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  • Writer's pictureOliver Nowak

The Perfect Team - The Power of Safety

Google - The Perfect Team

In 2015 Google presented findings from their research into “What makes a Google team effective?”. Over 2 years of data gathering and in-depth analysis was dedicated to finding the blend that constitutes “the perfect team”. But the results produced some rather significant surprises. The 5 most important determinants of effectiveness were found to be: Psychological Safety, Dependability, Structure & Clarity, Meaning of Work and Impact of Work.

In other words, these are the 5 non-negotiable ingredients for creating the perfect organisational culture. Yes, that word culture again.

What makes this research so interesting is that it is less about who is in the team and more about the characteristics of the team as a whole. So it’s not a case of the perfect blend consists of 1 leader and 3 followers; 2 extroverts and 2 introverts; a pragmatist, extrovert, introvert and analyst. It’s more about how the team interacts together as a whole. But what do each of these characteristics mean in basic terms?

Psychological Safety: How comfortable do you feel?

Dependability: Can you rely on the other team members as much as you can on yourself?

Structure and Clarity: Do you know exactly what the team is trying to achieve?

Meaning of Work: Does the work matter to me?

Impact of Work: Does the work matter to the world we want to live in?

In this article I want to focus on the characteristic that ranked most important of all: Psychological Safety. “Psychological safety” is a term first coined by organisational behaviourist Amy Edmondson. It describes a “climate of interpersonal trust and mutual respect”. In simple terms, it’s feeling confident to be exactly who you are - acting the way that feels natural, voicing your opinion and sharing your ideas.

Why is Psychological Safety so important?

Ultimately it is a basic tenet of human behaviour that we want to feel acknowledged, respected, valued and trusted. Our brains have evolved to subconsciously pick up the smallest signals in our environment to determine whether these feelings are met or not. It’s our survival instinct, we are naturally sceptical because the slightest threat in our environment could mean life or death. Historically that threat was physical - is that rustling in the background a predator looming? In today’s modern world it’s psychological - did my manager ignore me because I’m not performing well enough? Is my job at risk?

Plain and simple, people that feel threatened by their environment go into their shell, they stop taking risks and they don’t speak their mind but, most importantly of all, their minds are so preoccupied with “survival” that it saps their creativity. I ask you this question, how often have you looked across a room and thought: I really fit in here. Now think of the reverse, how often have you thought: I really don’t fit in here. The fact is our brains are hardwired to crave positive recognition, to fit in. We are often quick to jump to the conclusion that we don’t fit in and very slow to the conclusion that we 100% do. In other words, we are spending a large proportion of our time trying to be the person we should be according to what the environment around us dictates, and very little time instinctively being ourselves. This distraction saps our energy and diverts our focus away from the open mindedness required for creative innovation.

To operate effectively a company needs to exercise trust by respecting and valuing it’s employees. It simply cannot afford enough managers and supervisors to ensure every single person is operating at the full peak of their powers. Even if that were possible, we all hate the feeling of someone peering over our shoulder analysing our every move. In a safe environment, each individual employee willingly takes on the responsibility for their own work and in many cases the positive reinforcement of achievement encourages them to not only perform on the tasks assigned to them but actually go above and beyond as well.

But how can we understand these feelings of negative and positive reinforcement in more detail? Gone are the days where employees have to worry about their physical safety, health & safety regulations have ensured that. The focus has shifted to psychological safety but unlike physical safety, psychological safety is invisible and therefore often either taken for granted or neglected in its entirety.

If it’s invisible, where’s the evidence?

The brain is the largest and most complex organ in the body and if we’re honest with ourselves, we still know very little about it. Consisting of over 100 billion nerves and trillions of connections, it’s not hard to understand why. However, in an attempt to learn more scientists have been using MRI brain scans since the 1990s to monitor brain activity during different stimuli. They do this by picking up on changes in the movement of blood throughout the brain during stimulation indicating areas of neural activation.

These scans have gone a long way to helping us understand how psychological safety impacts us. Research discovered that painful social interactions like humiliation, embarrassment or rejection trigger the same neural networks as physical pain. This explains why we very often feel psychological pain in physical terms such as tightening of muscles, or in our stomach. Try it now, think of a particularly humiliating or embarrassing childhood memory. How does your body react? We all feel stress and pain differently but crucially we all feel it physically. And why? - it’s our threat network being triggered, our senses heighten, our muscles contract ready to fight - it’s the fight or flight instinct.

What does this mean for the workplace? It means when our ideas are rejected, when our opinions are denied and when we’re excluded for who we are we feel a pain reaction in the body and we’re put on high alert ready for an imminent threat. This feeling is reinforced repeatedly over time to the extent that we start unconsciously triggering our threat response just by being in that environment. Have you ever felt instinctively out of place or uncomfortable without really knowing why? - This is your subconscious feeling of unsafety. To be creative and innovative we have to take risks and raise our voice with new ideas, but if we feel subconsciously unsafe our body is going to go into self-preservation mode and elect safety above all else.

However, it’s not all negative because, critically, the opposite is also true. Pleasant physical and social experiences trigger the same reward network in our brains. This means not only do we not feel pain but we actually feel pleasure when we feel included and valued. Have you ever felt that feeling of confidence in an environment where you start to puff your chest out a little and stand a little tall? This is the feeling of reward the body is feeling as a consequence of the confidence and safety you feel in that environment. You feel a spike of positive energy, almost a wave of excitement, which is why so many go above and beyond as I mentioned before. It’s essentially the power of inspiration, and if an organisation can foster an environment that provokes inspiration, it’s going to be on to a real winner. Productivity goes up, quality goes up as people take more pride in their work, but most crucially of all, happiness goes up as the reward felt for a job well done is felt throughout the body.

So this begs the questions? What’s your working environment like? Now, working from home has surely thrown a spanner in the works here, or does it actually provide the proof we’re looking for? Do you feel more productive working from home because you’re working from a safe place? Or is the opposite true and you feel like your mental health is being compromised by the feeling of your safe place being contaminated by the unsafety of work?

As always, more questions than answers. But hopefully this serves as a beacon for the nirvana working culture so many companies like Google are constantly striving for.

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