Psychological safety: The secret to Google’s top teams’ success – and 5 lessons for workplaces

Not the teams with the highest IQs. Nor the teams with the most senior leaders.

When Google conducted a two-year study on what makes a great team, the results surprised some. They found the highest performing teams had one thing in common: they felt psychologically safe.

Psychological safety is where employees feel free and secure sharing ideas and concerns, without being judged or criticized.

When employees feel mentally and emotionally safe to be themselves in the workplace, they take more risks and make quicker decisions.

So how can you create the mental health equivalent of a physically safe environment for your people? Here’s our five tips for generating a psychological safe workplace.

  1. Endorse curiosity

Breakthroughs and discoveries are a result of curiosity. Curiosity can help teams overcome challenges and obstacles, by pushing the boundaries and not just accepting things at face value.

Harvard Business School professor and behavioral scientist Amy Edmondson, who first coined the term ‘psychological safety’ in 1999, is a huge advocate for curiosity and asking questions – not just by employees but by business leaders as well. She encourages leaders to invite participation in order to create a safe space where people can engage with their leaders.

Within this environment, employees feel more comfortable to ask questions and challenge decisions, creating more open communication and better engagement across departments and teams.

  1. Promote healthy debate

No one likes conflict but sometimes difficult conversations need to be had in the workplace, particularly in deadline-driven project environments. Google’s head of industry Paul Santagata says when conflicts arise, he avoids triggering a fight-or-flight reaction by asking, “How could we achieve a mutually desirable outcome?”

Senior managers can lead by example, showing the rest of the business how to have healthy discussions with each other and working together to find a solution to a problem.

  1. Foster a no-blame culture

Nothing can hold someone back more than the fear of being blamed if a project or decision goes wrong. By eliminating the fear of blame, you create a culture of safety for employees.

In addition, instead of being spurred into action, employees can procrastinate for days and almost become immobile when faced with a big piece of work if they feel there is a blame culture within their workplace.

Writing for Psychology Today, Dr Neil Farber advises businesses to look toward high-risk industries such as the military, aviation, and nuclear power plants for examples of cultures that go beyond the blame game and make it safe to admit and report failures. He says companies within these industries are most often the ones with the highest standards for safety and performance.

  1. Celebrate failures

It’s no secret that some of the world’s most successful entrepreneurs put their achievements down to not being afraid to fail. Richard Branson has claimed on numerous times that failure has been his biggest motivator and driver.

Teaching employees to embrace failure and take learnings from things that haven’t worked is a valuable tool to instil a culture of psychological safety. This is the core finding in Amy Edmondson’s influential 1999 paper, ‘Psychological safety and learning behavior in work teams’.

Edmondson studied two different teams in the same hospital to discover if more effective teams made fewer mistakes. What she found was the opposite. The most cohesive hospital teams reported making the most mistakes, not because they were necessarily making more mistakes than other teams but, they were more able and willing to talk about them to improve.

By adopting a learning mindset, where employees are taught to discover and learn from a mistake, they will be empowered to take more risks and try new ways of working.

  1. Encourage SOS requests

Asking for help can be perceived as weakness, but the effects of an over-extended workload pose risks for your business. According to a study by Personnel Psychology, employees report feelings of psychological and emotional distress and a reduction in overall levels of wellbeing when workloads are high.

Creating a culture of managers and leaders who actively encourage employees to speak up will create trust between employees and managers, reduce stress levels and eliminate future crunch points.

Valuing your people

Your people are your biggest asset. If your people feel safe and secure then they will be empowered to take risks, ask questions and not be afraid to fail.

Our ‘Why your workforce isn’t working’ research found that 92% of people wanted a positive workforce experience, so by creating this kind of environment, you’re likely to retain employees for longer.

Your people will thrive, leading to higher levels of engagement, increased motivation and a boost to productivity.

Find out what really drives your people in the workplace. Download our research from 3,500 employees today.  

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