13 Nov 2018 19:34 IST

Extraordinary teamwork needs psychological safety

And the good news is that there are simple ways in which leaders can nurture a safe environment

How do we make two plus two equal 10? The key lies in the many facets of culture, one of which is safety. Normally, we do not give psychological safety much importance, especially in the work space. In many cases, leaders take it for granted or, worse, believe it is not relevant in a result-oriented environment.

Most of us consider psychological safety as an emotional weather system — noticeable but there only in the background. In reality, those who understand culture and its role in performance realise the importance of mental well-being. Safety is the foundation on which a strong work culture is built. Leaders have a responsibility to take stock of this and inculcate it into a team’s framework. The good news is that leaders do not have to be specially skilled to nurture a safe space. There are a few simple things they can do to ensure that mental safety is built into the work culture.

Social connect

Let us analyse this a bit more. Suppose your group has a ‘jerk’ and a silent one at that. He or she may portray three negative archetypes: is aggressive and defiant, is a slacker, or is a downer who depresses others on the team. In any team, these archetypes are present from time to time — either one person plays all the three roles or different group members portray these personalities. Understandably, these behaviours may go unnoticed until a leader begins to notice a fall in the group’s productivity or efficiency.

When you ask people in highly successful groups to describe their relationship with one another, they tend to choose the same word — family. Behavioural scientists who observed groups for a long time and study their dynamics noticed a pattern. And interestingly, the pattern is not located in the big things but the little moments of social connection.

This social connection is often best described as ‘chemistry’. When you encounter a group with good chemistry, you know it instantly. It is a paradoxical, powerful sensation; a combination of excitement and deep comfort that sparks mysteriously with certain groups and not others. The signals are visible to a discerning leader. You can measure interest levels, who the alpha in the group is, who cooperates and who doesn’t , who mimics, and who is in synchrony.

Measurable factors

Belonging cues, as they are often referred to, possess the following three basic qualities, writes author Daniel Coyle in his book The Culture Code:

- Energy: People invest in the exchange that is occurring

- Individualisation: They treat the person as unique and valued

- Future orientation: They signal the relationship will continue

These cues add up to a message that can be described with a single phrase: You are safe here.

Studies show that team performance is driven by the following five measurable factors, as quoted in this Harvard Business Review article (https://hbr.org/2012/04/the-new-science-of-building-great-teams) by Alex Pentland:

- Everyone in the group talks and listens in roughly equal measure, keeping contributions short. In other words, no one dominates.

- Members maintain high levels of eye contact, and their conversations and gestures are energetic.

- Members communicate directly with one another, not just with the team leader.

- Members carry on back-channel or side conversations within the team.

- Members periodically break, go exploring outside the team and bring information back to share with the others.

Easy to cultivate

Interestingly, the above factors ignore every skill and attribute we associate with high-performing teams and replace them with behaviours we would normally consider to be trivial.

So, next time you observe your team at a meeting, ensure they are feeling connected and safe, and they will surprise you with their performance.