Team development

Let's applaud those who ask the toughest questions

In our recent blog on innovation we touched on the issue of psychological safety in teams, and it has prompted me to take a closer look into what factors make a team successful.

Think for a moment about the team – or, more likely, teams, given the 21st century dependence on the collective - that you’re a part of. Perhaps you’re part of a departmental team. Maybe you’re also part of a leadership team. In recent times you’ve probably also been part of project teams or multi-disciplinary working groups.

But how effective are the teams that you’re part of?

All teams have a set of ‘norms’ – a code or set of rules that, explicitly or implicitly, govern how the team behaves. For example, teams might be formal with each other, they may all adhere to a team charter, and they may dress down, or up, or be encouraged to speak up whenever they want to. But the interesting point (for this blog, certainly) is not what the norms are; what’s crucial is that every team member is bought into the code that the team operates within.

Psychological safety net

And that's because only teams that are at ease with each other, which feel protected by these behavioural boundaries, and where all members know where everyone else is coming from, can access the essential zone of psychological safety.

Coined by Harvard Business School Professor Amy Edmonson, psychological safety can be described as “a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking”. In other words, there’s a climate of openness in the team which leads to people feeling able to speak up without judgement or censure.

Leaders can begin to weave this psychological safety net for their team in three ways:

  1. by making everyone part of the solution: when a problem arises, reframe it as a potential area for great teamwork; “here’s a huge opportunity for our team, and I’m going to need you all to give it your best in order to make it work’
  2. by giving up their infallibility: the best leaders are open to being questioned, and recognise that making the odd error isn’t a failure of their leadership, it’s just being human
  3. by asking a whole lot of questions: role modelling a questioning team culture encourages team members to be responsible for speaking up and giving answers

Don't let opportunities pass you by

A team which doesn’t have this level of safety is unlikely to become a high-performing team, simply because team members don’t feel safe sharing their craziest solutions to problems, to ask questions when they’re concerned about the direction a project is taking, or just to raise their hand and say “I’m not sure; could we stop and think about this a little?”

And that could mean that potentially game-changing opportunities are missed, some of the team become disengaged and the leader may become frustrated by the lack of critical analysis in the team – until it all goes wrong, of course, when often people are suddenly all too happy to give voice to their inner critic.

It’s not easy to be the person to ask the toughest questions - it’s not always welcomed and it may not always be a stellar career move - but it does take bravery, and a certain level of psychological safety. So let's applaud those who have the courage to try, and the open-minded teams that make it possible for them to do so.