Team psychology: Why managers should encourage silly questions

In some way or other we're all part of a team. However, in a work context teams often just happen. They also evolve over time: people join, people leave, and occasionally someone will get the team together and try to "build" it into something better.

Interestingly, although many groan at the thought of team building events, how people work together is more important than who is on the team. The "how'" is a complex mixture of power play, personalities, communication channels, and many other things. Nevertheless what we do know is that one thing is by far the most important. A couple of decades of research, and a highly influential study by Google (Project Aristotle), points the finger squarely at "Psychological Safety."

Speak up!

Have you ever sat in a meeting and not asked the killer question? Had a great idea but kept it to yourself? Wanted to ask about something you really didn't understand, but kept your mouth shut? It turns out that no matter your position in an organization this happens all too frequently. The reason we don't act is pure self-protection. We don't want to do something that will draw attention to us and possibly be embarrassing. Frankly we don't want to stick our neck out for fear of looking silly, or worse still, having it cut off!

This is the territory of psychological safety and nurturing this is at the core of high performing teams. That's teams in which members feel comfortable with each other, where you can speak your mind, and where you don't get penalized for making a mistake.

In short, Google's study showed that with psychological safety comes greater creativity, a willingness to take moderate risks, and greater commitment to the organization: people on teams with greater levels of psychological safety are less likely to leave. This alone is a big win — lower levels of staff turnover.

The bottom line

All that increased risk-taking, speaking out, confidence to be yourself, and greater creativity is what gets stuff done. It's what's likely to lead to new products and services, and to business growth. And this isn't just wishful thinking, a recent meta-analysis reviewing the data from 22,000 employees and nearly 5,000 groups, produced some startling results.

Amongst the many findings, three are really persuasive. The correlation between psychological safety and task performance is 0.43. That may look like a funny little number, but it demonstrates a strong relationship. To put this in perspective the correlation is about the same as that between human height and weight — two real-world attributes, that are in general, highly related to each other. There's a similar figure for engagement, this weighs in at 0.45. Together they suggest psychological safety is needed for people to want to perform their work well.

The other fascinating figure is the relationship between psychological safety and information sharing. This one is even higher at 0.52 and hints at something important — especially in a world where many are working from home. Also if you're in the workplace, social distancing will inevitably interfere with how you deal with your colleagues and share your thoughts.

Remotely connected

Let's look at the work from home conundrum. If you've suddenly ended up working in a virtual team you're probably not experiencing high levels of psychological safety. Now, you're probably thinking, is not the time to appear argumentative or to rock the boat. To appear as if you don't know what you're doing and to continually ask for help; to ask the question that makes you look as if you're the only one who isn't coping well. Surely the best approach is to fly beneath the radar and not draw attention to yourself? Basically to share far less with your workmates.

If you are thinking in this way the problem isn't yours, it's your managers. All that anxiety is burning up energy, stopping you from learning, and ensuring you don't do your best work.

As a manager then, the issue is how do you create psychological safety? The feeling that we really are all on the same team, on the same page, and watching each other's backs. Basically that the life preserver is there and we're all happy to throw it to each other — and also to receive it.

I'll show you mine

One of the cornerstones of Authentic Leadership is self-disclosure. That's being willing to talk about your strengths and limitations, to admit that you don't know everything, to be open about your feelings, and above all to be approachable at an emotional level.

Thus, as a leader one of the best things you can do is to show fallibility, to be curious, and to accept genuine feedback. In fact, sharing "hairy moments" and talking about how effective you were - or were not - is the glue that binds together a psychologically safe team.

So as the Googlers found, starting a meeting by simply sharing a risk taken in the previous week significantly boosted psychological safety ratings. This means that having a deliberate and shared mechanism for talking about team effectiveness primes all those other important conversations: the difficult ones, the "embarrassing" ones, and the downright unbelievable (yet true) ones.

This is the most effective thing we can all do. Naturally, it needs to be backed up by not immediately leaping to judgement, letting everyone talk and not interrupting them, and being truly open to learning from each other.

To summarize, if you're a manager and want your colleagues — wherever they are — to be engaged, committed, satisfied, sharing, learning-oriented, and high performing, it's probably time to prioritise psychological safety.


Traitify builds tools that help managers and their teams explore their work personalities. If you would like to know more, connect with Traitify.