In 2012 Google launched project Aristotle with a mission to understand what creates exceptional teams. We all know that more diverse teams perform better and that it is important to have smart people, but is that total of the secret to success? Google discovered that the greatest predictor of team success was actually a characteristic known as psychological safety. As Harvard’s Amy Edmondson wrote in her paper, psychological safety is: “a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject or punish someone for speaking up,” Meaning, even if you are on a team and you say something stupid or screw up, you wont be punished or alienated.
All too often, employees are scared of sharing their ideas or speaking up if something is wrong, or doesn’t make sense. The issue is magnified when it goes against what management is saying. So rather than get in trouble or lose their jobs, employees stay quiet. When the company culture instills a sense of fear in their employees, it may produce a temporary increase in results. After all, Wells Fargo was doing great thanks to managers pressuring employees to open and close millions of fraudulent bank accounts.
Unsurprisingly, in the long term these practices are incredibly destructive, and the company saw huge fines and a terrible hit to their brand and stock when the scandal came to light in late 2016. On the other hand, organizations that have higher levels of psychological safety and comradery, not only perform better in groups, but on any metric of a successful organization especially in the long term, including profitability and stock value.
We all know that we need to have our teams and employees feel safe, but how do we actually accomplish this? The answer lies in the strange process known as a vulnerability loop. Although most people believe trust needs to precede vulnerability, Researcher Jeff Polzer, has discovered that it is actually the other way around. It is because we are willing to be vulnerable that trust is created. The process works as such:
- You put out a vulnerability signal, you may say: “This project is really tough, I don’t know how to solve this problem.”
- Your co-worker acknowledges.
- Your co-worker puts out a vulnerability signal: “I know how hard it is, I’ve struggled with that before too.”
- You acknowledge your co-workers signal.
- Trust is increased.
Notice that if your coworker doesn’t acknowledge your signal, or if they respond in a way that lacks vulnerability, e.g. they make fun of you or insult you, trust actually decreases. This is why simply putting a group of brilliant minds together isn’t the ideal scenario, because if they are arrogant or condescending they do more harm than good. They decrease psychological safety. The key is, that you need to put out the signal first and be willing to risk whatever the response might be. When you work in an environment or with a team that quickly and consistently produces and completes vulnerability loops, you gain an extraordinary level of psychological safety and in turn significantly greater success.
Creating a culture that encourages this type of trust doesn’t happen overnight. Instead it requires consistently encouraging and rewarding people’s vulnerability. A short cut you can use, is to give teams problems that require high levels of collaboration in order to succeed. This will trigger more opportunities for vulnerability loops to develop and ultimately produce a higher level of psychological safety.