In the past few years, Google has taken a big interest in understanding what produces and maintains effective teams; because collaboration and teamwork is so central to what they do, they’ve devoted considerable internal resources to understanding how to build and maintain strong teams, and they’ve approached this learning in a very data-and-evidence-driven way. Parallel to Google’s nerding about team effectiveness, I’ve been nerding away about the healthy and unhealthy uses of power, and how we can build cultures, organisations, teams and relationships that support the former.

Google’s work on team effectiveness is fascinating for many reasons; I have found it useful in my work because, it turns out, effectiveness is strongly correlated with group cultures that use power well.

To summarise a very interesting body of work briefly (you can read the full story here), this is what Google’s organisational psychologists found:

  • The strongest predictor of team success is relational quality: what is the tone of the small, micro-moments of interaction that build up a work day? Can team members rely on one another?
  • A welcoming, safe environment is crucial to success and it’s not built by policies alone–it’s built via cumulative moments of interaction between people
  • Relational quality is composed of social sensitivity and attunement between people
  • On healthy teams, members speak in roughly the same proportion–not necessarily in every interaction or all at once, but assessed over time
  • The underlying foundation of all of this is psychological safety, which allows people the security to explore, collaborate, experiment and make mistakes

This last point is where Google’s research has been especially useful to me. I’m a transformational educator and I focus on ending violence, particularly gender-based and sexual violence. In the wake of October 2017, I’ve been searching for resources that would help me better understand the dynamics of sexual harassment in the workplace and the relationship between ecologies of harassment and the ab/use of power.

I’m interested in psychological safety because it’s one of the canaries in the mineshaft where the abuse of power is concerned. Psychological safety is the ancestor of team effectiveness; it’s also the ancestor of a healthy, accountable culture of power. If there’s no psychological safety, it’s more likely that there will be abuses of power occuring. So, learning to recognise, communicate about, understand and bolster psychological safety is a key aspect to building healthier cultures.

There is a lot of research going on right now about how to create psychological safety in the workplace. In my mind, any discussion of psychological safety is valuable, because it’s still a stigmatized topic, but I think there’s a risk that we will end up distilling safety into a hollow checklist (“make sure you maintain eye contact while giving feedback” etc). And psychological safety is not a checklist. It’s a dynamic, embodied, felt thing. It’s always evolving, and it’s at once both very robust and very fragile. It’s not something you create so much as it is something you feed, maintain or destroy.

The nice thing is that we are, physiologically speaking, wired to find safety together. It’s called co-regulation, and it is actually the most natural thing in the world for mammals. We use our nervous systems, vocal tone, facial expression, breathing patterns and other non-verbal aspects of being to co-regulate all the time. We also co-dysregulate a fair bit–this is why stress is so contagious, particularly if it’s occurring in someone you love. Our bodies are wired to find, build and bolster security with one another, as a means of surviving.

The not-so-good news is that we live in a world where there is a great deal of violence, and most of that violence is perpetrated against people who are too young or too vulnerable to fight back. There are many, many more of us walking around with this scar tissue in their bodies than most of us realise. Therefore, many of us are hyper-vigilant to any signals of unsafety, including social experiences of unsafety, like the feeling of not belonging or not being wanted. So, despite our incredible biological inheritance, maintaining psychological safety can take some significant skill and effort.

In transformational education, we blend different kinds of learning so that we can develop new skills–not simply new concepts or ideas, but applied, tangible, practical skills. Looking at skills for psychological safety this way, the first step would be learning to recognise psychological unsafety. This might sound simplistic, but it’s actually quite complex. Most of us are somewhat adapted to conditions of psychological unsafety. Starting to notice these conditions is like learning to see the canary in the mineshaft and pay attention to its song. This involves sensitization work.

Sensitization is the process of refining our ability to take in information—learning to notice how our bodies signal safety and unsafety to one another. It’s my observation that sensitization leads quite naturally into more reciprocal and psychologically safer interactions–this is an incredible transformation to observe. It’s one of my favourite parts of this work.  Once we can sense into and learn to co-create psychological safety, we can then work on strengthening those muscles, and, finally, seeing what we are able to accomplish within conditions of stress. This is how tangible change happens within people, teams and organisations.

If you’re in Toronto during November 2018 and interested in psychological safety–and other elements of building and maintaining healthy power cultures–I will be working alongside the very lovely and talented bk chan to pilot some workshops that will be focused on these topic areas. I hope you’ll join us–you can learn more here–because this work is much more fun in person.

But if you’re not in Toronto, and this is important to you, I commend you for that and I want you to know that you can still start to do this important work on your own. You’re welcome to check out this exercise that gets you a little deeper into your own knowledge about Psychological Safety and how it is maintained and undermined. It’s called Belonging and I hope it’s useful to you. 

Thank you for reading and thank you for your engagement with this topic. #thisishowwemakeitbetter

(You can read Google’s work on Project Aristotle here and the NYT’s article on the same here. Bonnie Badenoch and Steve Porges have written extensively on co-regulation and how the nervous system communicates the felt states of safety and danger: Bonnie’s work here and Steve’s here. Thank you, everyone!)