Effective team working is associated with improved problem solving and more innovative solutions and can help the organisation to achieve higher levels of productivity and efficiency. The social aspect of team working can also be hugely advantageous; studies show that individuals who are part of a healthy team tend to have higher emotional well-being and show greater personal growth and learning.
However, not all teams are ‘healthy’ and being a member of a toxic and dysfunctional team can be a very lonely place to be. If toxic teams are tolerated, then the organisation faces the threat of losing its best talent and allowing unacceptable behaviours to infiltrate the wider organisational culture. It’s not surprising that some of the biggest and most successful organisations are consciously choosing to invest time in their teams and explore how they can get the best out of them.
Our understanding of effective and healthy team working has evolved, and there is now greater recognition that how the team works is more important than who is on the team. In particular, psychological safety is recognised as being one of the most crucial factors of team effectiveness. This term was coined by Amy Edmondson and refers to a team being able to speak their mind, ask questions and raise concerns without fear of judgement or shame. In a psychologically safe environment, a team can take interpersonal risks and feel able to show vulnerability to their teammates.
Trust between individual team members is an important foundation for psychological safety; when there is trust amongst individuals it allows trust at the group level to form, helping to build a more psychologically safe environment. Where trust and psychological safety is lacking, individuals can feel threatened and afraid of looking ignorant, incompetent, intrusive or negative. This fear means that team members fail to ask questions, admit mistakes and faults, or offer new ideas and they don’t bring up conflicts or challenge the status quo. As a result, the team will fail to perform optimally.
Teams are able to thrive when the environment is challenging but not threatening, and there is a good scientific explanation for this. The positive emotions that are associated with trust and psychological safety help to broaden the mind and build psychological, social and physical resources; we become more open-minded, resilient and motivated. This helps us to be more creative and better able to find solutions. On the other hand, when we operate in an environment which isn’t psychologically safe, and where we feel we are being dismissed or provoked by others then we go into ‘fight or flight’ mode which hinders our ability to reason or take perspective of things. In addition, when there is a lack of trust and psychological safety in the team, we can find ourselves second-guessing what others are really thinking and wondering where we stand. If we have to constantly question and risk assess everything before sharing an idea or feel unable to ask for help, then this will add to our cognitive load. When we feel safe enough to not have to do this, we essentially free up our cognitive capacity, and so we are in a better position to engage with more complex problem solving and learning.
Leaders play an important role in creating a climate that promotes psychological safety; through the behaviours they model they can help their team to feel able to speak their mind without fear of judgement or repercussions. For example, a leader can reward speaking up; they can actively provide opportunities for their team to have their say and show gratitude for individuals who engage. They can also encourage specific feedback and show a genuine willingness to learn from this.
It’s easy to talk the talk, but leaders also need to walk the walk! A leader who tells staff they welcome feedback, but who comes across as defensive, dismissive or disinterested when staff show the courage to approach them will only serve to erode trust and damage psychological safety. It’s important that leaders are mindful of their own body language to ensure that what they say matches the impression they give to their staff. Similarly, active listening is a really important skill for leaders to demonstrate; it helps to encourage open dialogue as it demonstrates to members of the team that what they have to say is considered to be important and that they are valued and accepted, which are all conditions that are necessary for psychological safety. Active listening also forces the leader to withhold judgement; they are required to listen to everything that is being said before forming an opinion, which makes the leader less likely to dismiss others’ ideas without due consideration.
However, we may also need to reassess our own perspective of what we expect from our leaders; sometimes we can fall into the trap of expecting our leaders to know everything and to be infallible. We can find ourselves acting as harsh critics when they make mistakes, or when they can’t answer a question or solve a problem. Instead, we need to remember that leaders are human too, and if a leader is willing to show their own vulnerability rather than play on their power, then this should be considered a strength. Today’s leadership should be less about compliance and more about engagement; when leaders are open and honest about their own limitations, they help to send the message to their team that transparency is valued and that there is a learning mindset; where opportunities to learn from each other are capitalised upon. This, in turn, increases engagement from others and prevents teams from falling into the trap of suffocating their creativity by simply complying with what they believe their leader wants.
When members of a team truly feel psychologically safe, then this removes the fear of failure that so often can hold a team back and stop them from reaching their full potential. Instead, a psychologically safe team adopts the mindset that we are all experimenters. If things don’t work out as planned, it’s an opportunity for us to take any learning from this before trying again. In fact, on the surface, high performing teams can seem to make more mistakes than low performing teams, but in reality, it is just that they are more willing to admit to mistakes! When something doesn’t work out, psychologically safe teams move on and work hard to identify the learning from this, without blame, judgement or shame.
When failure is seen as an acceptable outcome, it enables us to learn and innovate. When teams adopt this approach, they have the superpower to achieve great things.