May 27, 2017

Why Psychological Safety & Modern Teamwork is Not about Being Nice.

The cold sweat broke in a flash, and I felt the hair prickle up on my neck.

From the email message on my computer screen, I literally looked over my shoulder and out into the office, as though my colleagues would be standing there glaring at me.

The boss had just re-directed me on a “confidential” project, and copied my colleagues whom I had heretofore been told not to talk to about it with. I was a new employee, and realized midway through the project that I was doing someone else’s job “behind their back.” This email from the boss made it sound like the project was somehow my idea.

So this is what it feels like to be “thrown under the bus.”

With no network of relationships in this organization, this moment was scary to say the least. It was also revealing of the culture I had walked into bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. I found out this kind of communication happened routinely.

As a manager reaching for my next successive leadership role, I found it both revolting and interesting. I had led what were considered “high-performance” teams, but there were hiccups and painful moments I was still trying to understand my role in creating. Had I behaved in a way, via email or otherwise, that left people in a cold sweat, feeling vulnerable and undermined? Probably, yes.

I reached out to some friends who had also changed jobs recently. Oh my, this kind of behavior and the resulting contraction in fear was common to the work place—non-profits, government, and for-profit businesses alike.

In fact, Gallup has consistently found that only 32 percent of American employees are fully engaged in their work; a staggering 51 percent of workers are “disengaged”; and 17 percent are “actively disengaged.”

You’d think—from the many blogs and videos on proper email etiquette, training, and consulting on teamwork, and the plethora of personality profiles to help us understand how to work with each other—that we’d know better.

As I searched for solace and support to navigate this minefield at work, and to expand my own consciousness for leadership, I opened Chapter 12 of Autobiography of a Yogi, and read:

“There are always those in this world who, in Browning’s words, ‘endure no light, being themselves obscure.’ An outsider occasionally berated Sri Yukteswar for an imaginary grievance. My imperturbable guru listened politely, analyzing himself to see if any shred of truth lay within the denunciation. These scenes would bring to my mind one of Master’s inimitable observations: ‘Some people try to be tall by cutting off the heads of others!’”

Paramhansa Yogananda described his teacher reflecting on his own actions, and illuminating the state of many people’s consciousness. Okay, I’m on the right track to reflect on myself, and people can be crappy to save themselves.

I also happened to be listening and reading about The Beatles and George Harrison’s career and spiritual path. He said, “That’s what I see life is about…the whole thing is to change and try and make everything better and better.” I thought: I don’t want to be crappy to save myself. I want to make everything better.

As an only child of parents who were often in ugly arguments that ended unresolved in divorce, I didn’t learn the fundamentals of how to be in partnership (sibling, friend, colleague, partner). This situation and culture at work brought up both deep-seated fears and a soul-drive for connection and belonging.

I had long ago committed to learn from everything—every look, every comment, every feeling, every training—about what builds, and what breaks down, partnership and teamwork. Here was a potent learning moment.

In the world of innovation, service, and just plain getting things done efficiently, teams are the name of the game. Every company wants to have “high performance teams.”

Google set out to find the magical algorithm of high-performance teams, betting on what personality profiles seem to promise: an introvert, an extrovert, an engineer, an artist—Shazam! a high-performance team.

“We were dead wrong,” said the Google leads after two years of rigorous research.

To their surprise, it’s not an algorithm of who, but a way of being together that makes a team deliver better results over time.

Both Google and Dr. Amy Edmondson, Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at Harvard Business School, found one key dynamic in high-performance teams that underpinned all others—and it finally made sense to me—“Psychological Safety.”

When “team members feel safe to take risks and be vulnerable in front of each other,” they can achieve an extraordinary level of team performance sustained over time.

Now, I don’t work for Google. I don’t even know anyone who works for Google. Still, as I read and re-read this definition, memories flashed through my mind—moments of flow, ah-ha, connection, and moments of awkwardness, regret, and cold sweat.

How often do we feel safe to take risks and be vulnerable at work? According to Gallup research, rarely.

I’d say we need a revolution in psychological safety for the 67 percent of Americans—107,326,550 people—going to a work-place that “disengages” them every day.

Google and I are searching for how to expand the rare team to everyday partnerships, at work and in life, that are safe and high performance.

In her TEDx talk, “Building a Psychologically Safe Workplace,” Dr. Edmondson says managers, “need to free people up…to really engage and not be afraid of each other,” and she offers three ways to facilitate that freedom: 1. “Frame the work as a learning problem, not an execution problem; 2. Acknowledge your own fallibility; 3. Model curiosity.”

In the 2016 movie, “Hidden Figures,” the NASA manager, Al Harrison (Kevin Costner), articulates the rationale for everyone to play “all-in” for the team: “We’re putting a human on top of a missile shooting into space and it’s never been done before…Everyone is going to have their work checked [because]…everything we do between now and then is gonna matter.”

He also acknowledges his own fallibility: “I need a mathematician that can look beyond the numbers…math that doesn’t yet exist.” And models curiosity: “…maybe it’s not new math.”

In 1961, Virginia defended Jim Crow laws. The racism, sexism, and “chain of command” do not make NASA a psychologically safe environment for women and people of color. “They’ve never had a colored in here before, Katherine. Don’t embarrass me,” says NASA supervisor, Vivian Mitchell (Kirsten Dunst) to Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Hensen) as she stands holding her box about to enter a room full of “genius” white men, whose work she will be checking.

And yet, it happens. The innovation, high performance teamwork, and psychological safety.

“Hidden Figures” demonstrates that we can build and break psychological safety anywhere with a careful or careless comment. This is life. We all bob and weave through a range of safe and unsafe places. We all have the opportunity to inject psychological safety into each moment with the way we set the stage and respond to it. The moments add up to cultures.

As peers, we can build psychological safety. We can be heroes like Katherine Johnson at NASA. She put her best work forward, and she supported her peers.

As organizations, we can’t wait for people to be brave. We have to create environments that call forth heroes. It takes intentional actions from management, like Dr. Edmondson describes and “Hidden Pictures” demonstrates, to signal safety to the courageous, and that their new ideas and questions are welcome and will be included in building solutions.

What is the difference that results in psychological safety and high performance for all people to engage in every room?

The first article I read about Google’s research concluded, “In short, just be nice.” Maybe, in a way, but nice—pleasant, agreeable, socially acceptable—oversimplifies this profound challenge of being human. It could even sound condescending to those of us going for high performance on a team.

One key is embracing this omnipresent reality: People make mistakes.

“A person who never made a mistake never tried anything new.” ~ Albert Einstein

Dr. Edmondson observed that the high performance teams behaved “wildly different” in their relationship to mistakes. “They were actively talking about errors, what to learn from them, and how to prevent them.”

When we are scared of making a mistake or of how an authority figure, even a colleague or friend, will respond to a new idea or unusual question, we tend to shut down creativity and focus on survival. If an eyebrow raises, a snarky tone murmurs, or an email admonishes—even if simply no one in the room acknowledges an outlier’s idea—these common reactions stimulate fear and discourage people from learning together.

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” ~ Maya Angelou

The high performance team culture embraces each mistake as a step closer to the innovation that does work. Worker knowledge about the seemingly simplest job can lead to innovations and great savings.

I heard this telltale story at an innovation conference. In a city facing a budget deficit, the management team asked everyone for ideas, and made it clear that no one would lose their job. The clerk whose job it was to send notices to water customers did so via certified mail at a cost of $3.30 each, plus the labor to prepare the certified mail envelope.

She asked, “Is it required to send the notices certified mail?” She did the legal research and the answer was, “No, but it’s always been done that way.” For the size of her city and the number of notices, her questioning of the status quo saved the city over $40,000 annually. And the clerk ended up with a much more interesting job than repeatedly preparing certified mail envelopes.

See, it’s really worth going for this higher performing team; psychological safety pays off for people, organizations, and society. It takes a combination of courage, kindness, and centeredness to speak up over our fear of how people will react.

So what’s the recipe? Where’s the training? Have courage, speak up, ask questions, be humble, facilitate meetings, design good agendas, understand different personality types and temperaments, don’t over-react to mistakes, forgive, be encouraging, be nice—all these things are part of creating psychological safety. We can all go to lots of trainings and learn lots of useful skills. We should keep training and learning these new tips.

But, just as people making mistakes is a ubiquitous reality, so is being reactionary. Our reactions are the mines in the minefield.

How do we avoid making the careless comment in a reactive moment? How can we build our resilience to not react to other people’s thoughts and feelings, however they are expressed?

What is the one meta-action, the one behavior that has the efficacy to make our awareness, our energy, our perspective, our listening and speaking—our entire application of skills—generative of psychological safety?


From Paramhansa Yogananda to the Dalai Lama, Steve Jobs to George Harrison, Sharon Salzberg to little ole me and you, meditation is the action that is potent enough to calm and release us from our own reactivity.

“When the mind is calm, how quickly, how smoothly, how beautifully you will perceive everything.” ~ Paramhansa Yogananda

“By the power of concentration and meditation, you can direct the untold power of your mind to accomplish what you desire, and you can guard all doors through which failure may enter.” ~ Paramhansa Yogananda

When we meditate, we don’t have to fear other people’s reactions to our ideas or mistakes—as I did as a child—because we can hear our intuition and respond with it, instead of whizzing by those knowing feelings into the tumble of reactions.

When we meditate, we can see and align with what’s trying to happen with the team. We can lift the solutions that are signaling their emergence, asking to be revealed.

When we meditate, the stream of judgments, which often flow unbidden, releases our hearts from its contracting hold. We can connect with people, hear their needs, their ideas, and add our own. We learn together. The world around us calms. The team gels.

“It takes courage and committed discipline to sit with yourself in stillness and silence every day, to see who you really are—openly and honestly—and great humility to bow to your higher self and promise to honor that part of you in all interactions,” wrote one person pledging their meditation hours to the movement Be the Change.

When we meditate, we create psychological safety within ourselves. When we have it, we give it to the people around us.

Please click here to read Part Two of this article.




Author: Jacqueline Debets 
Image: “Hidden Figures” still
Editor: Travis May

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