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Team Effectiveness and Psychological Safety

By May 22, 2020No Comments

As we rapidly move towards remote and distributed teams, too much information is based on tricks and hacks, with very little focusing on the fundamentals of what makes teams great – whether remote or in the office.

You aren’t as great as you think

The first hurdle in building better teams is getting over your own self-view. Most managers believe they are great at leading teams and very few invest the time and energy required to master it because it feels awkward or inauthentic.

Management Science has moved on

If you studied management science or organisational psychology in the last five years you will see a significant shift in the team theories as compared to the previous decade and century. New research and insights have changed how we understand teams and performance. These new insights have changed how we understand teams and teamwork, enabling businesses to become far more effective than ever before.

Summary of the New Studies

First published in 2010, Anita Williams Wooley and her team created a battery of tasks that together tested four different kinds of thinking in teams: generating new ideas; choosing a solution based on sound judgement; negotiating to reach compromise; and finally, general ability at task execution (such as coordinating movements and activities). The participants were also asked to perform some verbal or abstract reasoning tasks that might be included in a traditional IQ test – but they answered as a group, rather than individually. The findings that some teams perform better across all tests (with no correlation to the highest IQ in the team but actually more regarding gender and ethnic diversity) than others has been corroborated in many tests and contexts since then.

In a different study called the Aristotle Project, Google observed 180 of their teams (across all their disciplines) in pursuit of a recipe for high-performing teams. One common theme came up among their highest performing teams: good Psychological Safety.

What is Psychological Safety?

Simply put, it’s when each member of your team feels confident within the team to share ideas with no fear of judgement.

When employees have lowered confidence in their ability, they tend to contribute less and feel distanced from the team. Amy Edmondson, Novartis Professor of Leadership at Harvard Business School believes we live in a knowledge economy—where it is ideas that have true value in the marketplace. The more ideas contributed, the richer the pool of resources. One way to measure Psychological Safety is through the equality of distribution or input from each member during a team’s conversation.

Team IQ is higher than individual IQ

Teams that function with good psychological safety inevitably do better as they collaborate more.

When everyone is getting an equal opportunity to share, there is a larger pool of information to draw from—and a greater opportunity to learn something new. This not only fosters information but also allows the rest of the team to learn from each other and fosters support for one another. Collaborative efforts have also been known to bring out the best from team members as unseen ideas and connections are made known.

(Kinda) humble leadership

Malcolm Gladwell praised Steve Jobs’ innovations based on how he built upon others’ ideas (he may have been sarcastic). In this same way, within a team meeting, one idea brings about a conversation; giving way to potential new ideas, methods or results. This also allows the team to feel more essential to the decision-making process as they have now contributed to something larger and will start to take more initiative in sharing ideas.

The greater room created for risk-taking encourages innovation and increased communication, allowing for greater teamwork and dependability.

Team Etiquette

While team performance can be boosted through psychological safety, it is important to also promote social sensitivity, Perceiving how others feel can better inform how to act around them. A team member may make a comment that they think is lighthearted to another but it is not received well based on their mood or cultural background. This can further distract and alienate team members, decreasing their effectiveness. These challenges increase dramatically in remote teams where there are fewer visual and perceptual cues to use.

In their research, Google found that a common vocabulary of expected behaviour, a group forum on dynamics (and leaders actively reinforcing and improving on these), could better enhance these efforts.

Aristotle said, “The whole is the sum of its parts”. A team is more effective when everyone is involved and they feel secure within a team. Being able to contribute to discussions without fear of judgement, understanding their tasks and their overall contribution, as well as other teammates being aware of their fellow team members, all contribute well to an effective team.

Our ebook “ – Remote Team Management” provides a practical guide to enabling teams to develop psychological safety. We have also developed a 10-minute “Remote Team Maturity” assessment designed to quickly measure remote working capabilities and quantify team effectiveness. If you want to supercharge your teams, or find out more about our Culture and Future Of Work practice, get in touch at