The Key to Building a High-Performing Team: It May Not Be What You Think

The Key to Building a High-Performing Team: It May Not Be What You Think

As a founder, CEO, and executive coach, I work with leaders every day. Every single one of them has something in common: They want to create a high-performing team.

There are lots of ways to go about accomplishing this, but in my experience, one factor rises above all others. No, it isn’t how thorough their strategic planning has been, or which project management methodology they select, or even how “talented” each individual team member is in their respective role. These factors are all important, but the one that surmounts them all, the glue that makes all of the other performance improvements both possible and sustainable?

It’s the degree of psychological safety on the team.

According to Amy Edmondson, a Harvard Business School professor and leading expert in psychological safety, and Zhike Lei, the term “describes perceptions of the consequences of taking interpersonal risks in a particular context such as a workplace.”[1] It’s the culture and environment that either allows, supports, and creates open sharing of ideas and positive risk taking within a team, or pushes them away. “Team psychological safety involves but goes beyond interpersonal trust,” writes Edmondson. “It describes a team climate characterized by interpersonal trust and mutual respect in which people are comfortable being themselves.”[2]

That sounds like a nice idea, but does it actually affect team performance? To answer that question, we can turn to the biggest data company we all know and use on a daily basis: Google.

Several years ago, Google created Project Aristotle, a two-year study of over 180 teams, to learn what makes some excel—and others struggle. Google found that psychological safety was one of the five dynamics that separated high-performing teams within the company from the rest. In fact, in ranking these five dynamics, Project Aristotle researchers ultimately determined that psychological safety was the most foundational.

Simply put, without psychological safety, your team will not perform at its highest capacity.

Think for a moment about your current team, or about past teams you’ve been a part of. Would you feel comfortable making a mistake in front of your colleagues? What about raising a new or controversial idea? How comfortable are people asking questions about topics they don’t understand? How does the team handle conflict between individuals? How likely are teammates to support each other, help each other out, or receive feedback from each other?

In an environment where there is a low level of psychological safety, people often worry they could be punished, ostracized, or embarrassed. This (often subconscious) fear and distrust exists around commonly agreed “failure points” such as making a mistake, as well as around more nuanced examples of vulnerability, such as sharing new ideas, asking difficult questions, and disagreeing with a teammate.

Psychologically safe teams foster a shared sense of confidence that empowers people to take risks and tackle challenges knowing there is room to learn and grow, even if that process involves failure. This creates the growth that is pivotal to a team’s — and a business’s — sustained success.

As a leader, you can help create the psychological safety that drives high-performing teams. It starts with demonstrating and encouraging the behaviors you wish to see. Here are three simple ways you can display psychological safety and thereby fuel performance on your team.

1. Engage in Healthy Conflict. The best decisions are not made by a team of yes-people. Agreeing for the sake of harmony rarely results in the type of critical thinking and problem solving that will ultimately serve your business best. Role-model and reward professional, solution-focused disagreements. No fighting, no personal attacks. Listen for the wisdom in the views of the opposing side and incorporate that wisdom into eventual solutions. Check your ego and the natural defensiveness it creates, and be truly curious about other viewpoints. Don’t be afraid to be controversial, as long as you remain respectful and focused on the solution. Leaning into conflict in a healthy manner encourages team members to speak up, challenge themselves and each other, and ultimately co-create solutions that stick.

2. Build Trust. Without trust, your team won’t feel safe. Research shows that trust is earned through small acts of reliability and kindness over time. “Small acts” include things like remembering the names of your colleagues’ spouses and kids, asking about how a vacation went (and actually listening when the person tells you about how wonderful it was), and grabbing an extra chair when the last entrant to a meeting finds him- or herself without a place to sit. On top of these “small acts,” work on exhibiting consistency, collaboration, and respect. As you do, the trust quotient on your team (and the performance it allows) will skyrocket.

3. Leader, Know Thyself. Self-awareness is a primary building block of psychological safety. Unless you understand how your character shows up in your work style — including how you react when colleagues and employees show vulnerability — you’re unlikely to lead a team that feels secure around each other. Stay in tune with your natural reactions as they arise. When a situation becomes escalated, remember to respond rather than react.

The benefits of psychological safety are clear: Teams are happier, more creative, and ultimately more effective in their efforts when they feel safe around each other. The results-focused leader recognizes this, and develops a healthy conflict style, builds trust, and practices self-awareness. The added bonus? Committing to psychological safety not only grows the performance of your team — it gives you, the leader, a more secure and fulfilling experience at work as well.

[1] Amy C. Edmondson and Zhike Lei, “Psychological Safety: The History, Renaissance, and Future of an Interpersonal Construct,” Annual Review of Organizational Psychology and Organizational Behavior, Vol. 1:23-43 (March 2014).

[2] Amy C. Edmondson, “Psychological Safety and Learning Behavior in Work Teams,” Administrative Science Quarterly, Vol. 44, No. 2 (June 1999).

Ilana Zivkovich

Ilana Zivkovich is the founder and CEO of Werq, an executive and team performance coaching firm headquartered in Austin, Texas. An experienced executive leader and Certified Executive Coach, Zivkovich and her team help leaders align their people, processes, and strategy so that businesses can achieve exceptional results. Along with being a Certified Executive Coach, Ilana holds a master’s degree in social work from the University of Texas at Austin and serves on multiple nonprofit boards and councils.

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