Confronting the Biggest Barrier to Effective Teams


We don’t like to talk about fear, particularly in the workplace. We are afraid to talk about what makes us afraid. Just thinking about it makes us uncomfortable.

But, there’s more fear lurking at work than any of us want to admit.  And it’s incredibly costly.

Fear comes in a lot of flavors. Sometimes, fear can save your life (i.e. escaping a threat to your personal safety). It’s the fuel to our “fight or flight” response.

The fear I’m talking about will not save your life. It’s the fear fueled by our desire to avoid being seen as ignorant, incompetent, negative or intrusive at work because of perceived consequences. It’s the fear that sees only the downside to any risk.

Amy Edmondson of Harvard Business School has studied teams extensively to understand the impact of this fear on performance. She explains that we manage this fear through avoidance.

  • To avoid appearing ignorant, we don’t ask questions.
  • To avoid appearing incompetent, we don’t admit mistakes or weakness.
  • To avoid appearing intrusive, we don’t offer ideas.
  • To avoid appearing negative, we don’t critique the status quo.

We have all succumbed to this fear-driven avoidance at times throughout our careers. The times where we didn’t say the thing we knew desperately needed to be said in order to protect ourselves (or so we rationalized). The time we brushed over something we screwed up because we didn’t want it to affect the promotion we were up for.  It’s human nature.

So, what are we to do about the fear?

Edmondson’s research found that highly successful teams work intentionally to remove the fear. They create a dynamic in their teams which she calls “Psychological Safety.”

Psychological safety is a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking.

Her research revealed that the best teams were more open about admitting and reporting mistakes because they treated these mistakes as learning experiences. In contrast, other teams reported fewer mistakes not because they made fewer mistakes but because team members deemed it less safe to do so.

Last year, Google published the results of a two-year long study they conducted internally to understand what factors made for the most effective teams. They began with a hypothesis that the best teams had just the right mix of people (characteristics, skills, talents, etc.).  But, their research revealed something very different.

After analyzing over 180 teams on 250+ attributes, they discovered that the single most important attribute of an effective team at Google was, you guessed it, psychological safety. They defined it as when team members feel safe to take risks and be vulnerable in front of each other.

Psychological safety seems to be the secret sauce. Not only is it critical to optimizing team performance, but it’s vital to innovation as well.

So, how do we create psychological safety within a team?  Here are a few places to start.

  1. Role model vulnerability.  Admit mistakes openly and honestly. Particularly as a leader, when you model this behavior, it makes it feel safer for everyone else. When we see others admit a mistake or a failure and survive, it begins to diffuse our internal narrative that mistakes are fatal.
  2. Celebrate risks. When someone speaks up or asks a tough question, support and praise them for taking that step (whether you agree or not). When someone tosses out a new idea, celebrate the contribution. Employees gravitate towards where the love is. Make sure there’s plenty of love for risk-taking within the team.
  3. Socialize. We know from our personal lives that the stronger and more trusting a relationship is, the easier it is to risk looking foolish in front of that person. Creating time and making room for real personal relationships to form within the team is a powerful way to foster the trust that is needed to make the team feel safe with one another.
  4. Emphasize learning over judgment. Failure is feedback. And feedback is an opportunity to learn and grow. When a team begins to treat everything, success or failure, as feedback to fuel growth, taking risks becomes lower risk and failure becomes survivable.

There is a lot of advice out there about how to run and build effective teams–much of it is valid and important. However, until you create psychological safety within the team, the best tricks and tactics in the world will fall short.

Let’s go to work on removing the fear. Safety will set your talent free.


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