Communication is the lifeblood of any organization, especially when it comes to small groups and teams. How and whether they work, and what they’re able to produce, is ultimately a function of how they communicate, both verbally and nonverbally, and whether they feel safe enough to communicate freely.
But don’t take my word for it – let Google tell us. I don’t mean google it; let’s look at what happens between the people who work on teams at Google.
In an attempt to create the perfect team, in 2012 Google began studying existing teams from across the company in its multi-year Project Aristotle – an appropriate name since the Greek philosopher has given us a wealth of insight on communication that is still relevant 2,500 years later.
The findings of Project Aristotle were described in a comprehensive NY Times piece by Charles Duhigg, the author of “The Power of Habit” and “Smarter, Faster, Better: The Secrets of Productivity in Life and Business.” Essentially, Google realized that what separated high-performing teams from other teams was not the intelligence, experience or commonalities of their individual members (not the Who), but the way team members treated each other (the How).
Specifically, two characteristics stood out: conversational turn-taking and social sensitivity. Both these characteristics manifest primarily through communication; together, they create a sense of “psychological safety.” Let’s take a closer look.
Take turns, just like in kindergarten
Conversational turn-taking is just what it sounds like: giving everyone the opportunity to talk, to express their opinion and contribute to the discussion. Researchers in a 2008 study that informed Project Aristotle found the structure of turn-taking didn’t matter – one person could lead a conversation on a topic, team members could take turns leading on different topics or everyone could speak on every topic. At the end of the day, what mattered was a relatively equitable distribution of speaking time.
How often have you been part of a group where one or two people dominated the conversation? A pattern we often see is people with the highest title or pay grade taking, or being given, a disproportionate amount of speaking time. But good leaders know how to share the floor and draw out thoughts and ideas from everyone. They know how to orchestrate healthy dialogue and productive debate. And teams that have trust are comfortable with that kind of interaction.
Develop social sensitivity
Social sensitivity has a lot to do with emotional intelligence. It’s about understanding what’s going on – below the surface – with the other people in the room. The best teams at Google (and all good teams) have members who can sense how people are feeling by listening and observing their facial expressions, tone of voice and how they move their bodies. They can read the nonverbal behaviors that tell the true story of how others feel. (There’s even an exam called “Reading the Mind in the Eyes” that can determine how effective people are at picking up these cues based on seeing photographs of different sets of eyes.)
Create psychological safety
So what’s the point of taking turns, of trying to sense someone else’s feelings? The point is to help team members feel valued, and secure and relaxed enough to take risks – to contribute to discussions, to engage in creative conflict and to collaborate freely. The point is to create a safe space that benefits not only team members, but the team itself.
So how do you go about creating psychological safety?
Be present. Sensing and being aware of what’s going on with other people requires being present. You can’t get what’s going on if your attention is inwardly focused. To be attuned to someone else, you need to stop the internal dialogue and observe and listen. (Remember, if you’re on a team with five other people and you are distributing the speaking relatively equally, in a one-hour meeting you’ll be listening for 50 minutes and speaking for only 10.) When you’re truly present, you convey to others your openness to them and your willingness to engage. This helps lower barriers and prevents the need to engage in self-preserving defensive behaviors.
Be supportive. Listen, ask questions and provide encouragement, praise and reassurance. If you detect a member is worried about an issue, or reluctant to provide details on an important topic, make inquiries in a non-threatening, empathic way: “Jill, you’ve been quiet on this issue and it looks like you might have some concerns. Can you share how you feel about the proposal with us so we can discuss it in more detail.”
Use “team” words. Words matter – some more than others. Here are a few phrases that might help team leaders and members create a safe space. When said with genuine intent, they can be very powerful.
- I’m sorry.
- I was wrong about that.
- How can I help you?
- You did a great job with that assignment.
- What ideas do you have?
- Have I done something that’s annoyed you?
- What do you need from me?
- Thanks for your help on such short notice.
Don’t judge. Psychological safety allows people the freedom to offer their opinions without fear of being rejected or embarrassed. When they feel they’re in a safe environment, where they won’t be judged but supported, team members can admit mistakes or share concerns in a much more transparent way. This allows teams to stay focused on problem solving rather than finger pointing – which ultimately allows them to succeed.