The Psychological Safety of Teams

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Think about the place where you work or have worked in the past. Did the higher performing teams in this workplace make more errors or fewer errors compared with low performing teams? The answer to this question seems obvious. Better teams make fewer errors, right?

What type of teams are most effective?

In her research of hospital patient care teams, Dr. Amy Edmondson, a Professor at Harvard Business School, questions this assumption. In her studies, she found that higher performing medical teams had a higher error rate than lower performing ones. Her explanation for this counter-intuitive finding? More effective teams were more comfortable reporting and discussing their mistakes than the less effective ones. These teams experienced what she labeled “psychological safety.”

What is psychological safety?

Psychological safety can be defined as the “belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes.” No person sets out to appear incompetent. As a result, workers often avoid asking questions, voicing concerns, admitting to weaknesses, or criticizing the status quo in the workplace. As a result, this is detrimental to effective teamwork.

What defines a psychologically safe team?

Psychologically safe teams have a climate of respect and openness. For this reason, in these groups members feel like they can raise concerns, ask questions, and make mistakes without the fear of reprisal. By reporting and discussing their mistakes, psychologically safe teams are better able to learn and improve their process. Consequently, this discussion leads to higher levels of performance. Likewise, studies of organizations such as Google have revealed that who is on a team matters less than how the team members interact to establish psychological safety, dependability, and clarity. For this reason, top performing teams use communication effectively to engage in dialogue and constructive conflict management.

How can we build psychologically safe teams?

In conclusion, gaining a better understanding of team communication affords us the skills to build psychologically safe teams and working environments. Given the importance of teamwork in most careers and professional roles, learning how to better communicate in groups is an essential skill for the modern workplace. So, the next time you find yourself holding back from asking a question or presenting a risky idea in your place of work, consider the communication climate where you work and ask yourself, “is this a psychologically safe work group?”

By: Eric Meiners, Ph. D., professor, EKU Department of Communication

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