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Psychological Safety – The missing performance ingredient which helps diverse teams perform

Research has shown Diverse teams underperform unless they can create a psychologically safe way of interacting. This article gives you some insights in how to do this.

Recent research* has shown that diverse teams, despite the unsaid assumptions many people carry, actually underperform compared to homogeneous teams set similar challenges. Plus, it is found, they are less happy teams to work in too!

On reflection, this is not surprising. Diverse teams by definition contain people with different world views and are much more likely to disagree and challenge each other than agree and be harmonious teams to work within. This in-built ‘conflict energy’ is often referred to as ‘creative contention’ and can be the fuel that sparks new thinking and new insights to emerge. This is why diverse teams are so popular and the go-to team structure for challenges that require new thinking and breakthrough innovation. The research that shows they underperform is therefore an interesting insight for leaders looking to innovate to consider.

What the research demonstrates is that diverse teams can outperform their homogeneous counterparts, and have higher personal well-being, if they have the missing performance ingredient of psychological safety embedded in their ways of working.

Psychological safety is therefore a key ingredient if you want diverse teams to perform. Without it, you may as well get a homogenous team together, that will operate within the current norms surrounding whatever problem you are looking at, and are likely to produce incremental rather than breakthrough solutions.

Psychological Safety the Ingredient Definition

Psychological safety is defined as an environment where everybody feels safe and free to share their opinion and ideas. Participants in a diverse, psychologically safe team carry a belief, (backed up by evidential behaviours in the team), that they will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with their ideas, questions, and concerns. Crucially they can also flag mistakes early, happy in the knowledge that this will be welcomed by their colleagues who recognise that whatever the size of the mistake, if left unaddressed, then it is only going to get bigger, so early detection is key.

Developing Psychological Safety in a Diverse Team

The psychological safety ingredient takes time to develop. Trust is a key attribute to foster. One accelerator I have used to great effect is to start any challenge the team faces with a quick and easy trust building exercise.

There are many trust exercises available and being a pragmatist at heart, the one I favour is a simple In2MeC exercise. This enables everyone to do some quick personal disclosure. It is a simple ‘show and tell’ exercise which brings people to life as people, not just job titles. Everyone has a few minutes to develop a storyboard which discloses to their colleagues the various aspects of their life. It is entirely free-form and they can disclose as much or as little as they are comfortable with sharing.

Examples often include where they were born; educated; their career trajectory to date; the places they have lived / visited; their family situation; their hobbies and the life experiences that have made them the person they are today.

Many a team has discovered musical and sporting talent in their midst and connections are made that transcend functional expertise. How many of you know that I am also a professional dance teacher for example and a life-long Newcastle United supporter? Those that are close to me, know this already, those that don’t are often intrigued to learn more. Some don’t care and of course this is OK too!

The point is, that once team members know each other as people, then they can begin to see where they are each coming from when challenges to conventional thinking, (defined as the way I and folk like me think), begin to surface. Absent these insights people can only judge behaviours on display and have no inkling on the positive intent that sits behind challenges to the prevailing mind-set.

Leadership Skills needed for Psychological Safety to flourish

As a leader of a diverse team your role is to remain curious longer and rush to action slower.

The habit you need to develop is to lead with inquiry not advice and be curious why people say what they say. Uncover assumptions and where necessary provide clarity of direction. Leaders also need to reassure that individual contributions are valued, so remember to say thank you to encourage more interaction, especially when the contribution lands as a potentially contentious challenge.

Leaders also have to occasionally remind team members that they are accountable for their reactions and that there are only two choices. Productive reactions, or unproductive reactions. When unproductive reactions emerge, which they often do, be curious why. It is often a result of misapplied, or excessive passion, for the topic in hand. The passion is to be applauded but maybe challenged to ensure that the same passion does not spill over and is perceived as bullying behaviour by others.

The skill is to develop a set of questions that expose the assumptions people are using to frame their heart-felt conclusions. The best way to ask a challenging question and maybe contain excessive unproductive energy, is to include the word ‘Help’ in your question and use an emotionally neutral tonality yourself.

E.g. “I can see from your energy that you are pretty sure that your view on this issue is correct. Help me understand why you think and feel this way?” Then listen intently and recognise both the passion and the insights they share. Then open it up for others to share their views, keeping your thoughts and feelings to share last of all.

Facilitating diverse, often geographically dispersed remote teams has occupied a lot of my client time over the years. This has taught me that to both lead and facilitate such teams is a big ask! Splitting the leadership role from the facilitation role can definitely help accelerate the team towards a psychologically safe working environment. If this is something your organisation is struggling with then contact me and we can start a conversation to see if I can help. 

*Research paper: To Excel Diverse Teams need Psychological Safety – Henrick Bresman @ Insead & Amy C Edmondson @ Harvard Business School