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Three ideas that can help teams thrive

February 20, 2018

Sometimes a team just clicks. And sometimes it doesn’t.

It hasn’t been until recently that I’ve been able to put a term to why or how that clicking happens – psychological safety. A couple years ago, I read an article in the New York Times by Charles Duhigg that was an excerpt from his book, “Smarter Faster Better”.

It was about how teams work together and why some teams work better than others. At the time I read the article, I was just starting the final semester of my MBA program – and the article struck a chord. Duhigg begins the article by describing an MBA student, much like myself, who felt stressed out by one of her MBA study groups but at ease and in synch with another.

I could relate – my first-year MBA team was functional, but never seemed to click. There was conflict, but it didn’t seem productive and by the end of the year no one wanted to speak up. In contrast, my second-year team ran like a well-oiled machine. We didn’t always agree on things, but the debate made the work better – much better. Of course, a lot of that has to do with the learning curve that came naturally with being in the second year of the program, but that wasn’t the only reason. Aside from my MBA team-work, I had experienced similar feelings in my professional life. Sometimes a project team seemed to be humming along, other times not.

Duhigg, through other examples (about Google, in particular, and academic research) goes on to explain that the difference between those two teams – and probably in mine, too – was psychological safety. This idea has been studied in-depth by Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson. She defines psychological safety as a ‘‘shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking” and a “sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject or punish someone for speaking up.”

Wow! This concept was not something we were studying in the classroom and I was intrigued. While we were learning about organizational behavior and management (along with all the other standard MBA coursework), we weren’t getting to the deeper stuff like this. And with just about every tool or process and best practice being open source or “Google-able”, I wondered how organizations can find a true competitive advantage. Maybe this was part of it?

One of the ways we can build psychological safety is through self-awareness – and sometimes we need others to help us find our blind spots.

Sound decision making (something we spend a lot of time studying here at Design Concepts) is one of those competitive advantages. But getting to those decisions requires teams to feel psychologically safe, just as Edmondson describes.

While it’s worth the time to read Duhigg’s article and book, I’m not going to recap that here. Instead, I’ll offer a few ideas and best practices that we have been using at Design Concepts and that you can put into practice with your team or for your next project:

Set the groundwork. We’ve been experimenting with a more robust internal project launch process. While in the past we used to take time to get a new team up to speed only on the project and the client, now we spend at least as much time introducing ourselves and talking about our work styles. This can be as basic as what your working hours are (“I’m home for dinner with my family every night, but then can burn the midnight oil.”) to skills or opportunities someone is working on (“I know that I’m not good at speaking up at client meetings, so please help me.”). While it felt a little formal and forced at first, now I crave these internal launches. I have noticed that the projects or teams that didn’t have them are the ones that struggle the most. This small effort sets a stronger foundation for understanding and trusting one another and creates open lines of communication for things that could be difficult to talk about later.

Keep checking in. While a good launch meeting can mean a lot for the long term, it’s just a point in time. Projects and people evolve. Everyone gets stressed at points, but we don’t always ask for help or offer it to team members. So, it’s a good idea to check in as a team or one-on-one regularly. It doesn’t hurt to schedule those check-ins in advance (say, once a month) so they don’t seem overly scary or sprung out of nowhere, like when we all suddenly realize there really is a problem. If it’s on the calendar with the purpose being a discussion about what’s working and not working, then people can be prepared to speak up and know that others are expected to do so as well.

Debrief and re-set. I’m on a mini-crusade as of late to create better feedback cultures. It grew out of a recognition that I avoid conflict and tough conversations and need help. So, I’ve been pushing myself to speak up more and have been learning about how to deliver feedback. As part of that searching, I came across the book Radical Candor and I can’t say enough good things about it. I’ve recommended it so many times I’ve lost count.

One of the ways we can build psychological safety is through self-awareness – and sometimes we need others to help us find our blind spots. Regular, constructive, and (sometimes) tough feedback is essential. If you’re not getting it, ask for it. It’s only fair to you and your team or organization. One-on-one feedback is one way, as are formal project retrospectives or post-mortems where teams take stock of how a project went and then share lessons learned to keep adding to the psychological safety goodness.

These are just three ways that you and your teams can start to build psychological safety. Every organization, team, and person is different, though. So, experiment with what works for you and keep trying and failing. You’ll never get it perfect (that’s not the point), but you can improve.