What makes up a good team?

safety first.jpgIn an article in New York Times Charles Duhigg describes how Google approached this question.

New York Times

Analysing academics and carrying out analysis of how Google teams were working, they concluded that teams who perform best, have two common traits:

“First, on the good teams, members spoke in roughly the same proportion, a phenomenon the researchers referred to as ‘‘equality in distribution of conversational turn-taking.’’ On some teams, everyone spoke during each task; on others, leadership shifted among teammates from assignment to assignment. But in each case, by the end of the day, everyone had spoken roughly the same amount. ‘‘As long as everyone got a chance to talk, the team did well,’’ Woolley said. ‘‘But if only one person or a small group spoke all the time, the collective intelligence declined.’’

Second, the good teams all had high ‘‘average social sensitivity’’ — a fancy way of saying they were skilled at intuiting how others felt based on their tone of voice, their expressions and other nonverbal cues. “

The first observation was more an observation of how the team was functioning, this was: “The way we do things around here”, how we function and operate, by respecting the opinions and inputs from each other.

The the second one was more like a “skill” or a “trait” – something the members of the team just happened to be good at – and were doing. Some may have had it already before joining the team, some may have developed it, by being in the team and by observing and learning from other team members.

A team behaviour like the one described by the two observations can then be summarised in the term:”Psychological safety”.

Within psychology, researchers sometimes colloquially refer to traits like ‘‘conversational turn-taking’’ and ‘‘average social sensitivity’’ as aspects of what’s known as psychological safety — a group culture that the Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson defines as a ‘‘shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.’’ Psychological safety is ‘‘a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject or punish someone for speaking up,’’ Edmondson wrote in a study published in 1999. ‘‘It describes a team climate characterized by interpersonal trust and mutual respect in which people are comfortable being themselves.’’

And here is the core to the success: The team members feel safe. They feel that they can be themselves, they feel that they can fail within the team, that they can ask for advise on subjects where they are afraid that they could be regarded as lacking knowledge, or even worse: Lacking competence.

To create “psychological safety” is important in all teams and all cultures, but I will claim that in some cultures it is even more important than in others, especially in an Asia context this is even crucial – and an opportunity.

In Asia culture the concept of “face loss” is most critical. To “loose face” means to have done something, that by the group will be regarded as wrong –  having failed in delivering, or created a “face loss” situation to a manager, colleague, customer or partner. It can also be, to have been corrected or ridiculed by a higher positioned person, and worst of all in public and in front of the group.

The “face loss” creates an environment where it becomes difficult to be creative, as many creative ideas in the beginning may look so different from the norm that they may struggle to be regarded as serious.

If a group can create an “room”, where they can exercise “psychological safety” the team can really flourish. This room becomes the place where they can share their experiences or bounce off ideas and questions, where they can ask for support, both in terms of professional advice, but also in terms of ways of handling difficult personal situations.


Because creating such a room of psychological safety within the team, is so much different from the culture of “face loss”, the right group members may prosper from this opportunity. They may suddenly discover that the world can be different, that there are alternatives to: “Fear of making mistakes” and to “being punished or ridiculed.” This experience then becomes a strong motivation to the members of the group and then the group takes over and strengthens the culture and the norm even further.

Can you create “psychological safety” or is it something which is just there as a chemical function of the members of the team? I believe it has a lot to do with the characters in the team. How do they fit together, how do they respect and trust each other. But the key is the leader of the team. Does the leader of the team support the creation of the “psychological safety” by her actions and words? The spark to ignite the fire of “psychological safety” must come from the leader. She must show that trust is the most important skill in the team. That everybody must train the skill of trusting each other. Only when trust exist in the team can the psychological safety be created and the members will feel free to speak up.

Part of the psychological safety is also to be able to give and receive critique in the team. Because the reason for giving critique will be to support the team member in becoming a better member of the team, in growing as an individual.

We are all human beings, who come with our culture, upbringing, experience and values. This may lock us into certain ways of thinking and believing how the world must be. Once we then discover that the world can be different, that there are alternatives to ex being worried about the next team meeting, where I may feel out of place, or nervous for asking the necessary questions. That it is possible to have meetings in the team where it is safe to ask questions without running the risk of being ridiculed. That my opinion or input matters and makes a difference. Then this becomes a tremendous boast to my motivation and builds my confidence. A confidence which then becomes the foundation for all future growth.


What makes up a good team?

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