Google Says Teams Perform Better When Members Feel Safe

The notion that people need to feel safe in order to perform highly isn’t terribly original. However, the revelation that teams commonly underperform because their members are afraid to contribute is concerning.

According to an article in last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, that insight was the result of a multi-year research project at Google aimed at optimizing the performance of teams. Given the near ubiquity of team-based work in business, it makes good sense to study how to optimize their performance.

On the most high-functioning teams, groups have adopted behaviors and social norms, which foster an environment that is “psychologically safe.” These group norms, or unwritten rules that govern how people behave, encourage people to offer ideas freely and take risks within the safety of the group.

Essentially, in order to strengthen a team’s productivity, managers must encourage members to take risks, to offer original and unconventional ideas, to disagree with a popular idea, and to collaborate easily with each other. For this to occur, people need to work in an environment that encourages them to just be themselves, to contribute often during discussion, and to trust their leader.

One anecdote from the article highlighted a team leader who tended to panic over issues and problems. This caused team members to become more reserved because they felt less safe. On a different team, the leader’s direct communication style put people at ease because they always knew where they stood.

How to increase psychological safety

Google’s researchers uncovered a few prescriptive guidelines for enhancing team productivity by reducing fear:

  • Ensure conversational turn-taking. Essentially, the researchers found that participants on high-performing teams all spoke in roughly the same proportion during a meeting. Thus, everyone’s ideas were welcomed and appreciated.
  • Encourage risk-taking by ensuring that no one will be embarrassed by speaking up.
  • Maintain a culture of social sensitivity. Google’s researchers found that high performing teams had a high “average social sensitivity,” meaning that members were emotionally aware and emotionally respectful to each other.
  • Communicate clearly. Ambiguity and uncertainty reduce confidence and trust.

Fear Can Hamper Productivity

Culturally, we’ve grown in our acceptance of fear as a component of adult life. But we’ve neglected to examine how fears and insecurities affect everyday working relationships and hamper productivity. We’ve also failed to examine the power of fear to disable our thinking and undermine our best efforts. This is particularly poignant in the workplace where people’s egos and livelihoods are on the line.

The researchers at Google believe their data provided “a method for talking about our insecurities, fears, and aspirations in more constructive ways,” explained researcher Julia Rozovsky.

Rozovsky also believes that by educating employees to recognize emotions, Google established a shared language for discussing emotions in a contextually relevant manner. This emotional literacy also enabled important conversations between employees to address behaviors that incite fears and insecurities.  “Don’t underestimate the power of giving people a common platform and operating language.”

Encourage Empathy

One aspect of this research that may be particularly difficult to swallow for the more traditionally minded is the importance of encouraging empathy. Teams that had a higher degree of social sensitivity were not only higher performers on a specific project but on a wide variety of projects. In fact, the project work could vary widely but the team’s performance remained consistently high.

What’s more, the teams seemed to truly enjoy working with one another, a characteristic that is often not shared on overly competitive teams where people vie for dominance. Is empathy the new competitive advantage? In the world of team performance, it just might be.

According to Daniel Goleman, “A prerequisite to empathy is simply paying attention to the person in pain.” Team members might not be in pain but they are vulnerable when they volunteer a new idea. New ideas don’t come with well-worn track records and social familiarity. They offer little to no safety. Therefore, the group must compensate by creating an atmosphere in which people willingly choose to be vulnerable. In fact, expressing vulnerability is a great leadership tactic for inviting others to do the same.


Once again, the powerful beast of culture is discovered as the principal influence on behavior. It’s not what we tell people that shapes their decisions but the behavioral norms that we either create or allow to persist.

Something which is not specifically addressed in the article is the variability of cultural norms that can exist between various teams that reside within the same organization. These micro-cultures are not governed and nurtured in the same manner as a corporate culture. Because these cultural norms can vary widely and affect productivity so significantly, an employee’s experience of moving from one team to another can be very disruptive.

Managers and team leaders should be equipped with clear guidelines for managing the unwritten rules that exist within their teams. These unwritten rules should align carefully with the broader organization’s in order to foster continuity and reduce anxiety for employees.

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