Importance of Psychological Safety in Building High Performance Teams

If you were to assess your team at this very moment, would you describe it as “high functioning”? We all strive to lead high functioning teams, however building such teams is easier said than done.  In order to understand this better, in 2012 Google launched #ProjectAristotle, an initiative that studied hundreds of Google’s teams to figure out why some stumbled while others soared. #CharlesDuhigg cites the findings of this research in a way we all can benefit from as leaders in this #NewYorkTimes article In this article, Duhigg describes how important it is to find out the norms or unspoken truths individual teams hold onto, and which of those norms are associated with the most effective teams.

Through further exploration of previous studies, as well as their own research, the team at Google found the following factors to be THE critical predictors of high performing teams.

  • Team members who treat each other well, elevating the collective I.Q., which is the overall intelligence of a group rather than that of a single member.
  • Psychological Safety: A shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking
    • Equality in distribution of conversational turn-talking where team members speak in roughly the same proportions.
    • High average social sensitivity where team members were skilled at intuiting how others felt based on their tone of voice, their expressions, and other nonverbal cues.
  • Ensuring teams have clear goals
  • Demonstrating a culture of dependability

Of all of these factors, the Project Aristotle Team at Google found that psychological safety is the most important to insure that a team is functioning at a high level. This combination of norms is most interesting considering that companies like Google are largely made up of teams of engineers and statistical analysts, who are often more introverted individuals. Nevertheless, these guidelines have proven time and again to be the key to building and nurturing high functioning teams.

So how can you enhance the psychological safety on your teams? Several examples that arose from Project Aristotle of ways to build psychological safety within teams are:

  • Being direct and straight forward
  • Creating a safe space to take risks.
  • Having enthusiasm for other team members’ ideas
  • Having fun and joking with one another allowing everyone to feel relaxed and energized.
  • Having the team take an assessment survey to determine whether or not team members are fulfilled by their work.
    • Encourage open and safe discussions about factors that may contribute to a feeling of not being fulfilled.
    • Adopt new norms collectively based on the feedback from the team to insure that team members feel fulfilled in their jobs.

These actions reflect conversational turn-taking and empathy which are key behaviors in creating psychological safety and are effective in creating psychological safety because they allow team members to stop separating their personal life from their work life. As a result, they can feel comfortable being as expressive and open in the workplace as they are at home. This in turn creates deeper bonds between team members, resulting in high performing teams.

How have you observed psychological safety being present in your highest functioning teams, and conversely not being present in low functioning teams? How might you help those low functioning teams to cultivate psychological safety as their most important group norm? Have you seen examples of high functioning teams in other organizations whose cultural norms embody the combination of psychological safety, clear goals, and a culture of dependability? Your response may benefit other business leaders and we encourage you to share your comments. We also invite you to join the #AvionConsulting newsletter for further discussion at

June 25, 2019