Psychological Safety Is the Foundation for High Performance: Here’s How to Create It

When the verdict came in, it wasn’t the splashy colored office hammocks or even the intelligence or talent of the individual team members that mattered most.

What mattered most was feeling safe to fail.

That was the result of Google’s 2015 study of the special sauce that made elite teams perform. When Google’s most successful teams were painstakingly studied to reveal the secrets of their success, no other single variable showed a greater correlation with high team performance than psychological safety

Why is this so, and how can we create this foundation of safety in 2019 to increase the performance of our teams? The answers lie in our evolutionary history.

I. The evolutionary safety bias

Safety is key because our minds are programmed to survive. Over the course of millions of years of evolution on the savannas of the Rift Valley of Africa, our human ancestors developed a mental architecture primed to recognize and remember threats to survival. Miss one or two opportunities to mate or get food, and you got another chance to try again the next day. Miss one chance to escape a hungry lion, however, or get thrown out of your tribe for breaking a taboo, and well, your DNA didn’t reproduce.

The result of this process is that human beings today are equipped with a mind that is biased toward recognizing and responding to physical and social threats. The moment our minds detect a potential threat, adrenaline floods our system, and a series of psycho-biological processes kick in to help us survive the moment. Blood flow is re-routed away from the neocortex language centers of the brain and towards the large muscle groups so that we can fight or run away. Breathing and heart rate accelerate, while immune processes, peripheral vision, lateral thinking and all other non-essential brain and body functions are suspended to focus on those processes necessary to survive the moment. 

While these fight-flight mechanisms were helpful for survival in hunter-gatherer societies, they form a great barrier to high performance in today’s innovation-driven economies. 

II. Peak performance and flow state

Pure calculation and repetitive actions are being taken over by artificial intelligence and automation systems—which are far better adapted to such tasks than human beings are. Where human beings add unique value is in their abilities to connect with other humans and create new solutions to complex problems. Like an artist creating a painting or a symphony, humans engaged in innovation require sustained focus or absorption of the human mind in a given task. This value-producing “deep work” requires a combination of emotion and intellect focused on a singular task that Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, the Czech psychologist, has called “flow state.” In flow states, people lose track of time and are able to produce works or take actions of special quality. For an athlete, flow state can be described as “the game slowing down;” for the programmer, it can be called “being in the zone”

As critical as the flow state is to creating great work in today’s innovation economy, it is categorically incompatible with the fight-flight mental states that permeate threatening environments. In office cultures that feed fear of failure or that harbor threats of social exclusion, it is rare to see sustained levels of peak performance. In many competitive financial institutions for example, hierarchical, competitive cultures breed a fear of failure that may drive high quantities of repeated action, but that rarely results in truly new, innovative thought. In such corporate cultures, it is much safer to execute an idea previously vetted by leadership than to take a risk to try something new. Traditionally, this has worked well for banks, as they could crowd out smaller competitors with size and efficiency. In the disruptive world of blockchain and other fintech innovations, however, this competitive advantage will not hold for long.

In supportive, psychologically safe environments, however, high performance can become endemic. We can see this in the cultures of Google, Zappos, 3M, and other innovation-driven organizations that have embraced psychological safety. At Google for example, employees are encouraged to play and take risks. New ideas are celebrated, and social inclusion and other human needs are carefully doted over. Wellness coaches, chef-cooked meals, and flexible office times all serve to make innovative talent feel safe, cared for, and fertile to enter into flow states of exceptional creative yield. To further feed this, developers are famously afforded 20% of their time to dedicate to projects with no immediate application for the company. Most importantly, talent is supported, encouraged, and embedded in a sense of social belonging, while exclusionary behavior, bullying, or heavy criticism are not tolerated. At Google, talent feels safe to perform, and perform it does.     

III. Creating ideal environments to perform

So just how can an organization create the conditions for sustained peak performance? Bottling the magic formula for this is truly the holy grail of progressive organizational development departments around the globe, and the verdict is out on whose special sauce is the best. Determining the right place to start, however, is easy. The foundation must be one of pyscho-social safety. Such safety to perform has three basic components: (1) safety from worries related to practical survival, (2) safety of social belonging and respect, and (3) safety to take smart risks and try new approaches. To create these conditions, organizations can do the following:

  1. Make sure salaries and benefits cover basic needs. The key here is not to offer salaries in excess of competitive levels, but rather to be comprehensive and attentive in removing concern for practical needs. Medical care, health and wellness, learning development opportunities, child care, retirement, and vacation offers should be comprehensive and on par with leaders in the industry. 
  2. Prioritize social integration and mentorship support. Vast amounts of creative potential are lost to the world due to the anxiety caused by social exclusion or lack of integration at work. Until someone’s social belonging is secured, it is doubtful that she will truly open up her creative potential and share original ideas. To create places of belonging, true integration must go beyond mere teambuilding activities and become an essential element of workplace organization. Ideal workplaces conduct regular activities to identify individual strengths and form high-performing teams that leverage these specific individual strengths. Using such strengths-focused HR frameworks as Marcus Buckingham’s Standout 2.0 model (link) helps build a workforce in which everyone feels valued and needed, and can in turn give their best work. 
  3. Support iterative processes and smart failures. After Thomas Edison was asked how he maintained his motivation after thousands of prior attempts to build a lightbulb had failed, he famously replied “I have never failed. I just discovered 10,000 ways that didn’t work.” Amy Edmundson called this a “smart failure” ih her HBR article on learning from failure A smart failure is an idea or initiative that is not successful on its own, but that furthers knowledge development in some way. Top performing organizations find ways to celebrate such smart failures, as they are an integral part of iterative processes that lead to new innovations.

The case of NASA illustrates this point. By the late 1970s, the prestige and awe that NASA had gained in the 1960s with the inaugural moon landing had faded and the Soviet Union was using more advanced rockets and doing more innovative space research than the US was—with a budget a quarter the size of NASA’s. A study commissioned to understand why NASA was not getting results found that it was due to it having developed a risk-averse organizational culture. Rockets are very expensive, and even slight errors lead to massive explosions that cost millions. Nasa lead engineers wanted to avoid these costly, visible failures, and in turn dissuaded their teams from testing new materials or novel engineering solutions. As a result, they got left behind. One key to addressing this problematic cultural characteristic was to have top NASA leadership visibly cheer the and celebrate the explosion of test rockets. These public celebrations, shared with the whole organization, supported a new message that NASA had to take smart risks in order to grow and develop. The result? Dead end projects were abandoned earlier, engineering “play” led to innovation breakthroughs, resources were allotted to winning projects, and innovation at NASA turned around.

At a time in which automation and artificial intelligence are shifting human work roles toward innovation, critical thinking, and user experience, the need for sustained human performance is both more critical than ever and more challenging to attain. One thing, however, is certain. The higher functioning mental flow states needed to drive tomorrow’s economy can only be sustained in environments of psychological safety. Creating those conditions in our workplaces is all of our responsibilities.

Soft skills are key to creating high-performance teams

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