Executive Coaching Connections, LLC

Think of a high-performing team of which you’ve been a part.  How safe did you feel speaking up, asking questions or expressing a different point of view? 

If you felt safe, you’ve likely experienced one must-have for a successful team:  psychological safety.

Psychological safety was a key topic of conversation at ECC’s 2017 Global Learning Exchange, where senior leaders, industry experts, and practitioners discussed ways to accelerate team performance. 

Dr. William Kahn, professor of Organizational Behavior at Boston University and widely considered “the founding father of engagement,” describes psychological safety as, “being able to show and employ one’s self without fear of negative consequences of self-image, status, or career.”

Amy Edmondson, Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at Harvard Business School, defines psychological safety as, “a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking.” 

Psychological safety is not a new concept, but its connection to team effectiveness has never been stronger.  One company that recently highlighted the importance of psychological safety in teams is Google. 

Between 2012 and 2014, Google conducted over 200 employee interviews and looked at 250 attributes across 180+ teams as part of “Project Aristotle” – a project intended to understand the key dynamics of successful teams.  Google found that while successful teams share common traits such as dependability, structure & clarity, meaning and impact, the “…underpinning of the other four” was psychological safety. 

Google defines psychological safety as, “Team members feel[ing] safe to take risks and be vulnerable in front of each other.”  According to Google, “…the safer team members feel with one another, the more likely they are to admit mistakes, to partner, and to take on new roles. And it affects pretty much every important dimension we look at for employees. Individuals on teams with higher psychological safety are less likely to leave Google, 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.”


During their Global Learning Exchange breakout session entitled, “Team Diagnostics and Tools,” ECC Partners Susan Madonia and Cassandra Mitchell discussed the interplay between psychological safety and alignment – the second must-have for successful teams. 

When teams are aligned, they demonstrate responsibility for helping the company achieve its goals.  They are clear and committed to delivering results, based on seamless articulated team goals.

While achieving alignment sounds relatively straightforward, it has become increasingly challenging as work has become more global, virtual, collaborative, matrixed, and complex.  The overall pace of organizational change has also made alignment far more difficult to achieve. 

According to Madonia and Mitchell, teams with high levels of psychological safety and clear alignment tend to be higher functioning and capable of delivering better results.  Without strong alignment, even teams with high levels of psychological safety will not perform optimally.  At best, they tend to be “content and confused.”


If you want to enhance psychological safety and alignment with your teams, here are 5 ideas to consider: 

  1. Focus on team learning.   

    Amy Edmondson suggests that individuals can foster greater psychological safety in teams by framing work as a learning problem, not an execution problem.  As the pace of change and complexity continues to increase, the need for team learning becomes greater.  Edmondson also suggests that leaders can enhance psychological safety by acknowledging their own fallibility and modeling curiosity.

  2. Teach leaders to give and receive feedback.

    Psychological safety is hard to achieve if team members don’t feel comfortable giving and receiving feedback, so ensuring that all leaders have the necessary skills is important.  According to Fred Harburg with Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, “Feedback is the breakfast of champions,” yet most leaders are hesitant to ask for feedback. When leaders know how to give and receive feedback, it becomes more like a “banquet versus a forced meal.”

  3. Drive role clarity.

    As Google discovered, structure & clarity is an important trait shared by successful teams.  Google defines structure & clarity as “Team members hav[ing] clear roles, plans and goals.”  When individuals are clear about their roles, teams are more likely to succeed.  Not surprisingly, role clarity and helping team members understand and buy into team goals are also critical factors for driving alignment. 

  4. Share and calibrate goals.

    While individual role clarity is critical, ensuring that team members also understand the goals of the overall team and each other’s teams is equally important.  One suggestion for doing this is to have leaders calibrate with one another during the goal setting process.  Calibration builds awareness and ensures that inter-dependencies are visible to everyone on the team. 

  5. Establish strong work processes. 

    Work processes are essential, especially in team settings.  When leaders work with teams to establish processes are easily understood and executable, team members know what’s expected of themselves and others.  Strong work processes support a number of the elements associated with psychological safety, including communication, conflict resolution and collaboration. 


ECC’s Team Diagnostic helps teams assess the must-haves for successful teams – psychological safety and alignment – giving leaders the data they need to improve both. 


If you or your team could use some help accelerating team performance, ECC can help. Give us a call at +1.847.920.0190.


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