Issue #68
#68 - (Psychological) Safety First
May 26, 2023

#68 - [Psychological] Safety First

Last year, Usman and I spoke with two entrepreneurs running a strong business who had recently undertaken an experiment: they built and launched a new product to create an additional revenue stream. Their aim was to hedge, because they believed that their existing product was under threat from competition.

It all seemed logical enough, and better yet -- the experiment worked! Right away, the new product began generating diversified revenue for the company.

High fives all around. 🙌🏻

Only there was one problem, and it was a big one: they had built the product in stealth. Very few of their team were aware of the experiment; engineers got strange, opaque requests to build software features that made no sense given the existing business. And when the team finally learned -- ta-da! -- that the company had a new product and business direction, the damage was done: a big blow to the trust between the founders and their team.

When we asked the entrepreneurs, "Why did you build the thing in such stealth?", they didn't hesitate:

"Because we were afraid it would fail."


The problem was that doing it all in the dark flew in the face of the culture we knew the duo was keen to build: one of learning, ownership and experimentation. And by building the new product in the dark, they missed out on the chance to model that experimentation, risk-taking, and learning to the team.

As it happened, the experiment worked; but even if it had failed, they still would have sent a great message about the need to trial, test and learn. Even failure would have modelled to employees that it was ok, and "safe" to experiment. Instead, by dabbling in the dark, the message that got sent was: "It is not safe to take risks at this company."

In a 1999 study, Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson first coined the term "psychological safety", defining it there as:

A shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking. A sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject or punish someone for speaking up.

Psychological safety is also a research-backed concept which we now know plays a crucial role in team cohesion and performance, and we use our 3 Stories this week to come up to speed:

Story #1 - First, what exactly are we talking about when we use the term "psychological safety"? We start look at a set of consistent definitions that also bring to life the impact that the approach has on teams and performance.

Story #2 -
Google is one of the most data-driven companies on the planet. A few years ago it unleashed its "People Analytics" team 🤓 on its own data to ask, "What makes certain teams great?" We look at what they found in our second story (you get one guess, only, as to which factor came out on top 🥇)
Story #3 - With the concept of psychological safety well-defined, and reams of research backing up how critical it is to team, well, everything, we end with a provocative question that brings home how binary an impact can have: how much we stand to gain from providing that safety; and what we miss out on, when we don't.

Thank you for reading and exploring with us -- and have a great week!

Aki + Usman

P.S. Usman and I did our podcast episode of issue #67, "It's getting lonely at work" -- together, of course. 🙃 It is right here.


#PsychologicalSafety #RisksAreSafeHere #Trust #LeadersGoFirst

So many fancy definitions of culture, but so few of them emphasize that is is ultimately a code that transmits what is safe to members of a group. ✅

We had Amy Edmondson's own take on the meaning of psychological safety in the intro. Let's look at two others; first from writer-scholar Adam Grant, who reminds us that as in most matters of culture, and in leading on culture, it's up to us as leaders to model psychological safety "first", by making and admitting to our mistakes, and welcoming feedback on them:

It's not psychological safety if people can only voice what you want to hear. The goal is not to be comfortable. It's to create a climate where people can speak up without fear. Psychological safety begins with admitting our own mistakes and welcoming criticism from others.

Here, writer Anne-Laure Le Cunff highlights the way a psychologically safe group -- one in which members feel they can share ideas and experiment -- cultivates a culture of creativity. And that these groups also make faster decisions because people fear and obsesses over the downside of a "bad" decision less:

Psychological safety creates a virtuous circle where people are comfortable admitting their mistakes and learning from their failure; as a result, everyone openly shares their ideas and experiments, cultivating an innovative environment. It also prevents teams to fall prey to analysis paralysis, and leads to faster decision-making.

This ties to the point in the main quote above 👆🏻, from Gillian Pillans, a researcher, who expounds on it here:

Pillans advises that leaders can establish psychological safety through creating a culture of trust and mutual respect.This will all help to create a culture where people feel like they can experiment and safely make and learn from mistakes – essential prerequisites to creativity and innovation.

The more we read and think about it, the more it feels like psychological safety unlocks the potential -- the very idea and benefit -- of a team: having a lot of minds, experiences, creativity and perspective go at a problem. Otherwise, we're absorbing all the costs of a team -- the financial costs, the management costs, the coordination costs -- without getting the upside. 🤔


#PsychologicalSafetyWorks #ROI #BackedByData

The context for the study above on psychological safety:

Following the success of Google’s Project Oxygen research where the People Analytics team studied what makes a great manager, Google researchers applied a similar method to discover the secrets of effective teams at Google. Code-named Project Aristotle - a tribute to Aristotle’s quote, "the whole is greater than the sum of its parts" (as the Google researchers believed employees can do more working together than alone) - the goal was to answer the question: “What makes a team effective at Google?”

And the results of the study were startling: psychological safety was ID'd as the most important variable within Google's most effective teams, and it had material impact on retention, the ability to harness diverse ideas -- even generate revenue. These are...non-trivial effects, folks!

Here's a link to the study, but also to a set of great resources: a TED Talk by Amy Edmondson, a set of questions to assess the degree of safety on a team, and a list of things managers can do to model and reinforce the concept with their own team. 🙌🏻


#PsychologicalSafety #ROI

The quote above is from David McLean, an HR leader. And like many great prompts, this one hits with a gut-punch for the way it forces us to ask:

How many great innovations and steps forward must have been unlocked by teams that felt safe taking risks with one another? How can we possibly calculate the value of what that safety unlocked? 🤯

But also, in the negative: what quantum of creativity, innovation, impact or performance might we be holding back when we fail to provide that same safety to our teams?

Thanks for reading. 🙏🏻

Work moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.
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