I was a decent basketball player growing up. As a sophomore, I was the only player in my grade called up to the varsity team. We had a couple of “stars” on the team, but otherwise, we were all fighting for limited playing time.

Instead of thriving on this competitiveness; we were paralyzed by it. Why? Because whenever one of us made a mistake, we were pulled out of the game and were punished for our incompetence, typically without any explanation.

It wasn’t so much that we had done wrong; it was that we didn’t even discuss and understand what wrong was.

I had a couple of workshops this week where I did a deep dive into what makes great teams GREAT. If you geek out over team effectiveness, you may be familiar with Google’s landmark study, Project Aristotle, on the characteristics of Outperforming teams.

They found that it matters not WHO is on the team but HOW they interact. And the most important factor in team performance?

Psychological safety.

Basically:

how comfortable do people feel speaking up, voicing their thoughts and opinions, challenging the status quo…without the fear of appearing negative, ignorant or incompetent?

We’re highly protective creatures, especially when it comes to others’ perception of us.

For example, yesterday when I was speaking for the Executive Education team for the University of St. Thomas, and I asked a question to the audience, I knew a certain percentage of people wouldn’t raise their hands, not because they didn’t know the answer, but because they’re afraid to give the wrong answer (even though I TOLD them there was no right and wrong answer :).

I’ve been there myself, sitting in the audience and not understanding something, yet I didn’t want to raise my hand because I felt like I was the only ignorant person in the room who wasn’t “getting it.”

How about you?

Google called the project “Aristotle” because the whole is always greater than the sum of the parts. When you have a drama-less and gossip-free team contributing openly with their thoughts and ideas, that is how you innovate and Outperform.

The more I look at the concept of psychological safety, the more I believe it has massive application to our personal and professional lives.

  • It is the direct report that brings a great idea to their boss that can make the business better.
  • It is the team meeting where people candidly discuss weaknesses without feeling threatened.
  • It is the kid that owns up to a mistake and discusses why it happened, rather than hiding from it.
  • It is the audience member that admits they don’t understand, knowing there are probably many others that don’t understand too.

If this is resonating with you and you’d like to learn more, check out this TED Talk on psychological safety or this HBR study on high performing teams.

Keep Outperforming!