The One Trait That Can Make or Break Your Team

The One Trait That Can Make or Break Your Team

Do people on your team feel safe? I’m not talking about physical safety (which, of course, is supremely important). No, I’m talking about psychological safety. This term was coined and popularized in 1999 by Amy Edmondson, a Harvard Business School professor, when she was researching and working with teams. Psychological safety means each employee of the credit union feels confident that no one on the team will embarrass or punish anyone else for admitting a mistake, asking a question or offering a new idea.

When people don’t feel psychologically safe at work, they can move into fight or flight mode. As famed authors Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner noted in their iconic book, The Leadership Challenge, “…hostile language and angry words send alarm signals to the brain as protection against any threats to survival and partially shut down the logic and reasoning centers in the brain.”

It’s also important to know that not only being on the receiving end of this type of behavior, but just witnessing it, can result in an employee not sharing their ideas, withholding bad news, not asking for help when needed, becoming defensive or combative to “protect” themselves and/or withdrawing from the team. All of these factors will cause an employee not to bring their discretionary effort to work. That’s highly problematic, as consistently offering one’s discretionary effort is a hallmark of highly engaged employees. In fact, it’s so problematic that it could be the very thing that makes or breaks your team.

Related to this topic, Google’s People Analytics division conducted research to try and understand what the perfect Google team looked like. They studied 180 teams comprised of anywhere from three to 50 members, with the median team size being nine. They examined the literature on teams and teamwork for a 50-year period prior to 2012. After three years of collecting and evaluating data, they found that what mattered most wasn’t who was on the team, but how they interacted.

The researchers listed five group norms that were exercised by the highest performing teams:

  1. Psychological safety: Team members feel safe to take risks and be vulnerable in front of each other.
  2. Dependability: Team members get things done and meet a high bar for excellence.
  3. Structure and clarity: Team members have clear roles, plans and goals.
  4. Meaning: The work is personally important to team members.
  5. Impact: Team members think their work matters and creates meaningful, positive change.

The researchers found that, by far, the most important norm was psychological safety, which stands to reason, as it’s foundational to camaraderie, collaboration and innovation.

Here are a few questions to ask yourself, adapted from the work of Amy Edmondson, which can serve as a starting point for building a psychologically safe environment:

  • Do we hold it against anyone if they make a mistake?
  • Are we all comfortable raising problems and tough issues?
  • Does anyone ever feel rejected for being different?
  • Is it safe to take a risk on our team?
  • Is it difficult to ask other members of our team for help?
  • Does anyone ever feel like someone has or would deliberately act in a way that undermines their efforts?
  • Are everyone’s unique skills and talents valued and utilized on our team?

Leading in a way that encourages people to be themselves and fully share what they’re thinking allows for people to bring their best work to the table. Again, from The Leadership Challenge, “Positive words strengthen areas in the frontal lobes, promoting the brain’s cognitive functioning and building resiliency.” While encouragement and positive language aren’t the entirety of psychological safety, there’s truth in the old adage, “you get more with honey than vinegar,” especially when we consider the ramifications of psychological safety among our teams.

Joe Bertotto has more than three decades of experience helping leaders improve their workplace cultures. He is the chief culture officer at Vizo Financial Corporate Credit Union and a Gallup Certified Strengths Coach. In 2014, Joe was named a Credit Union Rock Star by Credit Union Magazine. He also recently published his book, Pick Up the Gum Wrapper: How To Create a Workplace That Increases Performance While Improving Lives, which credit union leaders have been using as a guide to increase the effectiveness of their leadership skills and overall culture.