How You Can Create The Environment For Top Team Performance To Thrive

There are lots of team performance models well meaning consulting firms sell to their clients.  But invariably they fall short.

They fall short because they don't enable high performance to thrive.

Specifically they don't address a fundamental problem that exists in all teams.

The problem is that team members feel there is a risk attached to asking for help, admitting an error or expressing a different view.

Team members don't want risk looking ignorant or incompetent.

And team members don't want to risk being seen as intrusive or negative.

As a consequence team members don't speak their truth and so high performance doesn't thrive.

So the question is:

How can you create an environment where top team performance can thrive?

To achieve this outcome you must employ the concept of psychological safety.  

As defined by one of the leaders in this field, Amy Edmondson,

"Psychological safety is a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking."

It can be easily argued that the number one remit of the CEO, or indeed any leader of any team, that aspires to be high performing, is to create an environment that is psychologically safe. Establishing psychological safety is my number one goal when addressing executive team efficiency.

Psychological safety is associated with greater engagement, innovation and creativity.

I have worked with many senior leadership teams that are working at sub-optimal levels because they lack psychological safety.  With some, it has been a matter of making subtle changes in how the team operates to create a safer environment, but with a few others, and at the extreme, the tension and the angst in the room has been palpable.  As a result, the team merely has at best a polite conversation and ‘rubber stamps’ the leader's opinions and objectives without offering anything of substance. In fact, some of the members might even be able to see the flaws in the proposed strategy but feel unmotivated or not valued, or both, so don't express their important views.

Psychological safety doesn't typically happen by default, but you can you create the environment for it to thrive.

It begins at the top, of course, but doesn’t it always. Leaders are ultimately responsible for creating the top team culture, including the right team dynamic.  There are several actions a leader can take to develop psychological safety so that it becomes part of the team's norms.  Some of which include:

Creating a team culture of participatory team management is key. If the team thinks that is just about the leader, they will not be motivated to contribute, in fact, they will almost certainly feel alienated, a sure fire communication killer. Including team members in the group management is critical to their engagement.

Participation in the group means that everyone should be involved in decisions about group process, for example, how will the group make decisions? Reflection on issues is important because the team needs to be very good at one thing that most teams aren't: self-reflection.  The team needs to be able to honestly look at its process so that it can change and adapt. Psychological safety is critical for that self-reflective process.

Setting boundaries and expectations also helps establish a safe environment.  For example, what’s the purpose of the team?  ... to act as an advisory body to the CEO? make strategic decisions? simply be an information sharing forum? – in some teams their purpose isn’t clear.  Has the team agreed a set of behaviours that will ensure the smooth running of the team?  How will outsiders be invited into the team? All these questions, and more, need to be answered.

The team that adopts the above modus operandi is much more likely to innovate successfully according to research by Baer and Freese (2003). You'll probably not be surprised that there is research that shows that psychological safety is associated with better team learning. Edmonson (1996) demonstrated that psychological safety helps teams learn from their mistakes. Without psychological safety, teams are less likely acknowledge their mistakes, or might even blame each other for them.  West and Anderson (1996)  showed that safety was associated with innovation because amongst other things, creativity and out-of-the-box thinking requires the freedom to challenge ideas and question everything, and you need to feel safe to do that in a team setting.

Creating a psychological safe environment is step one in creating a high performing leadership team. 

In addition, leaders need to gain an understanding and awareness of the hidden drivers of behaviour within their themselves, their teams and the organisation ... the hidden drivers that can operate outside of conscious awareness.  This will help them diagnose their own, their teams' and divisions individual and collective behaviours, and set them on the path to even better performance, for further information, tap here.

References and Further Reading:

Baer, Markus; Frese, Michael (1 February 2003). "Innovation is not enough: climates for initiative and psychological safety, process innovations, and firm performance". Journal of Organizational Behavior 24 (1): 45–68.

Edmondson, A. C. (1 March 1996). "Learning from Mistakes is Easier Said Than Done: Group and Organizational Influences on the Detection and Correction of Human Error". The Journal of Applied Behavioral Science 32 (1): 5–28.

Edmondson, Amy (1 June 1999). "Psychological Safety and Learning Behavior in Work Teams" (PDF). Administrative Science Quarterly 44 (2): 350–383

Edmondson, A.C.; West, Michael A.; Tjosvold,, Dean; Smith, Ken G. (ed) (2003). "Managing the Risk of Learning: Psychological Safety in Work Teams". International Handbook of Organizational Teamwork and Cooperative Working. New York: Wiley.

Detert, J. R.; Edmondson, A. C. (1 June 2011). "Implicit Voice Theories: Taken-for-Granted Rules of Self-Censorship at Work". Academy of Management Journal 54 (3): 461–488.

Detert, J. R.; Trevino, L. K. (6 November 2008). "Speaking Up to Higher-Ups: How Supervisors and Skip-Level Leaders Influence Employee Voice". Organization Science 21 (1): 249–270. doi:10.1287/orsc.1080.0405.

Kark, Ronit; Carmeli, Abraham (1 August 2009). "Alive and creating: the mediating role of vitality and aliveness in the relationship between psychological safety and creative work involvement". Journal of Organizational Behavior 30 (6): 785–804.

Nembhard, Ingrid M.; Edmondson, Amy C. (1 November 2006). "Making it safe: the effects of leader inclusiveness and professional status on psychological safety and improvement efforts in health care teams". Journal of Organizational Behavior 27 (7): 941–966.

Schein, Edgar H. (1993). "How can organizations learn faster? : the challenge of entering the green room." (PDF). Sloan Management Review 34 (2): 85 – 93.

Schein, Edgar H.; Bennis, Warren G. (1965). Personal and organizational change through group methods: the laboratory approach. New York: Wiley

Senge, P. (1999). The dance of change. New York: Doubleday

West, Michael A.; Anderson, Neil R. (1 January 1996). "Innovation in top management teams.". Journal of Applied Psychology 81 (6): 680–693