Research: Foundation of Psychological Safety Fuels High Performing, Innovative Teams

Google identified a couple group behaviors that consistently predict a team’s level of psychological safety - what are they? And as a leader, how can you know if your team members truly feel safe? Hint: observe whether these 2 conditions exist, and ask these 3 questions

Psychological safety fuels innovation

In a massive two-year study at Google, the highest performing and most innovative teams had one thing in common: psychological safety, the belief that it is acceptable to voice your opinion and that you won’t be punished when you make a mistake. Frederik Pferdt, Google’s Chief Innovation Evangelist, put it succinctly: “Psychological safety is the single biggest distinction in innovative teams.”

Psychological safety is hard to define. But when you’re in a group that has it, you can feel it. It’s the sense of comfort and safety that liberates employees to speak up – to share ideas that challenge the status quo, a superior’s idea, or even a company’s current direction. It’s the willingness to share an idea that sounds a little crazy or isn’t fully formed yet. It’s knowing that if you try something different and it fails, you won’t be chastised, unfairly punished or fired. It’s a culture that values inclusion, honesty and reasonable risk taking.

How do you know, though, if a team has high levels of psychological safety?

There are two primary ways: observation and measurement. Let’s start with observation. What are two observable behaviors – the tip of the iceberg – that indicate psychological safety?

Two behaviors that predict psychological safety

According to the Google study, groups with high levels of psychological safety exhibit 2 behaviors: equality in conversational turn-taking and ostentatious listening. Charles Duhigg, the author of Smarter Faster Better, breaks down these concepts in this video from Tech Insider:

So basically, they are smart sounding engineering terms for concepts most of us learned in preschool: take turns and actually listen. It’s easier said than done. 

Those are the behaviors that predict psych safety.  If we go one layer down on the iceberg, what are the thoughts that determine psych safety? 

Thanks to a decade’s worth of research at Six Seconds, we have at least part of that answer.


Three questions that measure a team’s psych safety and performance

Six Seconds’ own research over the last decade has confirmed Google’s findings about team and organizational performance: trust, which fuels safety, is at the heart of high performance. The 2017 Vitality Report found that trust predicts a whopping 62% of performance.

And thanks to an analysis run by Tom Procicchani, we’ve identified three questions on Six Seconds’ Vital Signs assessment that are most strongly correlated with trust and performance.

These questions are all scored on a 1-5 scale ranging from strongly disagree to strongly agree. 

1. People here accept other team members’ points of view.

Predicts 42% of trust and 35% of overall performance

2. Our team is able to propose new projects.

Predicts 53% of trust and 38% of overall performance

3. People here communicate openly.  

Predicts 49% of trust and 41% of overall performance

By using the validated Vital Signs tools, the answers to these and other questions provide invaluable insight to the people side of performance.

Want to see a sample report or find out more about the questions and psychometric attributes of this tool, fill out the form on this page for a free sample report and consultation:

Specific actions to take as a leader

As a leader, apply the findings on psych safety to improve team performance with five practical action steps:

1. Observe the conversational equality within your team and use your power as an amplifier. 

Notice: some people are quiet because of their personality style, others may be quiet because they don’t have the positional power or influence. As a result, their comments are often ignored, which reduces their feelings of safety, and also signals other group members that, “here, it’s ok to ignore some people” which will reduce safety for all.
Do: Use your power to amplify those voices by calling the group’s attention to the contributions that are being overlooked.

What it sounds like: “I want to circle back to Joanna’s comment earlier, I’m not sure everyone heard it. Joanna would you mind repeating your observation?”

2. Increase the quality of listening and show people that their voices matter. 

Notice: When people are communicating (or even when silent) they are often expressing much more than is said in words. Yet in most meetings, the substance of the conversation will be about ideas because we have a prejudice against talking about feelings. As a result, people often suppress their feelings and shut down rather than express themselves… an invalidation that diminishes safety.
DoTry out these practical tips to practice empathetic listening from this article on empathy vs. sympathy
What it sounds like: “I‘m noticing there are mixed emotions about this topic. I want to take a moment to hear some of the feelings in the room

3. Watch and listen for cues that show discomfort or dissatisfaction and ask good questions about those. 

Notice: There’s a vast quantity of data in any interpersonal interaction – the feedback is free for you to access (here’s a video explaining this idea)
Do: To access this data, pause to watch the meeting — who’s sitting forward, who’s holding back? Who’s frowning? Who’s tone of voice is escalated or tight? By attending to these cues, you can identify if there’s an unspoken issue about safety.
What it sounds like – often this is best addressed one-to-one after a meeting “I noticed that in the meeting you were frowning and didn’t say much, and I’m hoping you’d be willing to tell me a bit about what you’re perceiving that I may have missed.”

4. Resist certainty and keep an open space for multiple perspectives.

: In meetings there is a tendency to quickly achieve a shared answer (it’s one reason brainstorming doesn’t usually work – check out this rich article on the topic — link Often one idea is strongly stated, or others don’t want to disagree with a person with strong positional or relational power. In addition to inferior decisions, the not-so-subtle emotional message is telling other group members their voices are not welcome.

Do: Adopt an attitude of curiosity and openness. One tipAsk more questions and make less statementsReframe other’s certain or closed statements into hypothesis.
What it sounds like: “Ok! We’ve got one possibility on the table. I want to hear three very different ideas before we get much further.”

5. Measure team and org climate consistently, using a validated tool to collect meaningful data. 

Notice: Many organizations are using antiquated measures to capture insight from employees, and most of these processes are infrequent, expensive, and overly complex. 

Do: If psychological safety is important, measure it frequently using a validated, anonymous tool. Six Seconds’ Vital Signs tools are best-in-class for measuring the people side of performance, and getting solid data on levels of trust and other KPIs — learn more about these tools by __


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  • Global: Used in 157 countries & territories — this approach works everywhere.
  • Scientific: The latest research creates a robust approach by the pioneers in EQ — these tools are reliable.
  • Practical: It’s not enough to talk about emotional intelligence — Six Seconds helps you put it into action.
Michael Miller

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