Psychological Safety and High Performing Teams
By Roisin Parkes, Chief Technology Officer, Gumtree Australia
I have worked with teams all over the world in my 20 years in the technology industry. In that time, I have observed with keen interest the way some teams just click. You can tell by the way they talk to each other, their body language and the way they go about tasks that they will be a highly functioning unit. It is a phenomenon that has fascinated me, and something I have been determined to understand. Why do some teams work, and others fail, even if it appears that you’ve got all the right skills and people?
As we go through a shift in the way we conceptualise work, and how and when it gets done – this issue will become more important than ever. Remote and flexible working requires us to understand how team’s work best as traditional company boundaries become more flexible, freelancers more common, and partnerships more necessary.
Since becoming Gumtree Australia’s Chief Technology Officer and adapting to its highly collaborative and diverse culture, I’ve been constantly evaluating the key ingredients and barriers to promoting high-performance teams. Here are my key insights and learnings into what makes these teams tick.
Cracking the code
During my career in tech, I have had varying roles in teams across complex consulting roles, to product development and C-suite. For the vast majority of these, the strategy for building the best team was finding the best people at their job, providing them with the best leader–and letting them get on with it. While this makes sense, teams built this way can still have hugely varying degrees of success.
The New York Times recently reported on Google’s mission to codify the secrets to team effectiveness in Project Aristotle. It collected endless amounts of data, allocated huge resources and recruited statisticians, organisational psychologists, sociologists, engineers, and researchers to help to crack the code to a high-performing team.
After three years of deep analysis, the team started to consider the intangible traits of a successful team and identified psychological safety as the secret sauce to high-performing teams. It was the code-breaker.
For the vast majority of these, the strategy for building the best team was finding the best people at their job, providing them with the best leader–and letting them get on with it
Psychological safety is the key
According to the Harvard Business Review, Psychological safety is defined as a shared belief held by team members that the team is safe for risk-taking, and "being able to show and employ one's self without fear of negative consequences of self-image, status or career".
Google researchers found that when leaders emerged and others were forced to the periphery, and given less opportunity to contribute, the collective intelligence declined.
In contrast, the most successful teams were able to commonly display intuition and could tell how other people in the group felt from nonverbal skills including tone of voice and their facial expressions.
Building your dream team
Building a culture of empathy, trust, respect, and safety can be difficult and won’t come overnight. Reading through Google’s internal analysis prompted me to act on ensuring psychological safety was paramount within my own teams. Here are some practical ways you can kick this off.
One of best ways to build safe-zones within high-performing teams is offering enough time (especially for newly formed teams) for face-to-face meetings for members to naturally progress through the forming, storming, norming, and performing stages. This may not be physically possible for remote teams, but regular video conferencing will suffice.
Actively promoting more meetings might seem counterproductive to some at the beginning, but it will pay dividends if they are facilitated by a team lead or agile coach to ensure they’re action orientated and follow the correct norms, including equal talking time, active listening and blameless criticism.
Creating a team that can accurately read non-verbal cues is a little trickier and requires trust. An individual on a team needs to know that they can express emotions or controversial and divergent ideas and to be listened and considered by the team. These behaviours can be agreed at the outset with a team manifesto. However, some may still say that there are people who are just naturally intuitive in reading how people feel, but I’m a firm believer that it is a skill that can be learned, it just requires practice, patience and persistence.
Diversity of thought and culture
One of my key learnings from Project Aristotle was a realisation that diversity alone does not improve team performance. It’s about promoting a culture of inclusiveness and diversity across thought and culture to allow for the divergent thinking to happen. This is what drives innovation, better problem solving and growth.
I’m proud of Gumtree’s policies that help drive diversity, including unconscious bias training for staff, anonymised CVs and family friendly programs. And, I’m excited how we continue to promote and action psychological safety as a key staple of all our teams.
The Greek philosopher Aristotle’s famous teaching that "the whole can be greater than the sum of its parts," still rings as true today as it did back then, in our complex and ever-changing digital world.