Why psychological safety is critical for high performing teams

High Performance & Psychological Safety

What do high performing teams have in common? It’s a factor that is missing in toxic teams and critical for optimum performance. Here’s why risk taking, failure and psychological safety are crucial ingredients if you want to succeed as a team.

Psychological Safety

We’ve evolved in a way that has kept us safe but sometimes those evolutionary modifications can let us down badly. When we’re faced with stressful situations our amygdala is activated, pushing us into fight, flight or freeze mode. Great if you need to run away from a predator. Not so great if you need the executive functioning of the pre frontal cortex to clarify your decision making and optimise your cognitive performance.

Strategic Thinking & Failure

It’s in those moments of amygdala hijack that we need to know that we have psychological safety. Knowing that we won’t be punished for taking risks, or for being creative is crucial for high performance and innovation. Data shows that it’s at these pressure points in our working life that we need to feel safe that punishment isn’t just around the corner.

5 Dynamics to a Successful Team at Google

Google set out to investigate what makes a high performing team and discovered something surprising. It wasn’t all about assembling star players. Their two year study examined 200+ employees and uncovered the following key dynamics for a high performing team.

There were five key dynamics that set successful teams apart from other teams at Google:

  1. Psychological safety: Can we take risks on this team without feeling insecure or embarrassed?
  2. Dependability: Can we count on each other to do high quality work on time?
  3. Structure & clarity: Are goals, roles, and execution plans on our team clear?
  4. Meaning of work: Are we working on something that is personally important for each of us?
  5. Impact of work: Do we fundamentally believe that the work we’re doing matters?

Broaden and Building Positive Emotions at Work

Resilience, innovation and longevity in today’s world of work relies upon our ability to broaden and build positive emotions. Research by Barbara Fredrickson at the University of North Carolina discovered that positive emotions like trust, creativity, awe, motivation and inspiration all contribute to psychological safety, freeing us up to reach optimum performance. You don’t get the same result in toxic teams. When people are afraid to speak up, or take necessary risks for fear of punitive repercussions, they shut down and performance suffers. Blame cultures and workplace toxicity sound the death knell for psychological safety. So how can teams broaden and build positive emotions?

Building Psychological Safety

Paul Santagata, Head of Industry at Google recommends these steps to create the 5 dynamics and create psychological safety.

1. Approach conflict as a collaborator, not an adversary.

2. Speak human to human.

3. Anticipate reactions and plan countermoves. 

4. Replace blame with curiosity. 

5. Ask for feedback on delivery.

6. Measure psychological safety.

Want to know more about psychological safety, building positive emotions and building high performing teams? Take a look at our free Mindfulness at Work Toolkit or any of our free tools in the resources section.

We work with individuals, leaders and Fortune 100 companies to improve performance, build resilience and embed sustainable performance in teams. We provide a training courses, coaching and consultancy. Want to know more? Get in touch. We’d love to hear from you.

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