In 2012 Google started a study to understand why some of their teams were so much more productive than others. They have a lot of teams, and a lot of curious people who love data. Where better to figure out the perfect team - the combined magic of individual characteristics, group norms, structures, processes and rewards?
At first, it seemed there were no patterns. The alchemy of a great team appeared impossible to define and recreate. Introverts, extroverts, detail thinkers, big-picture dreamers, open disagreements, avoided conflicts, strong directive leaders, facilitative harmonizers, to-the-point discussions, and meandering debates all featured in both high and low performing teams.
Eventually, the pattern beneath the absence of patterns emerged. The single most important factor for a highly productive team is psychological safety - a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking.
Teams with high psychological safety are groups where every member speaks as much as they need to and the members are skilled in reading how others feel.
- There is a tendency for "equality in distribution of conversational turn-taking". This doesn't mean that team members rigidly take turns - at some times certain people will be more voluble than others, and they make speak over one another or drift off topic. However over a period of time, everyone has spoken roughly the same amount. Nobody is suppressing themselves or shutting down another.
- At the same time the teams exhibit high "average social sensitivity". They were able to read tone of voice, expression and other non-verbal cues to obtain an understanding of how others felt. The members were able to be authentic - they didn't have to put on a mask when they came to work.
In some respects, this tells us what many managers have always known: in the best teams, people listen to each other and are sensitive to feelings and needs. Other managers have held it as self-evident that people need to be driven with a tough leadership style and a system of punishments and rewards. The beauty of Google's research is that the result is empirical and the difference is now quantified, with a spread of over 35% in revenue performance between the teams will lowest and highest psychological safety - even in the hard-nosed world of sales.
The big question is "what can you do to foster psychological safety"? Coming to your next staff meeting and saying "I want you all to know you can trust me and I want you to trust each other" probably isn't going to cut it.
For some years I've been using a framework called Bigger Game to engage with my teams. I notice that it increases psychological safety along with some other effects, including equanimity in the face of risk, a stronger sense of the intersection between life and work, and broader thinking and increased ownership about how to address their goals.
Bigger Game was created by a pair of executive coaches. Its heart is the Bigger Game board, a simple grid whose concepts can be learned in just nine minutes. The squares of the Bigger Game board enshrine the focal areas that a coach would use with a client. In effect, Bigger Game players become their own coach.
When I work with a team using this framework we introduce what it means to be playing a Bigger Game. Your game is whatever you are doing in your life. Anybody can play a game, even a big game. What makes a game bigger is when you play with other people. Those games can have outcomes that nobody can achieve by themselves.
Gradually, we tell each other about moments that are meaningful to us, and then explore the things we are hungry for. This can be a very matter-of-fact discussion (more of this, less of that, etc) but it cultivates people talking to each other as people, as opposed to their team functions. Psychological safety demands that we see each other as people and not as useful objects. The facilitators and more experienced players model openness, authenticity and vulnerability and show the others the safe space.
We use the board as a framework for creating team plans and our personal Bigger Games. People can dip their toes into the water at first, and go deeper as their sense of psychological safety grows. The conversations that you start in the first Bigger Game session reveal to the team the psychological safety that already exists among them, like a seed crystal. As those conversations continue and the games evolve, the crystal grows, and psychological safety does too.
The result is people who are fully playing their own Bigger Games, while they are together at the intersection with the Bigger Game of the business. This is the sweet spot for a high-performing team to deliver exceptional business results - and all because they had the psychological safe space to do it.