My former MBA student at Harvard, Charles Duhigg, has written an excellent article for the New York Times this week. The article is titled, "Google's Quest to Build the Perfect Team." Duhigg describes an initiative at Google code-named Project Aristotle. The company studied hundreds of teams to determine the attributes of the highest performing teams. They found it difficult to determine why some teams excelled while others did not. Then they began to hone in on an important determinant of success. Duhigg describes how the Google researchers focused on psychological safety. The term comes from the groundbreaking work of my long-time friend Amy Edmondson, with whom I have developed case studies, written articles, and created the award-winning Everest Leadership and Team Simulation. Edmondson defines psychological safety as the "shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking." Duhigg explains what the Google researchers discovered:
When Rozovsky and her Google colleagues encountered the concept of psychological safety in academic papers, it was as if everything suddenly fell into place. One engineer, for instance, had told researchers that his team leader was ‘‘direct and straightforward, which creates a safe space for you to take risks.’’ That team, researchers estimated, was among Google’s accomplished groups. By contrast, another engineer had told the researchers that his ‘‘team leader has poor emotional control.’’ He added: ‘‘He panics over small issues and keeps trying to grab control. I would hate to be driving with him being in the passenger seat, because he would keep trying to grab the steering wheel and crash the car.’’ That team, researchers presumed, did not perform well.
Google discovered what Edmondson did many years ago. High performance does not come from simply designing a team correctly. It's about more than just picking the right people and putting in place the right goals, structure, rewards, etc. You have to build the right climate. That takes a great deal of work over time. Leaders need to work at it persistently to establish and reinforce that safe climate. Each team member must commit to maintaining that safe climate as well.