Welcome back, everybody. I’m your host, Greg McKeown. I’m the author of two New York Times bestsellers, Effortless and Essentialism. I’m an organizational psychologist, and I’m here with you on this journey to learn how to understand each other so that we can operate at our highest point of contribution.
Have you ever felt stuck in an unproductive relationship or been on a team that just did not perform to the level of the individuals within the team?
Today, I will share an inspiring story, some counterintuitive research that I’ve been learning from, and some actionable advice.
By the end of this episode, you will be able to increase your own psychological safety while increasing the psychological safety of others so that you can make meaningful progress on meaningful work.
If you want to learn the ideas in this episode more quickly, understand them more deeply, increase your influence almost immediately, then teach the ideas in this podcast episode to someone else within the next 24 to 48 hours.
In 2015, a group of Google’s people operations, what they call HR, set out to answer an interesting question using data and rigorous analysis, what makes a team effective? Of course, they were interested in what makes a Google team effective, but these seem quite analogous. Here’s the background.
They spent two years conducting more than 200 interviews with Googlers, what they call their employees, and looked at more than 200 attributes of 180 plus active Google teams. They were pretty confident that they’d find the perfect mix of individual traits and skills necessary for a stellar team. Take one Rhode scholar, two extroverts, one engineer who rocked at angular JS, and a Ph.D.
Voila, dream team assembled, right? They were dead wrong. Who is on a team matters less than how the team members interact to structure their work and view their contributions. So much for that magical algorithm they write.
Now, here’s what they did find. There were five key dynamics that set successful teams apart from other teams, five things. And as I’m reading them to you, I wonder which of these you think is most important. What’s the essential factor in the research that they performed?
Number one, dependability. Can we count on each other to do high-quality work on time?
Two, structure and clarity are goals, roles, and execution plans on the team clear.
Three, meaning of work. Are we working on something that is personally important for each of us?
Four, impact of the work. Do we fundamentally believe that the work we are doing matters?
And five, psychological safety. Can we take risks on this team without feeling insecure or embarrassed?
Okay, those are the five. Which item would you predict has the strongest correlation with high-performing teams? The answer is psychological safety. That was, according to the researchers, far and away the most important of the five dynamics that they found. In fact, they found it’s the underpinning for the other four. Now, how could that be, they ask?
“Taking a risk around your team members seems simple, but remember the last time you were working on a project, did you feel like you could ask what the goal was without the risk of sounding like you are the only one out of the loop? Or did you opt for continuing without clarifying anything in order to avoid being perceived as someone who is unaware?”
“Turns out that we’re all reluctant to engage in behaviors that could negatively influence how others perceive our competence, awareness, and positivity. Although this kind of self-protection is a natural strategy in the workplace, it is detrimental to effective teamwork.”
They continue, “On the flip side, the safer team members feel, the more likely they are to admit mistakes, to partner, to take on new roles, and it affects almost every important dimension. Beyond this, with employees, individuals on teams with higher psychological safety are less likely to leave the company. They’re more likely to harness the power of diverse ideas from their teammates. They bring in more revenue, and they’re rated as effective twice as often by executives.”
They went beyond collecting and analyzing this data to creating a tool called the G Teams exercise, which is, interestingly, a 10-minute pulse check on the five dynamics. A report that summarizes how the team is doing a live in-person conversation to discuss the results, tailored developmental resources, and so on.
And within one year of creating the G Team Tool and process, 3000 Googlers across 300 teams used that tool. And of the teams that adopted a single new group norm, like, for example, kicking off every team meeting by sharing a risk taken in the previous week, improved 6% on psychological safety ratings and 10% on structure and clarity ratings. And, of course, these things are, as we know, correlated with high-performing teams. That is teams that can produce great results, again and again, but without burning out. (1)
Laura Delizzona, who’s a Ph.D. and executive coach and an instructor at Stanford University, has taken up this research and suggested a series of things we can do immediately to be able to increase the psychological safety on teams. It’s called High-Performing Teams Need Psychological Safety, and you can find it at Harvard Business Review. So I’m not going to go deeply into the items that she identifies, but just listen to some of them, and then you can read more if it’s interesting.
She identifies approaching conflict as a collaborator, not as an adversary, noting that we humans hate losing even more than we love winning.
She suggests that we speak human to human to remember that we are humans, they are humans. This person has beliefs and perspectives, and opinions just like me. This person has hopes, anxieties, and vulnerabilities, just like me. This person has friends, family, and perhaps children who love them just like me. This person wants to feel respected, appreciated, and competent, just like me. This person wishes for peace, joy, and happiness, just like me.
Beyond this, she says, anticipate reactions and plan counter moves, replace blame with curiosity and ask for feedback on delivery.
I think the most important item that she mentions is the last, which is to measure psychological safety. There are, of course, a series of surveys on psychological safety that people can use, and one question within those surveys is, how confident are you that you won’t receive retaliation or criticism if you admit an error or make a mistake? (2)
Just think of how often you’ve been in a relationship where you doubted the answer to that question, that your confidence was low. And when you do feel psychologically unsafe, what are your behaviors? Does it bring out the best work of your career? Do you give the most honest, vulnerable insights? Do you share the essential but highly vulnerable perspectives that you have that could help move things forward? Do you ask the question that could actually reveal the lack of clarity that the team has? I mean, of course not.
So the position again is that the highest performing teams have one thing in common psychological safety. That is the objective. Instead of spending time agreeing, disagreeing in ego battles, and so on, is to create space between all of those things. And in that space is our psychological freedom. And in that psychological freedom is the ability to be able to understand each other, to be able to resolve conflicts and not just resolve them, but transform them into productivity, into meaningful work.
Let’s talk about a specific, highly actionable thing you can do right now to apply what we’ve been talking about. This is a specific phrase that you can use.
Creating psychological safety is, in my experience, a two-way street. I have found that sometimes in my desire to make someone else feel safe, I don’t feel safe. And, of course, if I don’t feel safe to speak up myself, then I will end up avoiding problems. I won’t say the things that need to be said. I won’t correct what needs to be corrected. I won’t speak up for myself and advocate for reasonable boundaries. And, of course, if I don’t feel safe to speak up, then I will end up avoiding problems until they’re too big to solve in some instances.
So the more precise question here is how can I increase my own psychological safety while increasing the psychological safety of others? And there is one specific communication skill I think that really helps. And this is something that you can initiate within two minutes or less. And it is this: Start by saying what your intent is not. That is put into words what you believe the other person is fearful of. What is making them feel unsafe? You might begin with these six words. I don’t want to suggest that. I don’t want to suggest that. I don’t want to suggest that. And in the space state what you believe the misunderstanding is. I don’t want to suggest that you’re not important to me. I don’t want to suggest that I’m not willing to help you, and you can follow it up with. That is not the purpose of my communication with you at all.
I think you can go quite bold on this because you’re removing upfront a place where you imagine you could be misunderstood. Just think of when somebody comes into the office and asks that question, you know, the question, “Oh, hey, can I just have two minutes?”
Two minutes, of course, it’s never two minutes; maybe it’s 38 minutes, maybe it’s longer. And we feel stuck. What can we say in that moment? We either say yes, a polite yes, or we offer some rude no. If we’re in a senior position, maybe we can do that. But what if we could begin with that phrase? I don’t want you to think that you’re not important to me and that this project doesn’t matter to me. I want to be able to be there for you. I want to be able to prioritize this. Right now, I’m in the middle of this thing. So can we schedule a time so that we can work on what you’ve raised for me? Can we schedule some time in an hour for us to be able to focus on this? Can we put something on the calendar to be able to go through this in some detail?
So to be precise, you start by saying what your intent is not. Then you want to express what it is that your intent is. What is the purpose of your communication? And that combination helps to create psychological safety for you to be able to create a boundary, but also psychological safety for them because it helps to remove a fear that they already have.
A couple of weeks ago, I was teaching this principle start by saying what your intent is not to a group of about 150 executives from about a hundred companies. It was an unusual teaching experience, by the way, because I just didn’t lose a single eye the whole time. Everybody was completely focused, never mind looking at their phones. They didn’t look down. And I was really curious about that. I don’t even have an explanation, but I noticed it. They were so highly engaged.
And then one of the executives put their hand up and said, “But Greg, what if your intent is what you’ve been saying it isn’t?”
And I really wanted now to get to the idea of it because it didn’t seem like a hypothetical scenario. Well, it turned out that she worked with somebody whom she always disagrees, and he always disagrees with her. And it’s been going on for years, and it’s extremely frustrating. And so she was trying to work out what she could authentically say in that situation where they are so often at loggerheads. And after I’d managed to understand the scenario with enough precision, I suggested the following.
I said, “You could simply say, Look, I don’t want to make our lives any harder than it is already. I’m not trying to frustrate you. I want to see if we can work together to find a way that’s less painful for you and for me than it has been in the past. Are you willing to chat until we find a solution that’s better than what we’ve been doing so far?”
And let me just break this down again. There were three steps there; to state what your intent is not. That was the, I don’t want to make our lives any harder than it is already. I’m not trying to frustrate you. Then number two is what your intent is. I want to see if we can work together to find a way that’s less painful for you and for me than it’s been in the past. And then something we haven’t talked about in this episode, but I did previously on an episode called Choose Purpose Over Position is to use the magic question, are you willing to chat until we find a solution that’s better than what either of us have been suggesting or doing in the past?
Three Steps For Creating Psychological Safety In Your Communication
|State what your intent is not.
|| I don’t want to make our lives any harder than it is already. I’m not trying to frustrate you.
| State what your intent is.
||I want to see if we can work together to find a way that’s less painful for you and for me than it’s been in the past.
| Use the magic question
||Are you willing to chat until we find a solution that’s better than what either of us have been suggesting or doing in the past?
I think that three-punch combo can immediately introduce greater psychological safety into almost any interaction. Done right. I think it can allow you to talk about almost anything, however emotional it is, on almost any subject. However, essential it with almost anyone, however tough or primary that relationship is.
So if you have ever felt stuck in an unproductive relationship or team, then you can achieve greater psychological safety for yourself and for others by starting with what your intent is not, expressing clearly what your intent is, and by asking the magic question.
Thank you so much for listening. So as we’ve discussed that three-step process for creating psychological safety, I hope that you will think of someone that you can share this with today, someone that you can teach these ideas to or use these ideas with within the next 24 to 48 hours. This is how you’ll learn the ideas faster, get them deeper into the fabric of your own behavior, and also increase your positive influence in the world.
If you found value in today’s episode, please write a review on Apple Podcasts. The first three people that write a review will get free access to the Essentialism Academy. Just go to essentialism.com/podcastpromo for more details. Remember to subscribe to this podcast so that you can get episodes on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and invite members of your team at work and at home to listen along with you. Life is so short. We all want to operate at our highest point of contribution, do the essential work, and that means we have to up-level our ability to create psychological safety for ourselves and others.
I’ll see you next time.
(1) Rozovsky, J. (2015). re:Work – the Five Keys to a Successful Google Team. [online] Withgoogle.com. Available at: https://rework.withgoogle.com/blog/five-keys-to-a-successful-google-team/.
(2) Delizonna, L. (2017). High-Performing Teams Need Psychological Safety. Here’s How to Create It. [online] Harvard Business Review. Available at: https://hbr.org/2017/08/high-performing-teams-need-psychological-safety-heres-how-to-create-it.