Don't Overlook this Requirement for High Performing Teams

Anthony Mersino
December 28, 2017

Most leaders would claim that they want high-performing teams but many of them don't know what it takes to create them. In some cases, leaders actually behave in ways that undermine high-performing teams.

Can Leaders Create High Performing Teams?

How do you create High-Performance Teams?  More specifically, how do you create high-performing teams from your current employees?

You might be tempted to say if I had an unlimited budget, this would be no problem. You would simply pay them more money or give them generous bonuses. We know from numerous studies that traditional carrot and stick thinking doesn't motivate people

And when I say create above, I mean build, develop, and nurture high performing teams.  I purposely don't say "drive a high-performance team", or "motivate a high-performance team".  I am not sure either of those is possible or desirable.  The most effective long-term strategy for high-performance is to create the conditions for high-performance. What does that mean?

Factors Leading to High Performing Teams

Last year I wrote about the findings of the Aristotle project at Google. Aristotle was a 2-year study of 180 Google teams with the goal of trying to determine what leads to high-performance. Google identified the following five key factors as key to creating high-performing teams:

  1. Psychological safety: Psychological safety is what the team members feel about taking risks, making mistakes speaking up, and doing what they think is right without feeling insecure or embarrassed.
  2. Dependability: Dependability is the trust that they have in each other to do high-quality work and deliver on time. 
  3. Structure & Clarity: High performing teams have clarity in terms of the goals, and structure in terms of roles and the plans to execute and accomplish those goals.  
  4. Meaning of Work: Like the findings of Dan Pink in Drive, Google found that higher performance is tied to a personal connection to the purpose of the work.
  5. Impact of Work: Team members on high performing teams feel that the work they are doing is important, and have a clear line of sight to how their work contributes to the success of the organization.

Of these factors, I think that psychological safety is the one that is most frequently overlooked. And perhaps it is the easiest for leaders to control. The rest of this post is going to provide more detail on psychological safety, explore the benefits, and then provide some action steps for leaders.

What is Psychological Safety

The term psychological safety was actually coined by Amy Edmondson, a professor at Harvard's Business School.  She has written extensively on the topic and recorded several videos (this was one that I liked).  Amy talks a lot about the safety factor directly affecting team learning or "adjusting to its surrounding through outwardly sharing observations about their environment".

Benefits of Safety (and Costs if it Doesn't Exist)

When I first saw the research from Google, I didn't pay too much attention to psychological safety. In fact, based on the article, I didn't fully appreciate the potential cost of lack of safety. 

But since then, I have had the chance to observe some teams who are suffering because of a lack of psychological safety. It is painful to watch. Some of the costs are:

  • Less Innovation - people are less likely to take risks or be creative
  • Reduced Learning - people will be unlikely to share openly about mistakes and reduce team learning
  • Lower Employee Engagement - when people don't feel safe, they are less likely to feel engaged and committed to the organization 
  • Lower Overall Performance - without safety, performance suffers

In addition to these costs, lack of psychological safety could have significant costs in terms of loss of life. Most Agile teams don't have to worry about life and death, but some of the teams that Amy Edmondson worked with had to consider life-threatening situations:

  • Engineers that speak up about dangerous or risks associated with the product
  • Nurses who will speak up when they believe that the doctor has missed something which results in a botched surgery
  • Automotive assemblers who feel empowered and "safe" to stop the line when there is a quality problem.

Thankfully, most Agile teams are not dealing with human lives. But lacking safety, teams may become more focused on how things look - Impression Management.  They spend time trying to determine which way the wind is blowing to look good or avoid punishment.

When people don't speak up and engage fully, we miss out.  We don't get all the ideas.  We don't have a constructive disagreement; that clash of ideas that brings out the best.  We don't have voices that counter groupthink.  And we miss out on people taking risks - like the quiet but brilliant person who has a great idea but doesn't share it with the team.

I know for me personally, I feel the effects of an environment where safety doesn't exist.  I feel stressed.  I am not at my best.

Measuring Psychological Safety

It would be great if we could directly measure psychological safety. While that is not currently possible, you can certainly tell whether it exists in the organization or not. You can look at how people are rewarded and punished.

When working with teams, I often observe whether people feel the freedom to speak up, take risks, or engage fully. When safety isn't present, a team member will frequently look to someone else on the team to answer questions. Or, a team member will feel it is necessary to explain to me what someone else feels.

Agile Frameworks Include Safety

Interestingly, both Scrum and Extreme Programming (XP) incorporated values that related to safety. Both frameworks include "Courage" as a value. Scrum goes further and includes openness. Courage and Openness both relate directly to safety. Teams need to be open about their work, their results, their mistakes and what they learned. That takes courage.

10 Action Steps for Leaders to Foster High Performance with Safety

Some managers understand the concept but hesitate because they fear being "too soft" on people:
  • They fear that safety means we won’t hold “people’s feet to the fire”
  • They are also concerned that safety could lead people to believe it is OK to make mistakes. (It should be, BTW)
What managers and leaders can do:
  1. Assess the level of safety. This may be impossible for you to assess because as a leader, you won’t detect lack of safety in others and 2 they probably won’t tell you if they feel unsafe! You might try some techniques from the book Humble Inquiry. You might also observe how frequently people speak up or disagree with those in power.
  2. Listen more, stop telling - See related blog post ASK, DON’T TELL. Be genuinely curious about what others think.
  3. Become aware of and try to eliminate blaming! When inevitable problems occur, notice whether questions are focused on curiosity and learning or on figuring out who to blame. 
  4. Lead by example and don't focus on "optics" or impression management. Demonstrate that you will tell the truth.
  5. Framework as a learning problem, not an execution problem; to have everyone's brain; make explicit that there is uncertainty and interdependence
  6. Acknowledge your own fallibility. Be human first…share stories of your own failings or shortcomings, or a mistake that you learned from
  7. Be willing to let teams make mistakes
  8. Model curiously; ask a lot of questions
  9. Include others in decision making, that is, participatory management
  10. Create a Climate of openness - ability and willingness to discuss mistakes

Thoughts?

About Anthony Mersino

Anthony is passionate about helping technology teams THRIVE and organizations TRANSFORM.  He loves partnering with organizations to help teams with Agile thinking and the Scrum Framework.  He teaches Agile and Scrum as well as the cultural elements that are necessary for an organization to gain true business agility. Anthony has  authored numerous articles and two books: Agile Project Management, and Emotional Intelligence for Project Managers.

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