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Date posted: 19th October 2022

19th October 2022

Psychological Safety: The Key to High Performing Teams

Psychological Safety: The Key to High Performing Teams

The success of any organization is determined by the strength of its teams, and in order to create high performing teams’ employees must first feel psychologically safe.

A psychologically safe environment is one in which every employee feels empowered to express themselves creatively without fear of making mistakes or being embarrassed – and organizations that successfully cultivate a collaborative culture ultimately achieve greater levels of productivity, performance, and long-term success.

Read this informative article by David Green and Tom Marsden to find out:

  • What organizations can do to develop a psychologically safe working environment
  • How a psychologically safety increases overall effectiveness
  • The role of technology in developing high performing teams

From the My Future HR article:

To create highly effective teams, organisations have to enable two things: One is psychological safety and the second is High performance standards: through training, coaching, clarity about goals etc. Google’s two-year study on team performance revealed that team effectiveness is grounded in psychological safety – the belief that you won’t be punished when you make a mistake. Many studies have shown that psychological safety allows for moderate risk-taking, creativity, innovation and a level of openness that allows you share how you feel — it’s these types of behaviours that lead to market breakthroughs. With multiple studies highlighting that attrition rates are rising, creating a work environment that promotes psychological safety, employee wellbeing and a sense of purpose has never been more important.

I recently had the opportunity to speak to Tom Marsden, CEO of Saberr to hear more about how his company is helping organisations driver greater business value by creating high performing teams.

While many companies are currently experiencing increased attrition rates, it’s becoming apparent that many organisations don’t really understand why this is happening or the necessary steps they should take to turn the ‘great attrition’ into the ‘great attraction’. What can organisations do to begin to work with employees to transform this threat?

The way we work has been changing for some time. The pandemic simply accelerated that change. Now employees have genuine choices in terms of how they work. Dan Pink was smart when he highlighted three key areas of motivation: purpose, autonomy, mastery. As we rethink the employee value proposition, we should bear these in mind more than ever.

Articulating the purpose of the work in ways that employees grasp and find meaningful. There has been a moment of reflection. People are taking stock. More than ever they need to feel what they do has meaning.

Giving employees more autonomy to decide where and how they work. This is complex. It needs to be appropriate for the needs of the individuals, the teams, the clients they serve and the tasks at hand. Organisations probably need some overall ground rules for company-wide collaboration but also to devolve decision making where possible down to the team level.

As employees seek to develop mastery the role of the manager is to become a coach to the team. This isn’t linear. It means developing mentoring and coaching relationships within the organisation. Eric Schmidt outlines this in his book about the trillion dollar coach, Bill Campbell|:

“Coaching is no longer a speciality; you cannot be a good manager without being a good coach. It’s not possible or practical to hire a coach for every team in the company, not is it the right answer, because the best coach for any team is the manager who leads the team.”

Underpinning all these is the fact that many of our greatest achievements are not achieved by individuals but teams of people. Small groups working together. The search for vaccines was dominated by teams of researchers working together. The ‘agile’ movement harnesses the power of small teams.

Working in small teams is good for business, it’s also good for individuals. Creating healthy functioning team environments is core to addressing problems of burnout at work. We are social animals and the bonds we develop are vital for wellbeing.

How does psychological safety in a team increase overall effectiveness?

As Amy Edmondson highlights: “Psychological safety refers to an individual’s perception of the consequences of taking an interpersonal risk or a belief that a team is safe for risk taking in the face of being seen as ignorant, incompetent, negative, or disruptive.”

In a team with high psychological safety, members feel safe to take risks with each other. They feel 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. There’s a lot of research that Amy and others reference that shows psychological safety has a positive effect on performance.

Most famously Google’s research across 180 teams found that psychological safety was the critical factor explaining why some teams out-performed others.

A study of 195 student teams found diverse teams performed well within psychologically safe environments and badly otherwise. A study of Masters students participating in 195 teams in a French university found teams which were diverse in expertise performed well when psychological safety was high and badly otherwise (Martins et al., 2013).

But there have also been studies that show how important psychological safety is for innovation such as a study from R&D teams in Taiwanese technology firms found that psychologically safe teams are more innovative. (Huang and Jiang, 2012).

Psychological safety is important so that people speak up and catch problems early. A study of nurses in a Belgian Hospital found that psychological safety encouraged nurses to report errors whilst also enforcing high standards for safety. safety (Leroy et al. 2012). Another study of clinical staff at a large metropolitan US hospital found that psychological safety was related to patient safety (Rathert et al. 2009).

There is also research that shows that psychological safety has a positive impact on team engagement, employee confidence and turnover intentions. Of course, these are all important outcomes in their own right. They also impact the bottom line.

Overall, I think many people would say that the evidence that psychological safety is important to team and organisation performance is really robust. The question then becomes how to create safe environments.

What are Saberr’s recommendations to develop a high performing team and what is the role of technology?

One of the parallels that we like to use is the example of health and fitness apps. Clearly when you lose weight or get fit, the majority of the work is done by you as an individual. But the technology can provide guidance and support – tracking weight, calories or sessions in the gym. It’s similar when developing a team.

To get started we have identified certain habits, routines and rituals that will help a team perform at the top of their game. Most people understand vaguely the concept of teamwork, but we’ve found that a lot of leaders and teams don’t have an effective playbook for the team to develop.

We developed our playbook by diving into the last 100 years of research regarding what makes a team work.  We also spent a lot of time with team coaches designing activities that you can do on the platform. So, there are two key benefits here. First, having a clear playbook of what you need to do as a team. Second, being able to use tools from the toolkit to develop important habits and routines.

Underpinning most great team performance is a kind of collective intelligence. As we have researched this, we’ve found some interesting things. First, team collective intelligence is not about IQ. Having the smartest people will not get the best team performance. It’s more about EQ. Research by Anita Williams Wooley, Thomas Malone and others make this clear.  Team members need to be able to read each other, build on each other’s strengths and mitigate weaknesses. You develop this through individuals developing emotional intelligence.

This is made even more complicated in the world of work today as teams are not static. Teams form and disband fast. So how can we develop emotional intelligence when we are working with new people all the time?  We provide a range of support for this kind of “teaming” to happen. From introductory courses to develop an understanding of teamwork foundations through to a dynamic profile that you can share with others. A kind of “operating manual for me”. It can help shorten the time to understand each other and help develop trust and deepen relationships over time.

There’s one further parallel with the fitness apps. Some apps – notably Noom – have found that having an assigned coach can really help you achieve your goal. We also have this option for teams. A team manager or a team can have a coach by your side on the journey.

Can you share any specific examples from your clients around the impact that using Saberr has had in driving greater team effectiveness?

Saberr has helped clients increase psychological safety, employee engagement and team performance and improved meetings.

There’s a common theme in terms of nudging teams to better performance but there are different approaches we’ve seen to implementation. Some clients like the software company Iptor, have rolled out the platform across all their employees. This is particularly true in mid to large sized companies up to several thousand employees. In very large enterprises the software has been used with clusters of teams or in divisions first.

For distribution management software provider, Iptor, Saberr was initially implemented to support an organisational change program. The company knew that in order for this to be successful, they would need to develop both the skills and behaviours of their leaders, while improving collaboration and productivity within their teams.

Interested in learning more about building greater team effectiveness? Take a look at our online training courses for HR Professionals on myHRfuture.

One way in which Saberr was able to support this was by enabling a more efficient performance management process, replacing twice-yearly appraisals with continuous performance discussions. This not only helped to keep both teams and individuals motivated and productive, but it also ensured two-way communication about what was going on in the wider business.

Manager’s across Iptor use Saberr’s meeting templates to facilitate the right conversations with their teams, with prompts to ensure these discussions were happening on a regular basis. There was a focus from the CEO on having clear team purpose and goals to develop alignment. The platform was also used to deliver contextually relevant content, tips and resources in the flow of work, helping them develop as coaches.

As a result of these efforts, Iptor were able to increase both collaboration and communication, and subsequently improve team performance by 26%.

In another example, Saberr helped NatWest Markets to improve employee engagement and team performance, by helping them develop a coaching culture.

NatWest also made use of Saberr’s templates and machine learning capabilities, as well as the platform’s psychometric profiling feature, which has been used to help both managers and team members understand the personalities, values, strengths and working styles of their colleagues, managers and direct reports.

Teams across NatWest also used the platform’s interactive team exercises to define agreed behaviours and reflect on team performance. This helped improve communication between both teams and territories, particularly those with cultural differences. It also helped managers to identify and leverage the particular strengths of their team members.

One of the most interesting outcomes of this approach was a 43% improvement in psychological safety. We heard that using the platform helped “normalise” conversations that were not happening before.

We are now working with NatWest to make the platform available across the group.

What are some of the differences and challenges you experience when analysing data at the team level vs the individual level?

There’s currently a lot more data at the individual level than at the team level. That’s changing with the phenomenal growth of tools like Slack and Microsoft Teams. The danger is that optimising for the individual is usually simpler but often what’s most needed is optimising at the team level.

Alec Levenson said that “team performance is the ultimate objective for organisations to succeed in executing the strategy and achieving operational goals. In order for analytics to best contribute to organisational success, the focus ultimately needs to be on team performance, not individual performance.”

At Saberr we are building a distinctive data set to understand teams better. One area we have spent a lot of time researching is to understand how our different personalities and values affect our ability to come together as a cohesive team. Personality represents our patterns of thinking and feeling (with no judgement involved) whereas values represent what we believe to be right. They are deeply held principles that guide our choices and influence our emotions. We found that our values are particularly important.

Let’s start with an individual’s perspective. Let’s say Maria particularly values autonomy. She really likes to be given freedom to get projects done. She hates being micromanaged. The advice we most often hear is “live life according to your values”.  This seems like great advice. We will all be happier if we live a life aligned with our core values.

But let’s say Maria works with Paul. Paul particularly values safety and security. He sometimes worries when everyone is left to do their own thing that there’s not enough control in place. He’s experienced major problems in the past. This makes him very uneasy.

So now the problem is that if we both live out our personal values there’s a danger of Maria and Paul clashing. This happens to varying degrees in all teams. Having a strong sense of organisation values can be an important mediator. But there will remain strongly held differences of personal opinions.

We started discussing these types of challenges – where the data highlights potential flashpoints. What can be done? We worked a lot with teams that were living this situation and with group coaches. In summary we found that there were two important measures that could be taken.

First, we found that encouraging people to be curious and take an interest in others’ points of views, their experiences and how those experiences have shaped their values was very powerful. If Maria understood why Paul values safety and security so much. And Paul understood why Maria values autonomy. That would help a lot.

The other thing that would make a difference is to invest the time to develop shared goals together. Too often there’s an over reliance on individual goals. But when much of the work is done together, we need to create shared goals that we believe in and commit to.

I’m using a very specific example to highlight one difference to reviewing individual data points versus taking a more systemic approach. But there’s the potential to highlight these kinds of challenges and solutions at scale with technology. That’s exciting.

There’s clearly a very strong moral and business case for diversity. But we must not oversimplify. Cognitive diversity has great benefits if you are solving a difficult problem. If you have people with relevant skills but different problem-solving approaches you will get a better answer. But some diversity is harder to manage. Values diversity can be one of those. If people have very different personal belief systems, it can mean you don’t ever get to the constructive discussion.

We need to move beyond the individual to understand how to get the best from everyone’s unique strengths.

As we continue to navigate the post pandemic world of work and organisations embrace hybrid working, being agile has never been more important. How can HR help managers and their teams embrace an agile mindset?

The way you have framed the question is spot on. It’s mindset first. Too often when people think about agile it’s about process not mindset. Three things come to mind in developing an agile mindset.

The first is embracing the idea of shortening the cycle time of work. Breaking work into short units and course correcting instead of making a plan and sticking with it. This means embracing a curious and experimental mindset.

The second is putting the customer at the heart of what you do. Whether that’s an internal or external customer. This means having empathy for your customer and being a good listener amongst other things.

Finally, as we have discussed recognising the power of small teams to do great work. To do this, we need to develop a growth mindset, where individual and team capabilities are developed over time. We continually work to improve how the team functions, not just working on the tasks in front of us. And of course, as we have discussed, you need to embrace psychological safety.

And is agile right for every HR team?

Adopting an agile mindset above is very different from adopting a specific agile process. I struggle to think of a situation where an agile mindset wouldn’t help. This is because the vast majority of industries are changing very fast and are not stable.

Of course, the tools and processes that you use need to be appropriate for your industry, organisation and your team. The problems that we solve will be different and require an appropriate approach. We should treat a project that is driven by blue sky innovation differently from a project where there is a tried and tested approach we want to implement.

If you are facing a complex innovation problem, you might design crazy experiments to test new ideas and many will fail. If you are implementing a tried and tested approach where little innovation is needed that’s different. You may want to focus on disciplined execution, following a set process with less allowance failure. The more complex and unknown, the more agile we need to be.

I’d say every team should start to think more agile. But teams should be considered in terms of the specific processes that they adopt and make sure they are fit for their needs.

Read the full article, here.

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