In 2012, researchers at Google conducted an extensive study to understand what makes some teams flourish while others struggle. They analyzed 50 years worth of academic studies on the topic and looked at more than 250 attributes of over 180 of their own workgroups.
Turns out their highest-performing teams have one special thing in common — and it is not mutual interests, excellent communication skills, diversity or mental toughness.
It is psychological safety.
The belief that you won’t be punished or shamed when you make a mistake and that you are safe enough to show up as your real self.
Based on research, psychological safety encourages healthy risk-taking, innovation, creativity and the courage to speak your mind — behaviors that are linked to high performance on a variety of fields. There were four other dynamics the researchers found: dependability, structure & clarity, the meaning of work and impact of work. However, psychological safety was the most important of the five dynamics and the base of the other four.
To say it simply, the reason psychological safety is so crucial to our performance is that the tiny set of neurons called amygdala deep inside the temporal lobe of our brain, that plays a key role in the processing of emotions, can’t really tell the difference between a saber-toothed tiger, something our ancestors had to worry about, and a snarky toned comment from a colleague. They both trigger our fight or flight response, putting us in survival mode and acting based on fear rather than abundance and possibility. We shut down and have lesser access to our cognitive capacities.
With so much attention given to, say business strategy and having a solid plan for team creation, it ultimately comes down to how other people make us feel. Thus, whether we feel safe or not seems to be the fulcrum of innovation, creativity and action in many cases. It is the human ingredient of our mutual interaction and the thought we put into our words, gestures and communication that determines whether we have a chance of creating something truly magical, or keep reproducing the ordinary.
While we are highly sensitive to threat, we are also hardwired for compassion and collaboration. Professor Barbara Fredrickson’s research has shown that positive emotions like trust, curiosity, and inspiration broaden the mind and help build psychological, social, and physical resources.
The good news is that the tools for creating psychological safety reside in all of us, are mostly a matter of becoming aware of them and committing to developing these skills. These building blocks of safety are weaved into the way how we look at someone (nonjudgmentally), address them, remain present during a conversation, and how we welcome their ideas and opinions — remembering that the individual’s experience is always true and valid to her; we do not need to agree every time but we can honor every perspective.
We are connected to each other biologically and atomically but also socially through the dynamic system of networks within which we all operate. How you choose to fulfill your part in this intricate web has significant future implications. You literally hold the power to inspire, elevate and lift others to reach their wildest dreams. Unfortunately, we are also known to suppress and rob each other of the chance to live up to their full potential.
Through each respectful connection between two individuals, we can remove what is standing between us and performing to our current best ability — not to mention unlocking our deeper potential.
To build psychological safety is to build opportunities. Whether at work or in our personal lives, when we aim for high standards in how we communicate, connect, care and act, it ripples out to every outcome and aspect of our actions. Our responsibility is not only for ourselves but to people around us.
The applied research on psychological safety is an invitation to recognize our responsibility and power as the co-creators and makers of our shared human experience. It is a call to celebrate this potential and work together to bring into life the abundance we wish to see and are without a doubt capable of creating.
Emilia Lahti (MSc, MAPP) is an international presenter & trainer on topics related to high performance in leadership, athletics and personal development. In her current Ph.D., she is pioneering the research on the ancient Finnish construct of sisu, which denotes courage in the face of adversity and ability to uncover hidden strength
As part of her social action initiative called ‘Sisu Not Silence’ that is focused on nonviolence and unlocking human potential through psychological safety, along with her personal quest to understand what allows individuals to exceed their previously thought capacities, she recently completed a 2400km/50-day run/bike journey across the length of New Zealand. You can read more about Emilia’s work at www.emilialahti.com