Episode 4: Psychologically Safe Work Spaces

Featuring Sara Webb

In this episode, Oxford Innovation business coach Sara Webb discusses what makes a psychologically safe work space and why it’s important for businesses of all sizes.

Sara Webb Oxford Innovation Cornwall

How much time do you think that your teams spend working together as a group? Looking at research, it appears it in the last two decades, this time working together has increased by 50%, meaning that we’re spending less time sitting at our desk working on a single task, but we’re in fact working in groups, working together, and if you think of small businesses, really everything you do is group collaboration.

What I want to talk about today really is the idea of perhaps what you can do to improve that and really optimise the collaboration within your team. I wanted to start by looking at research that Google did, as you know, Google have a lot of resources available to them, and they wanted to find out what would make the perfect team.

How could they really ensure that all of our teams work to the best of the ability? So what they did was they looked they use their psychologists, sociologists, their engineers, and they looked at all of the groups they looked at everything they could possibly study the overall IQ of the group, the emotional intelligence within the group, whether they had lunch together, whether they were introverts, extroverts, whether they were friends outside of work or not friends, their educational background, you name it, they analysed it. However, what they couldn’t do was find a common link.

The groups that were high performing all seemed to have different traits, they couldn’t find anything they could sort of put that finger on and say, “yeah, this is what you need to have for a group that’s going to work well together”.

What they did find was norms, and when you talk about norms, you’re talking about kind of what’s happening in the group. So, what’s their standard of behaviour? What are the rules that they have in place? They can be unwritten, or they can be rules there decided in the beginning, once the team gets together. So you could have one team that decide that avoiding disagreement is better than having debate because it’s less time, or you could have another team that has a culture of sort of vigorous arguments and getting everything out on the table.

Norms can be unspoken, or they can be openly acknowledged, and their influence within a group is much bigger than we think, so those norms can make a real difference. Even team members that behave in a certain way outside of the group – so you may have someone that’s very outspoken in life outside of working within a group, but they will generally work within the norm. So they will behave in a way that’s perhaps not their normal behaviour, if that’s the norm within that group.

So when they started then looking at the norms, what they wanted to do was understand which were good and which were bad, but they had a problem with that, because actually, some of the high performing groups had norms where everyone would be fighting, and talking openly, and others had a very structured approach, but there wasn’t anything in common. They still couldn’t find norms that worked out. Some celebrated birthdays together, went on weekend trips, some outside of that group never even bother to speak.

So they couldn’t work out which ones, or couldn’t pinpoint any norms that would mean that they could say “these are the five things you need to find you’re going to have the best chance of having a great group”.

Very Different Approaches

So let’s think about that a bit further: I want you to imagine that you’re asked to join a group. You’ve got two groups that you can join, you get to see a video of what’s happening in that group, and you can see that Team A are all very clever, highly intelligent, all experts in their field. You can see that as a topic arises around the room, the person that’s the expert stands up and talks at length about their subject. When somebody goes off track, they’re brought back in immediately because they’re very focused, and they’re going to find the best way to get through this meeting as fast as possible. There’s no long debate, everything’s delivered in quite a nice sharp way, and when the meeting and everyone disappears.

You’ve then got Team B. So Team B has some experts in the group, there’s also some sort of relatively successful middle managers in the group as well. Teammates jump in and out of discussions people talk over top of other people. They complete one another’s thoughts and when a team member suddenly changes topic, everyone will follow that topic and they’ll go completely off on a tangent. At the end of the meeting, they all sit around and gossip. So they’re two very different, teams.

So which team should you join?

If I think about this, I’d look at it and go, ‘well, Team A seem pretty efficient. So actually, if I want a team to deliver something for me, I’m going to want to be part of Team A, but Team B sounds like a lot more fun so I think I’d rather be with Team B and have more fun, but I still kind of think maybe Team A get more done.’

Group intelligence and social sensitivity

In 2008, there was a study at MIT, where they wanted to look at this, what they really wanted to know was whether the sum of intelligence in a group of people would be bigger than the individual intelligence of each people in the room. So really is a group more intelligent as a group or less intelligent as a group.

Is it better to have individuals? Or is it better to have group working together?

They took 699 people and they split them into small groups. They gave them all different sorts of tasks that would then stretch them in different ways. One task was to come up with as many reasons of how you could use a brick. Another one was to go on a shopping trip. So there were all these different tasks that they had to do.

So then they wanted to see which groups were successful and why. Again, they struggled to find a pattern in the groups. There didn’t seem to be a pattern as to why the group was successful and why it wasn’t. What they did realise that is if one group was successful in one task, they were on average, successful in all other tasks. If one group failed a task, they were on average, unsuccessful, on all the other tasks.

So it kind of said: it doesn’t matter what the task is, actually something about the group means they’re going to be successful or not. So they then try to look at the norms, as we’re talking about with the Google research like what are the norms? How are they working?

They just couldn’t put it together, but they did find two things that the successful groups had in common:

First, being that everybody in the group spoke for the same length of time. It didn’t matter whether it wouldn’t be everyone speaking for two minutes and then moving on, it could be that some people were speaking, like the leader might speak for half an hour at the beginning, but then other people would join in later, but on average, they all spoke for the same amount of time. So that seemed to show that that was something that was quite important.

The other thing that the groups that were successful had was an average or higher than average social sensitivity.

Now, social sensitivity is the ability to understand people’s feelings through nonverbal cues, tone of voice and expressions. So that’s the idea somewhere along the lines of emotional intelligence, that without it being said, you can understand what people are trying to say. So if we now go back to Team A and Team B, what does that mean?
Well, what this says is that Team A with all the smart people in it weren’t allowing people to interject, they weren’t allowing people to have any emotion in the room.

So actually, they probably decreased their overall intelligence. So you had the smartest people in the room, but because of the way they were doing it, because they weren’t relaxed and free and able to say what they wanted, actually, the some of them had become less intelligent than the individuals. Whereas Team B, because they were talking over each other, they understood each other while they had personal time together, they were relaxed, they could say what they want, they had, in fact, actually increased their intelligence and I think that’s something we need to think about quite a lot.

How this looks in practice

Okay, if you’re working with your team at work and say you’ve got 10 employees, as a group, you want to increase their intelligence. Bear that in mind and ensure that we’re not putting into place cultural norms that will decrease that intelligence. I think perhaps logically, we might go for Team A, because they’re the ones that are all the experts, it’s very structured.

So at first glance, they seem like the better team. Now back to Google. Google had actually picked up on this idea, and what we actually call this is “psychologically safe spaces”. Psychologically safe space really is the shared belief held by all the members in the group that you’re safe to take risks. That literally means that you can go into the group, you can be part of your team at work, and you can say whatever you want, there’s not going to be judgement, there’s not going to be a fear that you’ll be looking silly, or made to look stupid, you can literally say what you want.

Now, when Google started looking at this, they were thinking ‘okay, psychologically safe spaces.’ They went back and looked at some of the words and some of the things that their engineers have been saying, and they started to see the successful groups had psychologically safe spaces.

One engineer said that his team leader was direct and straightforward, which creates a safe space to take risks, you’ll actually see that he’s practically saying that, and another one of the engineers said that his team leader had poor emotional control: he panics over small issues and keeps trying to grab control. I would hate to be driving with him being in the passenger seat because he would keep trying to grab the steering wheel and crash the car!
I would say that most of us have worked with people that do that. They keep trying to grab the steering wheel, which ultimately means that you end up crashing the car. So actually, when Google went back and looked at this, they realised that in actual fact, that was the difference: it was psychologically safe spaces that meant whether a group was group was successful or not.

What they learned is that nobody wants to have a ‘work face’. That idea that you come into work, you take a deep breath, you walk through the doors and you become somebody else, and you’re suddenly very efficient and you don’t have to pretend that your child’s just had a tantrum because they didn’t want to go to school, or the cat’s been sick, that you’re this professional person. That’s not going to make you better at your job.

Actually coming in and sitting at your desk and going “ugh I had a nightmare morning” is probably a better way to start your day, because you’re being honest, and you’re being true to yourself, and you don’t have that fear that you’re going to some way be punished for being honest and being punished for talking about it.
So really what Google did with all of their intense collection of data and the analysing of everything, is they really came to the conclusion that in best teams members listen to one another and they show sensitivity to other people’s needs. Which really, I think any good manager knows, but perhaps we lose it somewhere and what we’re doing.

Now, we start thinking about this and you go, “okay, well, that’s great. That’s Google. They’re a huge global multinational company with pots of money, very different to an SME, based in Cornwall.” However, I think what we should all do is take a step back, and think about the last time you were running your business, everything’s crazy busy, and you’ve got an issue that’s come up and you need an urgent solution.

You’re having a meeting in the office, and somebody, maybe as junior member of staff says something about an idea that’s completely off tangent, and completely irrelevant from the urgent issue that you need to solve. Now, if you want to have a psychologically safe space, you would be saying “thank you very much for your contribution. That’s really helpful. Let’s Park over here, we’ll come back to it later. However, we’ve got to focus on this now,” but that isn’t what you do in that situation, or at least that situation, I would sometimes just say “that’s not relevant. We need to move on.” In, in that tone of voice and that creating that second where I’m sort of putting that person back in their place because I’m in a hurry, I’m ruining the space that I’m trying to create.

I think all of us need to think about that, that when we’re stressed, and when we’re busy, and we’ve got urgent deadlines that have to be met, we really need to remember every team member helps to increase the collective intelligence of the group, and you want the highest intelligence possible, because you want them to work at their best. So what I wanted to give really was some tips on how we do this because it’s very easy to say, “create psychologically safe spaces at work and everything will be great”.

So what can you do? The first one, which I guess is what I’ve just spoken about is ‘lead by example’. We need to remember none of us come to work wanting to be considered ignorant or negative or intrusive.

We want to be seen in a positive light. But sometimes not being ignorant, negative or intrusive actually means that you don’t ask questions. You don’t admit to your mistakes. You don’t offer ideas and you don’t critique other people. That’s actually our natural standpoint. So all of us will be hesitant to ask questions, if they’re going to make us look stupid.

So remember that you’re leading by example, you need to think about asking for upward feedback. So you’re the MD or the CEO. Yes, you’re great. That’s wonderful. Is that what your staff and your team really think? Do you know? Was your last idea brilliant? Did you check that? Or is it a case of your team actually aren’t going to question you, so therefore, you don’t really know.

Creating Safe Work Spaces In Your Business

‘Acknowledge your mistakes.’ There is this very old-fashioned idea that you don’t admit, you don’t acknowledge, because you’re never wrong, but actually, when you screw up, admit that you screwed up.
‘Be open to the opinion of others’. That’s really important. Yes, it’s your business. Yes, you’re invested in it. Yes, you know what’s going on, but actually other people’s ideas, those small changes can make such a difference to your business.

‘Be approachable’, and be approachable means really be approachable. Think about that idea of you’re creating a psychologically safe space, for there isn’t this idea of being short with someone because you’re busy, and if you are short with someone because you’re busy, just go back and apologise it, acknowledge your mistake.

The other thing that you can do is ‘encourage active listening’. So active listening is often used. What do I mean? I think the first thing I would say is no phones in a meeting, and I would say that applies to everyone in the room. If you’re the CEO, you’re leading by example, that phone is off, it’s not on, you’re not looking at it, and really make that something that everyone adheres to, unless you know you’ve got some urgent reason why it can’t be.

‘Ask questions’. If you’re leading the meeting, you’ve got someone in the room who isn’t saying anything. It’s your responsibility to bring that in. Remember, the best groups have everyone speaking for the same amount of time. So you want to come work towards that.

‘Create a safe environment’. So safe environment is that idea that all ideas are equal. So every idea that comes into the room is as important as any other idea. They don’t have to come from the person that always gives you the ideas. They don’t have to come from the expert. They can literally come from anyone in the room.

Last, but not least, is to ‘develop an open mindset’, and that’s really important, I think, because it’s the idea that you can get feedback, and feedback to others and an open and honest way. I think this comes down to if you’re running a project, or you’ve got a big sales process that you’ve been doing, or whatever it is, always, always have a mop up meeting what went well, what didn’t go out.

Every business has got to get used to critiquing themselves. And it’s an easy thing to say, but we see it a lot with businesses who are who are almost fearful to admit their mistakes, because I just want to carry on with the positive. Actually look at what you did, and look at how you can do it better next time, because that’s how you will improve. That’s for every team member because they will all see different things. Perhaps also in that creative process for critiquing each other, none of us really like to receive or give criticism, so if you develop a process that says, this is how you will do it, and that’s a positive process, I’m not just talking about looking at what somebody has done wrong, but the idea of, “I think this could have been done better, and this is how it could have been done better”.

If you create that within your work environment where everyone critiques everybody else and you have a process to follow, it becomes much easier because you’re sort of removing the emotion from that, and it doesn’t become this thing that doesn’t get spoken.

I think that we, all of us, are guilty of forgetting how important psychologically safe spaces are, and that we are trying to increase the collective intelligence of the people that we work with. We want our team who are running our business for us to have the highest possible intelligence. So create the safe space and then you will get the intelligence which means that your business will grow.

Interested in working with Oxford Innovation Cornwall? Get in touch to see how we can help your business grow.


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