How to Be Like Google: Creating Psychological Safety within Your Team

Many CEOs and executives struggle with the challenge of creating a high-performing leadership team. Leaders wonder if the focus should be on assembling a team of “A Players” or a team that has a wide array of experiences and skillsets. According to the research from Google’s Project Aristotle, the number one trait of the highest performing teams is the presence of psychological safety.

Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson defines psychological safety as ‘‘a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject or punish someone for speaking up. It describes a team climate characterized by interpersonal trust and mutual respect in which people are comfortable being themselves.’’

So if psychological safety is the number one attribute of high-performing teams, how do you go about establishing and maintaining it within your team? Below is a set of practices that have been proven to be successful with our clients.

  • Develop Ground Rules: As a foundation, it’s critical to establish a set of ground rules either upon the formation of a new team, appointment of a new leader, significant team turnover, or as part of the annual planning process. Many teams already define Team Values, but it’s critical to include attributes that ensure psychological safety, and as with all team rules, you will want to make sure the process in creating these rules is iterative and allows for input from all team members (e.g. not simply a management “decree”). Keith Ferrazi, CEO of Ferrazzi Greenlight, advocates for establishing something called Red Flag Rules with executive teams. A sample set of ground rules that address psychological safety might be:
    • We do not interrupt fellow teammates
    • No idea is dismissed out-of-hand
    • Everyone has a platform to voice their opinion and no one person has a monopoly on airtime (Some conference call software like UberConference even tell you how long each person spoke during a call)
    • Ideas and proposals are debated in the open, not in secret
    • We do not talk behind each other’s backs
  • Lead by Example:  Once the ground rules have been established, it’s imperative that leaders lead by example and model a new set of behaviors aimed at boosting psychological safety within the team. The good news is that as a leader, you are firmly in control of establishing psychological safety within your team. One of the most impactful ways of doing so is by being vulnerable to your team. This isn’t to say you open the proverbial kimono all the way, but you do provide a sense of your concerns as well as stories of growth and failure on your way to gaining your current role. Doing so will help establish authenticity and demonstrate that being vulnerable isn’t a sign of weakness. In fact, being vulnerable has many other benefits as highlighted in the HBR Article What Bosses Gain by Being Vulnerable.
  • Make it Personal: As leader, be sure to make time during team interactions to allow for connecting on a more personal level. Doing so will create a sense of shared understanding and empathy for one another. Ultimately, this will turn a group of executives into a team that cares about one another’s development and success. One way to foster more personal interactions is by using storytelling as the foundation for the conversation during team dinners. Instead of leading dinners consisting of idle chit chat and impersonal updates, try asking a thought provoking question such as “What do you want your personal and/or professional legacy to be?” as the basis for the conversation. As the leader, make sure you go first to model this behavior for the team and set the tone in terms of the depth of sharing.
  • Assign a Referee: During periods of time and performance pressure (which seems to be the norm these days), teams will often fall short in living up to their team values and following the ground rules established previously. One way to maintain alignment with team values and ground rules is to assign a meeting referee whose job it is to call out violations of ground rules (e.g. talking over someone) and values which ultimately undermine an atmosphere of psychological safety.
  • Encourage and Enforce: As a leader, it is not only important to model behaviors that create psychological safety, but also to acknowledge and celebrate team members who do so. For example, you can use the final few minutes of meetings to celebrate team members who took risks and stepped out of their comfort zone to provide perspective on a topic or team challenge. The flip side is enforcing discipline to the rules by making sure that team members are held accountable to those rules. Lastly, it means empowering the “Referee” above to hold you accountable to those same rules.
  • Measure It: In order to keep it top of mind, team leaders can establish metrics that measure psychological safety over time. A simple way to do this is to integrate questions that assess the overall level of psychological safety within the team. Sample questions may ask respondents to rate how strongly they agree with the following statements:
    • I feel comfortable voicing my opinions, even when they may be unpopular
    • I always have an opportunity to share my perspective on an issue or topic
    • My teammates are present and actively listening to each team member’s contributions to a conversation

What strategies do you employ and behaviors do you endorse to establish and maintain psychological safety within your teams? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.