Google recently released the results of a five-year study, known as Project Aristotle, through which they determined that the common attribute – or what Google termed “key dynamic” – which successful teams exhibited was something known as psychological safety.
Unfortunately, Google’s expensive, five-year foray into teamwork is a great example of what can happen when technologists undertake studies in team and cognitive psychology, human interaction, sociology, and complex adaptive systems (among other disciplines), and base their findings entirely on self-collected metrics and their own statistical analyses of that data. What Google found was that psychological safety is a statistically significant attribute (key dynamic) associated with high-performing teams, but unfortunately this doesn’t tell the full story or help other teams or organizations to understand what they need to do to create those same conditions in their own environments.
I certainly do not want to impugn or belittle the considerable efforts or discipline of the team conducting Google’s study. However, I might have suggested beginning with a review of existing research in some of those disciplines (teamwork, sociology, human behavior, cognitive psychology, etc.) relating to team performance and teamwork. As it turns out, there is quite a lot.
In fact, so much that today there are meta-studies covering these topics. Among other critical areas not studied by Google, team performance is directly tied to the number and quality of social interactions between team members , the existence of Shared Mental Models within the team, shared expectations regarding behavioral norms (what we call Known Stable Social Interfaces), as well as organizational issues such as the leadership and management culture.
Which isn’t to imply that psychological safety isn’t important; indeed it is. Amy Edmondson in her book Teaming points out that psychological safety is of critical importance to effective teams:
“An environment of psychological safety is an essential element of organizations that succeed in today’s complex and uncertain world. The term psychological safety describes a climate in which people feel free to express relevant thoughts and feelings without fear of being penalized…In corporations, hospitals, and government agencies, my research has found that interpersonal fear frequently gives rise to poor decisions and incomplete execution.” 
Psychological safety is important. Yet psychological safety is not a team skill. For example, we can teach a team and individual team members to communicate more effectively using certain techniques and behaviors. Similarly, we can train a team to communicate in more assertive ways. However, we cannot train teams to simply “be psychologically safe.”
As Edmondson states in the quote above, “psychological safety is an essential element of organizations…” (emphasis added) – it isn’t a team skill or behavior.
This critical fact is where so much of the literature, and Google’s study in particular, come up short. Knowing that successful teams operate in an environment of psychological safety does not enable leadership, management, or coaches to build psychologically safe environments any more than looking at a painting enables me to paint a replica of it.
The real challenge is determining how one can mindfully, purposefully build a psychologically safe environment within an organization. To answer this question, we need to first understand what, exactly, psychological safety is. I define the term slightly differently than many textbook definitions:
Psychological safety is the existence of an environment in which individuals proactively exercise assertiveness, state opinions, challenge assumptions, provide feedback to teammates and leadership, while openly sharing mistakes and failures.
Many traditional definitions of psychological safety make use of the term “feel,” as does Edmondson: “The term psychological safety describes a climate in which people feel free to express relevant thoughts and feelings. Although it sounds simple, the ability to seek help and tolerate mistakes while colleagues watch can be unexpectedly difficult.”  (Emphasis added.)
However, I purposefully make use of the word “exercise.” Although this may seem a semantic difference at first glance, since we’re concerned with factors such as team performance, quality, and effectiveness, the existence of a psychologically safe environment in which no one actually admits mistakes or states opinions (although they feel free to) is undesirable. We need not only the environment, but also the actual actualization of the skills and behaviors necessary to realize the environment’s benefits.
How to build psychological safety in teams and organizations.
Although I’ve only glossed over the considerable amount of theory and research, I also don’t want to try to provide a Reader’s Digest version of decades of knowledge here. I’d rather get right to the point. What do leaders, managers, coaches, and teams need to do to purposefully build psychological safety in their environment, today?
First, significantly reduce the focus on processes and frameworks. The existence of a specific environment or culture is largely independent of the business process employed in an organization’s daily operations. Some frameworks and methodologies are structured to support the types of psychologically safe environments necessary to enhance team performance and effectiveness, but they do not guarantee it.
As Lyssa Adkins, author of Coaching Agile Teams, stated in her Closing Keynote at the 2016 Global Scrum Gathering in Orlando, Florida:
“I thought we would have transformed the world of work by now. People, we’ve been at this for fifteen years…Transforming the world of work is literally a human development challenge. So we are awesome, we are so good in this community at process and business agility. We’ve got that handled people, and we’ve had that handled for a while. What we’re not so good at, what I want to see us become just as great at, is human systems agility. Because that’s the other piece of it…You know, those organizations – they’re all made of humans, aren’t they? So, human systems agility is a piece of business agility. Not the only one, but an important one; and one that we’re not as good at.” 
Business processes and frameworks, including Agile systems such as Scrum and Lean, can only help create a structure capable of supporting the ways in which teams and individuals need to work to reach the highest levels of performance, effectiveness, and innovation. What those teams – from executive to functional – need, is a shared mental model, a Known Stable Social Interface for interacting and working collaboratively together, and which enables them to develop and exercise the interpersonal skills and behaviors necessary for psychological safety.
Leadership and management must initiate the formation of a psychologically safe environment by welcoming opinions (including dissent) on goals and strategies from peers and subordinates. People in management or leadership roles who fear questioning or are more focused on their ideas than on the right ideas need to either learn, adapt, and grow, or move on. They are obstacles, roadblocks, and hindrances to organizational effectiveness, performance, and innovation.
Steps leadership and management can take to start to create psychological safety:
- Establish and clearly communicate expectations
- Receive training themselves
- Provide training for their employees
- Ensure follow-through with dedicated coaching and regular check-ins
Then, learn about and employ the following behaviors and skills:
- Frame mistakes and errors as learning and opportunities for improvement.
- Encourage lessons learned to be shared instead of hidden, focused toward helping others to learn, grow, and avoid similar mistakes.
- Embrace the value of failure for learning by admitting to mistakes they’ve made themselves.
- Understand the difference between failures and subversion, sabotage, incompetence, and lack of ability.
- Learn about the interpersonal, social skills which power team effectiveness, including Leadership, Communication, Assertiveness, Situational Awareness, Goal Analysis, and Decision-Making. Those skills include the explicit behaviors necessary to build psychological safety in the organizational environment.
“If I focus on using your mistake as a way to blame and punish you, I’ll never hear about your mistakes until a catastrophe ensues. If I focus on using your mistake as a way for us to learn and improve collectively, then our entire process, system, and business will be better after every mistake.”
Individuals and teams can also help to build and enable psychologically safe environments:
- Seek training about and learn the interpersonal, social skills which power team effectiveness, including Leadership, Communication, Assertiveness, Goal Analysis, Decision-Making, Situational Awareness, Agility, and Empathy.
- Advocate for and build a climate in which learning and improvement is possible through open and honest analysis of failures / mistakes.
- Frame and focus discussions on the plans, strategies, and ideas supporting what is right, not who is right.
- Assume responsibility for their own psychological safety and proactively help build it as a fundamental attribute of their teams’ work environment.
Psychological safety is a key organizational characteristic which is critical to the growth of high-performing teams. However, it isn’t a holy grail and most organizations, coaches, and consultants do not know how to purposefully create a psychologically safe environment, nor why it makes sense to do so. Yet mindfully organizing to build high-performing teams is not only possible, it is something which many organizations have been doing for decades.
Chris Alexander is a former F-14D Flight Officer, the co-founder of AGLX Consulting, High-Performance Teaming™ coach, Agile coach, and Scrum Master, and has a passion for working with high-performing teams. Learn more at https://www.aglx.consulting.
- Pentland, Alex (20140130). Social Physics: How Good Ideas Spread – The Lessons from a New Science (p. 90). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
- Edmondson, Amy C. (20120316). Teaming: How Organizations Learn, Innovate, and Compete in the Knowledge Economy (Kindle Locations 1474-76, 2139-40). Wiley. Kindle Edition.
- Ibid, 2141-2144.