Action Learning Can Accelerate Team Psychological Safety

Psychological safety can do great things for team performance. And why not? If team members feel safe and it’s easier to build trust — that helps elevate performance.

Google spent two years investigating what really makes a team great. Julia Rozovsky, who works on the company’s people analytics team, concluded the most important element separating high-performance teams from average ones is the level of psychological safety. Google made its findings public in 2015, and articles and blogs quickly reported the ‘new’ finding, often simplifying what team psychological safety stands for. One summarized the key to high-performance teams as “just being nice to others.” Not quite.

Some 20 years ago, when studying how teams learn and perform, Harvard leadership and management professor Amy Edmondson described team psychological safety as “a shared belief by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking.” Rozovsky observed this trait in Google’s high-performance teams through two sets of behaviors. The first was “equality in distribution of conversational turn-taking,” meaning all members speak in more or less equal parts. The best teams also had high “average social sensitivity,” meaning team members are good at sensing how others in the team feel.

Despite the enthusiasm for Google’s findings, many related articles only offer descriptions of what teams with high psychological safety look and feel like. If team psychological safety makes the difference in team performance, how can learning leaders develop or increase it? Can you mandate equal air-time in a team? Is it sufficient to send team members on an emotional intelligence course?

Edmondson’s original research identified five elements that affect team psychological safety. The team leader’s behavior obviously influences the team, and team members get cues from the leader about what is valued and what is not. Trust and respect between team members equally affects the overall team atmosphere. Organizational support is important because if absent, team performance will not develop. The fourth element is the set of habits and routines that team members develop amongst themselves when they work together. The final element is the opportunity for the team to practice and improve their tasks off-line without an immediate impact on their actual work.

Action learning is a problem-solving process where a small team works on a real business challenge, takes action and learns as individuals and as a team while doing so. Team members ask questions about the challenge, explore its dimensions, build on each others’ ideas and develop a consensus on the core issue before exploring solutions. An action learning coach’s main role is to support team learning. (Editor’s note: The author is an action learning coach.)

When a leader entrusts a team with a real business challenge and empowers the team to come up with proposals and implement solutions, team members feel valued. Asking questions, building on others’ ideas and reflecting on interpersonal dynamics builds trust and respect among team members. Habits and routines develop and are strengthened when a team regularly works together in a structured way. In action learning, the team evaluates options in a meeting setting before confirming the validity through actions in between sessions.

Action learning is a promising approach to accelerate the development of team psychological safety. A number of action learning sets confirmed this. I worked as an action learning coach with three teams in three different organizations. The teams worked on urgent and important challenges for their respective organizations: reducing inventory, attracting more members, and limiting rank-and-file turnover. Team psychological safety was not discussed as such during the team sessions.

Psychological safety was measured with the original tool developed by Edmondson. Team members rate seven statements — for example, “members of this team are able to bring up problems and tough issues” — on a 7-point scale from “strongly disagree” to “strongly agree.” The other themes are about reactions to mistakes, acceptance of diversity, taking risks, asking for help, supporting others’ efforts and expressing appreciation.

This resulted in an average and a spread — a high spread indicates different views between team members about the overall level of safety and is therefore an indication of lower psychological safety in the team. After four action learning sessions, scheduled over two to three months, the measurement was repeated.

In all three teams, the average team psychological safety increased after the sessions, and the spread reduced significantly. Team members’ evaluation of the elements of safety within the team was more aligned. In addition, specific components of psychological safety changed drastically. In one team, the answers to the statement “If you make a mistake on this team, it is not held against you” moved up by more than 20 percent from an average of 4.7 to 5.7 after four sessions.

Team psychological safety does not pop up after a team retreat. It develops over time. Action learning can accelerate that development.

Peter Cauwelier is a senior action learning coach for the World Institute for Action Learning in Thailand.