Google: This is the Most Important Trait for Building a Great Team. Here's How to Instill it in Your Company

Google found that psychological safety was the single biggest indicator of a great team.

In 2015, Google’s famed HR department (officially titled its "people team") sought to uncover what separates high-performing teams from low-performing ones.

So, they conducted more than 200 interviews with “Googlers” (Google employees) and analyzed 250 attributes of 180 Google teams. From that research, they identified a singular trait that was “far and away” the most important to building a great team: psychological safety.

“It affects pretty much every important dimension we look at for employees,” Google People Relations Analyst Julia Rozovsky wrote. “Individuals on teams with higher psychological safety are less likely to leave Google, they’re more likely to harness the power of diverse ideas from their teammates, they bring in more revenue and they’re rated as effective twice as often by executives.”

This finding brings two questions top-of-mind: what exactly is psychological safety? And how do I bring that to my organization?

In her LinkedIn Learning course Leading and Working in Teams, Harvard Professor Amy Edmondson – who has done extensive research herself into psychological safety – answers both.

What is psychological safety?

Psychological safety is how safe people feel at work raising ideas and question the boss.

Edmondson uses the example of a nurse working in a hospital who sees a prescription from a doctor that appears off. If the last time the nurse questioned the doctor, the doctor got mad at the nurse for questioning him, the nurse is unlikely to bring up the concern she has with the prescription.

That’s a team with low psychological safety.

Conversely, if the last time the nurse brought up an issue to the doctor, the doctor gave it consideration and thanked her for raising the issue, she’s much more likely to raise her concern with the prescription to him. That’s a team with high psychological safety.

“Psychological safety is a belief that ‘It's okay to be myself,’ that ‘I won't be humiliated or rejected’ for speaking up with work-relevant thoughts, questions and even mistakes,” Edmondson said. “These are the places where learning happens, where teaming happens. These are the places where people do wake up in the morning, if not eager, at least fully prepared to take the interpersonal risks of learning and teaming.”

Edmondson said psychological safety is particularly important for teams that do work that’s complex, uncertain or interdependent. Which pretty much sums up how all work is going to be moving forward.

How do I instill psychological safety at my company?

If you recognize the importance of psychological safety, the obvious next step is how to instill it at your organization. Edmondson suggests three actions:

1. Frame projects as learning challenges, not execution challenges.

Most big projects organizations undertake are framed as execution challenges. For example, say you need to build 75 stores across 40 states, it's often framed as “a job that just needs to be done, done to spec,” Edmondson said.

But this is the wrong way to think about a project. Instead, all projects – particular today – are really learning challenges. Big rollouts are best done through small experiments, where feedback is taken in from all sides and then learnings are incorporated, Edmondson said.

“(Framing projects as learning challenges) means calling attention to uncertainty and to interdependence,” Edmondson said. “The path forward is unknowable. We need everyone's brain in the game. Doing this sets the rationale for input, for voice.”

2. Leaders must acknowledge their own failures.

A leader should not present themselves as some all-knowing, omnipotent person who never makes a mistake – because they aren’t. Instead, if a leader is honest, admits mistakes and asks for help, it makes a huge difference.

“When people in positions of power do this, funny things happen,” Edmondson said. “First, they seem more, not less, confident. And second, it makes it safe for others to speak up.”  

3. Lead through questions.

Our instinct is to lead through answers: this is what we need to do and this is how we should do it. But better results happen when leaders instead lead through questions and encourage employees to help solve the problem, Edmondson said.

This works for the same reason coaching an employee works: it leads to more buy-in from stakeholders, as their ideas are part of the solution. But it also leads to many people solving a problem, instead of a select few, which also ends in better results.

“This creates a requirement for speaking up,” Edmondson said. “As Eric Schmidt, the CEO of Google has said, ‘We run the company by questions, not by answers’."