Research & Design Strategy

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.

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