August 3, 2019

Psychological Safety

Many people believe that the most successful teams are made up of the smartest people. What if that wasn't the case? What if it was something else?

Psychological Safety

Imagine if I were to tell you, you could choose anyone you wanted to be on your team for a new project. Who would you choose? Many of you would select the smartest people you knew, those ones with the deep technical skills. The reason for this is that many people believe that successful teams are made up of the smartest people. But what if this wasn't the case? What if there was something else?

Super Chickens

I have blogged about Super Chickens before, but the TL;DR on it is that if you put the best chickens together, the ones that produce the most eggs, they literally start pecking each other to death! If we take this analogy and apply it to humans, we see that having the best people on the team doesn't ensure success and can in fact lead to disaster!

Now you may be thinking just because it applies to chickens, doesn't necessarily means it applies to humans. Well, that may be true! So lets to Google who decided to run an experiment to determine why some of their teams were wildly successful and others were just average. Their initial beliefs were that the best teams came from combining the best people and so Project Aristotle was born. They hired statisticians, psychologists and researchers to crack the code and after 2 years of studying 180 Google teams and over 250 attributes. What they found were a few characteristics that made successful teams, but one of them stuck out…Psychological Safety.

Now some of you may be wondering, "What exactly is Psychological Safety?" Basically, it can be described as

The shared feeling that it's OK to be open and honest in a group setting.

That sounds so easy, so what makes it so hard? Well, it's because we don't want to be seen as incompetent when we make a mistake or don't know something and we may even be seen as negative when we challenge ideas. Personally, I have experienced this many times in my career where I have been afraid of asking that "stupid" question in fear of looking like a fool. But every time we do this we are denying ourselves and the other people in the team with the opportunity to learn. More than likely, there are people thinking the same question as you, and are also afraid to ask.

Creating psychological safety in a team seems easy, yet it is deceptively hard. Breaking down those mental barriers, the ones which have built up over the years and are preventing people from speaking their mind takes a lot of effort.

How do you improve Psychological Safety?

The following are a few things that you can try to increase psychological safety in your team:


Whenever you have a meeting or discussion, re-iterate that it is expected that everyone will ask questions and disagree if they feel the need. No one should be afraid to raise any concerns. At the end of the day, we need to have everyone's voices and opinions to make this a success.

"I don't know everything"

No one knows everything, so why do we bother and pretend we do. Most of the time people see through this. Show your humility in saying that you don't know it. By doing this you become more relatable…more human.

Ask Questions

If you ask questions, even simple ones, it can help in getting discussions going. A good technique that I have found is to ask questions, even if you know the answers. This helps demonstrate to the team that it is okay to ask any question, even if they seem "stupid".

Speak About It

I have found that talking about during your 1:1 sessions has been quite beneficial. Explain to them what you are trying to achieve and try figure out what is preventing them from speaking their mind.

Open Up

When people open up and tell people about your personal lives at work. Your team will get a different view of you and by seeing that they will model the same behaviours.

As with my previous post, this blog post is also an excerpt from my talk titled "What submarines and chickens can teach you about leadership" which I will be presenting at DDD Perth 2019.

Until next time...keep learning!