turn-taking.” On some teams, everyone spoke during each task; on others, leadership shifted among teammates from assignment to assignment.
The good teams had high social sensitivity, they had team members that could sense how others felt based on their tone of voice, their expressions and other nonverbal cues.
Young people are headed for a project-based world, and project based learning is the best preparation. Larmer said, “Do whatever you can to make the PBL environment more like a real-world workplace. If a team is not working well together, what would adults on the job do? If a co-worker gets sick, how might a team handle the situation? If deadlines are being missed and the project is falling behind schedule, how does a project manager adjust?”
“We constantly talk about collaboration and working in teams with students,” said Randy Hollenkamp. Teachers at the New Tech Network affiliate encourage students to create team norms and build contracts with each other prior to every project. “Teachers scaffold this with our students from day one,” said Hollenkamp, who added:
“We also talk with students about how trust is crucial in team work. It is as important to students doing the lion’s share of the work as it is to the students not doing the lion’s share. If someone in the group is doing more work, then there is a group trust issue that needs to be discussed. This idea is carried into our “culture of critique” as well. The norm here is to be “kind, specific, and helpful” when giving critique. In doing this our students build trust and seek and expect critique with each other and adults.”
In school, and in the workplace, successful projects start with a safe environment where diverse views are welcomed, differences are respected and quality contributions are expected.
Performance terror. We’ve all known a classroom, meeting room or stage where we didn’t feel safe doing something we were quite capable of doing.
“As a college professor I encourage students to read their work aloud, but I never insist on it,” said Carey. “Sometimes those who are uncomfortable doing it will volunteer on their own because it’s their decision rather than mine.”
“I centered my instruction on the lives, histories and identities of my students. And I did all of this because I wanted my students to know that everyone around them was supporting them to be their best self,” said Simmons.
A supportive culture, sustained advisory relationships, and teaching strategies that create positive learning all promote psychological safety.
“Every child deserves an education that guarantees the safety to learn in the comfort of one’s own skin,” said Simmons.
If we want to create resilient, capable, problem-solving students, we need to allow them to make mistakes that encourage them to learn and grow. Students learn best when their affective filter is low. When mistake-making is perceived as bad, it is detrimental to learning.
The same holds for teachers.
We must allow teachers to model learning through trial and error.
When we create professional learning experiences that reward teacher risk-taking, we’re creating an environment of trust, which means encouraging teachers to continually re-new their practice through experimentation, failure and iteration.
Schools that fail have adults who talk relentlessly about how at risk their kids are. They have all the statistics at their fingertips. They focus on the perceived limitations… on vocabulary shortfalls, on lack of pre-school and parent involvement, on issues of attendance and language.
Schools that succeed have adults who talk about what their kids can do. They talk about the stories kids tell, the things kids make, the problems they solve, the way the collaborate, communicate, connect to the world. And when they’re really good you never hear the words “at risk,” or “title,” or “deficit,” when they plan.
A home of opportunity.
A school struggling with the ravages of American poverty has to first be a home — the kind of home the children may not have at home. A place that is relentlessly safe, that is both calming and exciting, that offers unconditional love, and that offers boundless opportunity.
That ‘home’ must be supportive and accepting, loving and encouraging, and it must provide the biggest possible window on to the world, on to the universe.
A home of opportunity.
What does opportunity look like? First, it looks like trust. It looks like freedom. And it looks like choice.
What does opportunity look like? It looks like understanding that relationships and social and emotional support mean more than traditional academics. It means that adults don’t fuel bullying through hierarchies — whether with honor rolls, ability grouping, or sports worship.
It looks like Universal Design for Learning, with kids learning to use the tools of a lifetime. It looks like a place where kids can hide when they need to and jump when they want to. It looks like a place where play is considered a high level learning path.
It looks like a place that respects kids’ needs and treats their lives as legitimately complex and difficult.
In today’s business environment, much work in organizations is accomplished collaboratively. Narrow expertise and complex work require people to work together across disciplinary and other boundaries to accomplish organizational goals. Product design, patient care, strategy development, pharmaceutical research, and rescue operations are just a few examples of activities that call for collaborative work. Organizational research has identified psychological safety as an important factor in understanding how people collaborate to achieve a shared outcome (Edmondson 1999, 2004), thus making it a critical concept for further research.
Psychological safety describes perceptions of the consequences of taking interpersonal risks in a particular context such as a workplace (e.g., Edmondson 1999). A central theme in research on psychological safety—across decades and levels of analysis—is that it facilitates the willing contribution of ideas and actions to a shared enterprise. For example, psychological safety helps to explain why employees share information and knowledge (Collins & Smith 2006, Siemsen et al. 2009), speak up with suggestions for organizational improvements (Detert & Burris 2007, Liang et al. 2012), and take initiative to develop new products and services (Baer & Frese 2003). As we describe below, extensive research suggests that psychological safety enables teams and organizations to learn (Bunderson & Boumgarden 2010, Carmeli 2007, Carmeli & Gittell 2009, Edmondson 1999, Tucker et al. 2007) and perform (Carmeli et al. 2012, Collins & Smith 2006, Schaubroeck et al. 2011).
First explored by pioneering organizational scholars in the 1960s, psychological safety research languished for years but experienced renewed interest starting in the 1990s and continuing to the present. We propose that psychological safety has become a theoretically and practically significant phenomenon in recent years in part because of the enhanced importance of learning and innovation in today’s organizations. Psychological safety is fundamentally about reducing interpersonal risk, which necessarily accompanies uncertainty and change (Schein & Bennis 1965). Reflecting this premise, a rapidly growing body of conceptual and empirical research has focused on understanding the nature of psychological safety, identifying factors that contribute to this interpersonal construct, and examining its implications for employees, teams, and organizations. The aim of this article is first to review this literature and then to outline the implications of the findings, including controversies and unanswered questions, as well as directions for future research.
From a practical perspective, psychological safety is a timely topic given the growth of knowledge economies and the rise of teamwork. Both of these trends have given rise to new work relationships in which employees are expected to integrate perspectives, share information and ideas, and collaborate to achieve shared goals.
In an influential paper, William Kahn (1990) rejuvenated research on psychological safety with thoughtful qualitative studies of summer camp counselors and members of an architecture firm that showed how psychological safety enables personal engagement at work. He proposed that psychological safety affects individuals’ willingness to “employ or express themselves physically, cognitively, and emotionally during role performances,” rather than disengage or “withdraw and defend their personal selves” (p. 694). Further, Kahn argued that people are more likely to believe they will be given the benefit of the doubt—a defining characteristic of psychological safety—when relationships within a given group are characterized by trust and respect. Using descriptive statistics from summer camp counselors and members of an architecture firm, he also showed a quantitative relationship between personal engagement and psychological safety in both contexts.
Whereas the studies discussed above focused on employee performance in expected behaviors for their roles, a growing stream of research examines psychological safety’s relationship to extra-role behaviors such as speaking up. Speaking up, or voice, is defined as upward-directed, promotive verbal communication (Premeaux & Bedeian 2003, Van Dyne & LePine 1998). Challenging the status quo and offering ideas to improve process can be a vital force in helping organizations learn. However, considerable research has shown that individuals often do not work in environments where they feel safe to speak up (Detert & Edmondson 2011, Milliken et al. 2003, Ryan & Oestreich 1998). A number of studies therefore examine proactive behavior, especially that related to challenging the status quo or improving organizational functioning (see Grant & Ashford 2008 for a review). Several studies, spanning multiple industries, have found that psychological safety mediates between antecedent variables and employee voice behavior (e.g., Ashford et al. 1998, Miceli & Near 1992). For example, Detert & Burris (2007) investigated two types of changeoriented leadership—transformational leadership and managerial openness—as antecedents of improvement-oriented voice. Analyzing data from 3,149 employees and 223 managers in a restaurant chain in the United States, they found that subordinate perceptions of psychological safety mediated the leadership–voice relationship. Similarly, Walumbwa & Schaubroeck (2009) used a multilevel model in a study of 894 employees and their 222 immediate supervisors in a major US financial institution and found that ethical leadership influenced follower voice behavior, a relationship that was partially mediated by followers’ perceptions of psychological safety.
Every child deserves an education that guarantees the safety to learn in the comfort of one’s own skin.
I centered my instruction on the lives, histories and identities of my students. And I did all of this because I wanted my students to know that everyone around them was supporting them to be their best self.
So while I could not control the instability of their homes, the uncertainty of their next meal, or the loud neighbors that kept them from sleep, I provided them with a loving classroom that made them feel proud of who they are, that made them know that they mattered.
There is a better way, one that doesn’t force kids of color into a double bind; a way for them to preserve their ties to their families, homes and communities; a way that teaches them to trust their instincts and to have faith in their own creative genius.
Further, some research has pointed to the role of leadership in shaping conditions that are conducive for enhancing employee creativity. For example, George and Zhou (2007) conducted a study that evaluated the process by which leader support leads to creativity and innovation. Specifically, they evaluated three behavioral mechanisms by which supervisors can provide a supportive context – developmental feedback, displaying interactional justice, and being trustworthy. The results of their study suggested that all three types of behavioral support lead to increased creativity. Mumford et al. (2002) noted that leaders who provide support for creativity (idea, work and social supports) are more effective in facilitating creativity because they are able to shape and maintain work contexts which are vital for motivating individuals to display creative behaviors. Lee, Edmondson, Thomke and Worline (2004) have also noted that leader supportive coaching enables interpersonal risk taking (Edmondson 1999, 2002), while close evaluation processes intended to unravel failures inhibit creativity (Amabile et al., 2004) and make new tasks more difficult (Zajonc 1965). Lee et al. (2004) underscored the importance of joint supportive conditions that make people psychologically safe, thus facilitating their willingness to engage in experimentation, a behavior integral to creative and innovative endeavor.
In addition, consistent with previous research we reason that psychological safety is developed through relational leadership and serves as a key social-psychological mechanism by which people are able to display creativity without experiencing interpersonal threats and developing defensive orientation (Carmeli et al., 2009; Edmondson, 2004). Along with this line of research (see also, De Dreu & West, 2001), we posit that the relationship between leader inclusiveness and creativity will be mediated through psychological safety. Inclusive leaders who are open, available and accessible to employees who come up with new ideas, cultivate a context in which people feel psychologically safe to voice and express new ideas that often defy the norms. Psychological safety, in turn, is likely to result in a higher level of employee involvement in creative work.
Psychological safety is a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes.
For example, a study of 133 factory teams found that higher levels of interpersonal sensitivity, curiosity, and emotional stability resulted in more-cohesive teams and increased prosocial behavior among team members. More-effective teams were composed of a higher number of cool-headed, inquisitive, and altruistic people. Along the same lines, a large meta-analysis showed that team members’ personalities influence cooperation, shared cognition, information sharing, and overall team performance. In other words, who you are affects how you behave and how you interact with other people, so team members’ personalities operate like the different functions of a single organism.
A useful way to think about teams with the right mix of skills and personalities is to consider the two roles every person plays in a working group: a functional role, based on their formal position and technical skill, and a psychological role, based on the kind of person they are. Too often, organizations focus merely on the functional role and hope that good team performance somehow follows. This is why even the most expensive professional sports teams often fail to perform according to the individual talents of each player: There is no psychological synergy. A more effective approach (like the mission to Mars example) focuses as much on people’s personalities as on their skills.
In our own work we found that psychological team roles are largely a product of people’s personalities. For example, consider team members who are:
- Results-oriented. Team members who naturally organize work and take charge tend to be socially self-confident, competitive, and energetic.
- Relationship-focused. Team members who naturally focus on relationships, are attuned to others’ feelings, and are good at building cohesion tend to be warm, diplomatic, and approachable.
- Process and rule followers. Team members who pay attention to details, processes, and rules tend to be reliable, organized, and conscientious.
- Innovative and disruptive thinkers. Team members who naturally focus on innovation, anticipate problems, and recognize when the team needs to change tend to be imaginative, curious, and open to new experiences.
- Pragmatic. Team members who are practical, hard-headed challengers of ideas and theories tend to be prudent, emotionally stable, and level-headed.
Observing the balance of roles in a team offers an extraordinary insight into its dynamics.
Thus, evaluating the whole person can offer pivotal insights into how people are likely to work together, and can help flag areas of conflict and affinity. Anything of value happens as the result of team effort, where people set aside their selfish interests to achieve something collectively that they could not achieve by themselves. The most successful teams get this mix of personalities right.
But this innate talent and intense training would be less effective were it not for what the European industry calls “just culture,” May says. That’s an ethos which dictates the way mistakes are reported in the profession, and what the consequences are for human error. The system, which is similarly practiced in US air traffic control but doesn’t go by the same name, involves responding to errors with training and support, not punishment or job loss. More than a buzzword, just culture involves a literal contract that codifies the ways that employees will be made to feel psychologically safe at work, and it’s signed by management and the controller’s trade unions.
As Amy Edmondson, a Harvard University professor of management who coined the term “psychological safety,” found in her research, “It turns out that no one wakes up in the morning and jumps out of bed because they can’t wait to get to work today to look ignorant, intrusive, incompetent or negative.” So we protect ourselves by not asking questions, and by not admitting to slip-ups. Employees spend a lot time and energy on “impression management” within the workplace.
Now companies like Google are studying ways to create psychological safety within teams, to free up resources wasted on self-protection and allow people to collaborate with ease and think creatively. In aviation, psychological safety became important for a less abstract reason: the literal safety of employees and customers.