Landmark Google Study Shows Psychological Safety is #1 Predictor of Team Success: we’ll tell you why

bullying and harassment in the workplace

Once upon a time, in a land not so far away, there was a  marketing team that was working hard on a rebranding strategy for their company Acme Industries Inc. On the day our story takes place, manager Ali gathered the team together for a last-minute meeting before presenting their work to the Board the following day: “The strategy is almost there, but it’s not quite ready for me to present to leadership. I need you all to put your heads together and come up with a stroke of creative genius that will wow the higher ups. We’ve got a half hour to hash this out. Gimme your best ideas… now!” The two senior staff, Francis and Alex, spoke up right away, shouting over each other to make sure Ali heard their ideas. Up went graphic designer Kiran’s hand, competing to get Ali’s attention over the melee. Meanwhile, Chris, a junior marketing coordinator, sat back quietly, crouching further into the corner of the meeting room, hoping not to be noticed. Unfortunately for Chris, Ali decided to calm the scene by calling on each individual separately… beginning with Chris, who quietly offered: “How about we focus on what the research has told us, and develop our social media presence to increase our brand awareness?” . “What a ridiculous idea” scoffed Alex. “Everyone knows the best way to roll out a new brand identity is through television and radio spots, that’s where the money should go. Didn’t you go to marketing school?” Chris shrank back, and didn’t offer any more ideas throughout the meeting. In fact, after Alex’ reprimand, Kiran stopped participating too, and Francis just got louder. Ali called the meeting after 15 frustrating minutes, no better off and even more stressed about the pending presentation. “What a waste of time that was. I don’t understand what happened. They’re all so talented, why can’t we get through a simple brainstorming meeting?” Ali despaired. “I guess I better roll up my sleeves and figure this out myself. So much for my Game of Thrones party tonight”.

Have you ever participated in a meeting like the one described above and felt discouraged, or watched in horror as discussion descended into chaos, or worse, became silent? If so, you have witnessed what happens in an environment where psychological safety does not exist.

According to Amy Edmonson, Harvard Professor and pioneer of the concept, psychological safety is “a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject or punish someone for speaking up”. Psychological safety is vital to team work. In fact, in Google’s landmark 4 year study of teamwork effectiveness within their own organization, the Silicon Valley powerhouse concluded that psychological safety is the #1 predictor of team success. We believe if it’s good enough for Google, it’s good enough for the rest of us. So let’s take a closer look at psychological safety and how you can foster it in your organization.

What is Psychological Safety?

Harvard’s Amy Edmondson claims that psychological safety describes a team climate characterized by “interpersonal trust and mutual respect in which people are comfortable being themselves”. Google defines it by asking “Can we take risks on this team without feeling insecure or embarrassed?” In the example given by our fictional story above, the answer to this question is decidedly no, giving us a clear picture of what it looks like when there is no psychological safety on a team: stifled creativity, silenced and ineffective employees, and a frustrated manager.



In Practice, Psychological Safety Looks Like This:

  1. All employees on the team feel safe to speak up and express their opinions: this can happen in any setting, including structured team meetings, during one-on-one’s with the boss, or during down time between fellow co-workers in the break room.
  2. Employees can show their true self without fear of negative consequences to career, reputation, or status: Google employees (aka Googlers) find value in forming bonds by really getting to know each other as people, not just fellow labourers. This translates into them feeling safe to collaborate with each other without worrying about being criticized or worse. It also creates an environment where employees feel that they can come forward with information that may not be well-received, such as reporting a mistake, without being reprimanded.
  3. Freedom to engage in interpersonal risk taking: sharing ideas is where the creative juice comes from, and members will only contribute when they aren’t afraid to make themselves vulnerable by doing so.


What Happens Without Psychological Safety?

  1. As we saw in the story of the fictitious Acme Industries marketing team, when employees don’t feel safe, they hold back on great ideas, suggestions and questions. When good ideas are squelched, innovation is curtailed, which can then curb a company’s potential for developing their marketplace advantage. Imagine if Google’s employees didn’t feel comfortable sharing their creative spark? Where would we be if no Googler ever suggested the search engine branch out into providing free email and document services, or acquiring YouTube? Also, without psychological safety, organizations are impeded from getting the best from their people: employees who are scared to be themselves hold back their shine. Remember WestJet, who we profiled in part one of our corporate culture series? They empower their employees to be themselves and use their own initiative to give the best customer service possible. A recent example includes taking a bride shopping for a new wedding dress after accidentally losing her luggage en route to her wedding. If WestJet employees felt that their choices would be condemned by management, they wouldn’t stick their proverbial neck out for anyone, and the airline’s passengers wouldn’t benefit from some of the best customer service in the sky.
  2. If team members don’t feel supported, the company’s culture can suffer. An organization’s culture is the shared sense of how things are done there. If employees perceive that they are not supported by their team and management, and that they will be constantly criticized, this perception will lead to bad feelings about the workplace culture, and they will be less likely to stick around for long. A negative work environment is a one way ticket to poor retention and increased recruiting costs.
  3. Finally, a lack of psychological safety can lead to poor decision-making and maintaining the status quo. Without the encouragement to give feedback, employees may hold back critical information that could save the company money or help it to avoid risky situations. For example, a lack of psychological safety could prevent an employee from reporting a mistake they made for fear of being reprimanded, and that mistake could spiral into an out-of-control situation before anyone has a chance to notice it. Do you recall the Oscars from last year, and the disastrous mix up with the Best Picture announcement? The accountant who erroneously gave Best Picture announcer Warren Beatty the wrong envelope did not speak up, even though he knew he’d made a mistake. That goof caused one of the most high-profile live television fiasco’s in history. While we can’t say what the work climate is like for accountants at PwC, the firm contracted to provide the envelopes on the big night, we do know that the stakes for that monumental event were high, and that particular employee did not feel safe admitting to his mistake, even hours later. Imagine that behaviour from a medical professional who’s error could threaten a patient’s life? It should go without saying that it’s imperative your employees feel comfortable coming forward with a mistake, no matter how big.


How to Create Psychological Safety

There are lots of ways you can foster psychological safety within a team, and we encourage you to read Google’s’ recommendations  and watch Harvard Business School’s Amy Edmonson’s TEDTalk on the subject for more ideas.

To get you started, we’ve got some helpful suggestions for you to put into practice immediately:

  1. Let your employees know that ideas, asking for help, and posing questions are encouraged. That means listening to all ideas without assigning value and making it clear there are no stupid questions. You must also let your employees know where they can go for help if they need it.
  2. No one is punished or made to feel badly about making honest mistakes. We all make mistakes; no one is perfect. Consequently, no one should lose their job over a genuine mistake, or their dignity. Encourage your employees to own up to their mistakes, and then patiently take the time to identify with them where they went wrong so they won’t do it again.
  3. Leaders are easily accessible; keep an open door policy. We know it’s not possible for leaders to be available to their staff all the time, but their direct reports should feel that they can approach their bosses without fear. We also recommend responding to employee concerns as quickly as possible, even if it’s an email to say you have heard them and when they can expect a response from you.
  4. Provide insights learned from errors and failures. As mentioned above, sometimes bad things happen. How can you use this as a learning opportunity for your team? Work together to extract the pearls of wisdom that will help you moving forward.

This is the second and concluding part of our series on creating a winning workplace culture. We invite you to read part one here.


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