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Psychological Safety: A Prerequisite For High Performing Teams

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Stefano Mastrogiacomo

Can a team of talents who are suspicious of each other solve complex problems together and innovate? The answer is simply, no.

When people protect themselves from embarrassment and other possible threats by remaining silent, the team doesn’t engage in collective learning behaviors and that results in poor team performance and inability to innovate.

What Is Psychologically Safety and Why Does Helps Teams Perform Better?

To innovate together, team members need to feel they can talk openly and candidly to each other without fear of judgement or reprisals. Such climates are described as “psychologically safe” environments. 

Simply put, psychological safety is a variation of trust:

"The belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking. That one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes."

The term and definition have been coined by Amy Edmonson, Professor of Leadership and Management at the Harvard Business School over 20 years ago in her seminal paper Psychological Safety and Learning Behavior in Work Teams.

When the climate is psychological safe, team members are not afraid to speak up, they engage in a productive dialogue that fosters the proactive learning behaviors required to understand the environment, the clients and solve problems together effectively.

Solving complex problems is the bread and butter of any cutting-edge business, where constant experimentation is required: Intense phases of trial and error until teams gets things right, which by definition is the very basis of business innovation.

Faced with uncertainty, psychologically safe teams are propelled into a performance spiral: where making mistakes is not considered as a failure, but rather as experimentation and learning opportunity.

It’s not about being nice to each other or reducing performance standards, but rather about creating a culture of openness where teammates can share learnings, be direct, take risks, admitting you “screwed up” and be willing to ask for help when you’re in over your head.

Unsurprisingly, in Google’s top performing teams people feel safe to speak up, collaborate and experiment together. A large internal study conducted by their HR teams highlighted psychological safety as the key enabler of high-performance teamwork.

In a world characterized by volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity (VUCA) - create and maintain a maintain a psychologically safe climate must become a managerial priority for those who want to keep up in the global competitive race.

Increase Psychological Safety in your teams with the Team Contract

Strategyzer-Team-Contract-Stefano-Mastrogiacomo

The Team Contract is a simple poster that helps teams negotiate and establish team behavior and rules, both in general or temporarily for any given project. Rapid Team Contract sessions increase psychological safety and reduce potential conflict among team members by:

  1. Aligning relationships on appropriate and inappropriate behaviors, making team values explicit.
  2. Creating a cultural base to work in harmonious conditions.
  3. Allowing legitimate measures in case of non-compliance.
  4. Preventing a sense of inequity and injustice to develop within the team.

The poster presents two trigger questions to help participants position in terms of IN's – what is accepted - and OUT's - what should not be accepted:

  1. What are the rules and behaviors we want to abide by in our team?
  2. As individuals, do we have preferences to work in a certain way? 

This includes topics such as team behaviors and values, decision-making rules, how to coordinate and communicate, and frame expectations in case of failure.

Let's take a look at what is usually IN a team contract (i.e the behaviors the team wants to commit to):

team-contract-1


And for what's left OUT of the contract (i.e the behaviors the team wants to avoid):

team-contract-2


How to Use the Team Contract?

Gather all the team members involved or all the key stakeholders in case of a project. Place a Team Contract poster on the wall and:

  1. Frame: announce the Project and the Period.
  2. Prepare: ask every team member to respond individually to the two trigger questions in terms of possible INs and OUTs (5 min).
  3. Share: allow each participant 3 min. to present and share their answers on the poster.
  4. Consolidate: open a team discussion to react, adapt and consolidate all the content (approx. 20 min).
  5. Validate: end the meeting when participants mutually agree on the Team Contract.

A Great Team Alignment Map (TAM) Companion

The TAM helps align everyone contributions on a regular basis and usually requires frequent updates to reflect changes as the work is progressively delivered. The Team Contract helps establish agreements that span over the entire period of the collaboration. Team Contracts are generally established at the beginning of projects, when new teams are formed, when new talents join an existing team or when radical changes require the team to reboot its operating mode.

team-contract-process

Download the Team Alignment Map

Download the Team Contract

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* This article is an adapted excerpt from Stefano Mastrogiocomo’s upcoming book, The Team Alignment Map.

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