This is what is getting in your way of building a great team culture. And what to do about it.

Through her leadership research reported in her book Dare To Lead™, social researcher Dr Brené Brown identified ten behaviours and cultural issues that get in the way of becoming a daring leader and building courage cultures:

  1. We avoid tough conversations, including giving honest, productive feedback.
  2. We avoid tending to fears and feelings. Rather than spending a reasonable amount of time proactively acknowledging and addressing the fears and feelings that show up during change and upheaval, we spend an unreasonable amount of time managing problematic behaviours.
  3. Diminishing trust caused by a lack of connection and empathy.
  4. Lack of risk-taking. Not enough people are taking smart risks or creating and sharing bold ideas to meet changing demands and the insatiable need for innovation.
  5. We get stuck and defined by setbacks, disappointments, and failures, so instead of spending resources on clean-up to ensure that consumers, stakeholders, or internal processes are made whole, we are spending too much time and energy reassuring team members who are questioning their contribution and value.
  6. Too much shame and blame, not enough accountability and learning.
  7. Ignoring diversity, equity and inclusion. People are opting out of vital conversations about diversity and inclusivity because they fear looking wrong, saying something wrong, or being wrong. Choosing our own comfort over hard conversations is the epitome of privilege, and it corrodes trust and moves us away from meaningful and lasting change.
  8. Rush to problem-solving/action bias. When something goes wrong, individuals and teams are rushing into ineffective or unsustainable solutions rather than staying with problem identification and solving. When we fix the wrong thing for the wrong reason, the same problems continue to surface. It’s costly and demoralizing.
  9. Organizational values are gauzy (meaning vaguely defined) and assessed in terms of aspirations rather than actual behaviours that can be taught, measured, and evaluated.
  10. Perfectionism and fear are keeping people from learning and growing.

Psychological Safety

All of this is to say, that when these behaviours are at play, it is likely because there is a substantial lack of psychological safety in your organisation. In a powerful study conducted by Google called Project Aristotle and published in 2015, they discovered the top five most important factors of high performing teams. This is what they found:

“Over two years we conducted 200+ interviews with Googlers (our employees) and looked at more than 250 attributes of 180+ active Google teams. We were pretty confident that we’d find the perfect mix of individual traits and skills necessary for a stellar team — take one Rhodes Scholar, two extroverts, one engineer who rocks at AngularJS, and a PhD. Voila. Dream team assembled, right?

We were dead wrong. Who is on a team matters less than how the team members interact, structure their work, and view their contributions. So much for that magical algorithm.

We learned that there are five key dynamics that set successful teams apart from other teams at Google:

  1. Psychological safety: Can we take risks on this team without feeling insecure or embarrassed?
  2. Dependability: Can we count on each other to do high quality work on time?
  3. Structure & clarity: Are goals, roles, and execution plans on our team clear?
  4. Meaning of work: Are we working on something that is personally important for each of us?
  5. Impact of work: Do we fundamentally believe that the work we’re doing matters?

Psychological safety was far and away the most important of the five dynamics we found — it’s the underpinning of the other four. How could that be? Taking a risk around your team members seems simple. But remember the last time you were working on a project. Did you feel like you could ask what the goal was without the risk of sounding like you’re the only one out of the loop? Or did you opt for continuing without clarifying anything, in order to avoid being perceived as someone who is unaware?

Turns out, we’re all reluctant to engage in behaviors that could negatively influence how others perceive our competence, awareness, and positivity. Although this kind of self-protection is a natural strategy in the workplace, it is detrimental to effective teamwork. On the flip side, the safer team members feel with one another, the more likely they are to admit mistakes, to partner, and to take on new roles. And it affects pretty much every important dimension we look at for employees. 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.”

Building Psychological Safety

“As long as there is uncertainty and interdependence, building a psychologically safe workplace is necessary.” – Amy Edmondson, Building a psychologically safe workplace, TEDxHGSE

In this 2 minute video below, Charles Duhigg, journalist and author of “Smarter Faster Better,” explains the insights he gathered while spending time with the Project Aristotle a research team. In the video, two key behaviours Charles describes to help build psychological safety in teams are:

  1. Equality in conversational turn-taking
  2. Ostentatious listening
How Google builds the perfect team | Charles Duhigg | Tech Insider

What do these behaviours look like in practice?

  1. Equality in conversational turn-taking: using Turn and Learn rumble tool in meetings; sending out an agenda ahead of time and asking everyone to come prepared with a contribution; stating at the beginning of a meeting that everyone’s contribution is important and equal airtime for contributions will be facilitated (and then doing that!).
  2. Ostentatious listening: ‘Listen with the same intent with which you want to be heard’ – Harriet Lerner; that means putting your phone/laptop away during meetings; asking clarifying questions; scheduling time for conversations; listen with a curious mindset.

Three more things you can do to build a psychologically safe workplace.

In the video below, researcher Amy Edmondson explains how her decades of research into psychological safety shows that three behaviours of building psychological safety are:

1. Frame the work as a learning problem, not an execution problem;
2. Acknowledge your own fallibility; and
3. Model curiosity.

Building a psychologically safe workplace | Amy Edmondson | TEDxHGSE

Paul Santagata, Head of Industry at Google also offer these pointers from his HBR article, High-Performing Teams Need Psychological Safety. Here’s How to Create It:

‘1. Approach conflict as a collaborator, not an adversary. We humans hate losing even more than we love winning. A perceived loss triggers attempts to reestablish fairness through competition, criticism, or disengagement, which is a form of workplace-learned helplessness. Santagata knows that true success is a win-win outcome, so when conflicts come up, he avoids triggering a fight-or-flight reaction by asking, “How could we achieve a mutually desirable outcome?”

2. Speak human to human. Underlying every team’s who-did-what confrontation are universal needs such as respect, competence, social status, and autonomy. Recognizing these deeper needs naturally elicits trust and promotes positive language and behaviors. Santagata reminded his team that even in the most contentious negotiations, the other party is just like them and aims to walk away happy. He led them through a reflection called “Just Like Me,” which asks you to consider:

  • This person has beliefs, perspectives, and opinions, just like me.
  • This person has hopes, anxieties, and vulnerabilities, just like me.
  • This person has friends, family, and perhaps children who love them, just like me.
  • This person wants to feel respected, appreciated, and competent, just like me.
  • This person wishes for peace, joy, and happiness, just like me.

3. Anticipate reactions and plan countermoves. “Thinking through in advance how your audience will react to your messaging helps ensure your content will be heard, versus your audience hearing an attack on their identity or ego,” explains Santagata.

Skillfully confront difficult conversations head-on by preparing for likely reactions. For example, you may need to gather concrete evidence to counter defensiveness when discussing hot-button issues. Santagata asks himself, “If I position my point in this manner, what are the possible objections, and how would I respond to those counterarguments?” He says, “Looking at the discussion from this third-party perspective exposes weaknesses in my positions and encourages me to rethink my argument.”

Specifically, he asks:

  • What are my main points?
  • What are three ways my listeners are likely to respond?
  • How will I respond to each of those scenarios?

4. Replace blame with curiosity. If team members sense that you’re trying to blame them for something, you become their saber-toothed tiger. John Gottman’s research at the University of Washington shows that blame and criticism reliably escalate conflict, leading to defensiveness and — eventually — to disengagement. The alternative to blame is curiosity. If you believe you already know what the other person is thinking, then you’re not ready to have a conversation. Instead, adopt a learning mindset, knowing you don’t have all the facts. Here’s how:

  • State the problematic behavior or outcome as an observation, and use factual, neutral language. For example, “In the past two months there’s been a noticeable drop in your participation during meetings and progress appears to be slowing on your project.”
  • Engage them in an exploration. For example, “I imagine there are multiple factors at play. Perhaps we could uncover what they are together?”
  • Ask for solutions. The people who are responsible for creating a problem often hold the keys to solving it. That’s why a positive outcome typically depends on their input and buy-in. Ask directly, “What do you think needs to happen here?” Or, “What would be your ideal scenario?” Another question leading to solutions is: “How could I support you?”

5. Ask for feedback on delivery. Asking for feedback on how you delivered your message disarms your opponent, illuminates blind spots in communication skills, and models fallibility, which increases trust in leaders. Santagata closes difficult conversations with these questions:

  • What worked and what didn’t work in my delivery?
  • How did it feel to hear this message?
  • How could I have presented it more effectively?

For example, Santagata asked about his delivery after giving his senior manager tough feedback. His manager replied, “This could have felt like a punch in the stomach, but you presented reasonable evidence and that made me want to hear more. You were also eager to discuss the challenges I had, which led to solutions.”

6. Measure psychological safety. Santagata periodically asks his team how safe they feel and what could enhance their feeling of safety. In addition, his team routinely takes surveys on psychological safety and other team dynamics. Some teams at Google include questions such as, “How confident are you that you won’t receive retaliation or criticism if you admit an error or make a mistake?”’

Safety is not the same as comfort.

“You know the term implies to people a sense of coziness – you know, ‘Oh, I’m just, everything’s going to be great.’ You know, that we’re all going to be nice to each other and that’s not what it’s really about. What it’s about is candor; what it’s about is being direct, taking risks, being willing to say, ‘I screwed that up.’ Being willing to ask for help when you’re in over your head.” – Amy Edmondson, Creating Psychological Safety In The Workplace, HBR Podcast


In another article by Shane Snow, he points out that: safety is not the same as comfort and offers these indicators of psychological safety:

  1. If you make a mistake, it won’t be held against you personally.
  2. If something is wrong, you can bring it up without it being used against you.
  3. It won’t matter where ideas come from as long as they help the team.
  4. If you need help, you can ask for it without people being shitty about it.
  5. When you change your mind, people will applaud your intellectual humility rather than use it against you.
  6. When you make a decision, you’ll weigh what’s going to be the best for the whole team—and the individuals on it—over what’s best for you.
  7. You’ll interpret other people’s actions in the best light, too.

So often we’re lead to believe that business isn’t personal, or emotions don’t belong at work. That somehow we’re supposed to check-out our humanity at the door.

Or conversely that we can just put in a system or tool like design thinking, design sprints, scrum, agile or kanban. But those tools are only as good as the self-awareness, emotional regulation and relationships of the people who use them. No tool or method is going to save a team if the interpersonal dynamics are not deliberately cultivated and tended to.

The more we tend to our needs for psychological safety, the better we can overcome the barriers to building great leaders, powerful teams, brave cultures and meaningful impact.

“I think there’s a lot of latent untapped talent because people are not making it psychologically safe enough to get that talent and put it to good work.” – Amy Edmondson, Creating Psychological Safety In The Workplace, HBR Podcast


Dare To Lead™ Workshops

If you’re interested in becoming a better leader and building a high performing, psychologically safe team, join our Dare To Lead™ program, based on the empirical research of Dr Brené Brown, now available online for individuals and teams. As Certified Dare To Lead™ Facilitators we’ll help equip you with the four skill sets of courage:

  1. Rumbling with vulnerability (a prerequisite for psychological safety)
  2. Living into values (leading with purpose, confidence and integrity)
  3. BRAVING trust (the seven trust building behaviours)
  4. Learning to rise (bouncing back after setbacks)

For more information, click here.

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