“It was the first time that I’d seen a work group in person which applied agile principles and I was absolutely fascinated. I took part in their weekly meetings – Retrospective – where each one had the same amount of time, not only to say what they’d done with respect to what was planned but also to say what their greatest difficulties had been, how they had resolved them, who they had asked for help, what tools had been useful, share new ideas that had worked, suggest something new that could facilitate the work and reduce the fulfilment times. Up to this point, there was nothing particularly odd for a close-knit work team fulfilling a project. What surprised me a lot was the fact that each person also spoke about the difficulties overcome in interpersonal relationships with colleagues and if something still wasn’t working as it should, they found a solution together. Wow! No resentment, no chitchat when the person concerned was absent, no problem to report to the line manager and even less to HR. They had created a climate where each one felt free to talk openly, even admitting errors, saying that they didn’t know something, asking questions without worrying whether they were banal, suggesting new ideas without the fear of making a bad impression or being seen as meddling too much, and bringing out interpersonal problems with the sole aim of resolving them.”
This is called Psychological Safety, a term coined by Amy Edmondson, a Harvard lecturer, interested in knowing the interpersonal mechanisms that are a feature of Learning Organisations. After studying work groups from the most varied product sectors for years, she reached the conclusion that this particular climate is a pre-requisite for the development of agile organisations, i.e. organisations which implement adaptive behaviours to the changes in external conditions more quickly. In an increasingly VUCA (Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity) environment, where “the space between problems that arise and our ability to solve them” (The Ingenuity Gap – Thomas Omer Dixon) is increasing, organisations that pursue continuous learning enjoy an important competitive advantage.
And if we stop to think a moment, people are the most ductile asset in organisations and, among organisations, people are the main asset for those that live on intellectual work. But learning as an adult implies exposing yourself, leaving your comfort zone to try something new. Depending on the risk appetite of each person, the stress associated with this passage may be higher or lower and, in any case, we know it’s always there. We’re afraid of making a bad impression and putting ourselves in a bad light, of appearing incompetent. At first, our brain refuses the change – it’s an effort requiring energy and, if possible, it avoids it. However, everything is facilitated if we know we’re in an environment that doesn’t judge, where error is seen as part of learning, where respect between people puts us in the position of opening up and suggesting new ideas and, with them, making a conscious contribution to the innovation of the organisation and its growth, where trust is continually fed by transparent, genuine interpersonal relationships. If we stop worrying about making a bad impression, we’ll concentrate totally on the product of our work.
Beware! We mustn’t confuse a psychologically safe climate with an excessively protective one where we risk wasting time on aspects of little relevance so we don’t offend other people’s sensitivity. Disagreement is cultivated in mature work groups but only and exclusively to work more efficiently and reach higher product or service standards. The people in these groups ask questions, question the status quo, anyone can challenge to see if what we’re doing is really the best option in the given conditions – because strategy and vision are shared.
Psychological safety topped the list of research carried out by Google to see what makes a team excellent. The research started in 2012, lasted 2 years, and involved 180 teams and a total of 37,000 co-workers. Here’s what they discovered – work groups with a high level of Psychological Safety achieved a degree of efficiency double the average of the other teams and the people in them were unlikely to leave the company, showing an important level of engagement, deriving from professional and personal satisfaction in addition to a feeling of belonging.
“Build the environment to have the people you want!”
This seems to be the lesson we can learn from this story. Skills aren’t enough to make a team high-performance. According to Kurt Lewin’s equation, a person’s behaviour depends on their personality (meaning the end result of their experience) and motivation on one hand, and the (physical and social) environment surrounding them on the other. Co-operation is an integral part of organisations but it’s also the origin of many difficulties in interpersonal relationships. One of the most important challenges of organisations is the ability to deal with and resolve complex interpersonal situations which arise from statements of uncertainty or objections and critical points, or simply differing points of view.
What should be done to cultivate a work environment that allows the development of Psychological Safety? The relationships between people play an important role. In the research carried out by Amy Edmondson in the same organisation, and therefore with the same company culture, the level of Psychological Safety could vary from team to team. This demonstrates the important role played by leaders.
What must they be able to do? They must be able to show they’re vulnerable, say that they don’t know, that they made a mistake and that they need help. They develop empathic relationships in this way, they set up relationships of interdependence and co-operation, extending the space for action for themselves and others. They actively seek the others’ points of view, asking direct questions and bringing out even the most introvert. They’re able to understand the moods of others and, also in this case, ask questions to understand the problems and solve them together. They’re generous in giving feedback and also ask for it with a view to continuous learning. They’re able to listen and accept points of view different from their own if functional to the result to achieve. They make their skill available to the team, unblock difficult situations, put others in the position of expressing the best of their possibilities. They allow people to make a mistake, taking calculated risks. They make the rules of Psychological Safety explicit, sharing them and explaining their purpose.
Every co-worker can play their part showing courage and opening up, saying that they don’t know, asking questions, admitting mistakes, looking for new solutions, suggesting their ideas, challenging the maxim “it’s always been done like that”, sharing their knowledge with others, assuming their responsibilities and asking for feedback.
As Edmondson recalls, Psychological Safety on its own isn’t decisive for the development of co-operative, high-performance teams. Other ingredients are required – strategy, vision, clear objectives, and supportive leadership. I’ll add that HR can make a great contribution, rethinking their own role from an agile point of view