Psychological Safety at Work Leads to Better Results

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Trillion Dollar Coach" by Bill Campbell. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What is psychological safety at work? How can you cultivate it and why is it important?

Psychological safety at work is the trust that allows teams to do their best work. People are able to have productive conflicts and discussions without it bleeding over into a personal relationship conflict.

Read on for more about psychological safety at work and how to create it.

Create Psychological Safety at Work

The principle: Build trust within your teams so they can do their best work. This type of trust is also known as “psychological safety” at work and it often leads to productive task conflict and eliminates relationship conflict. (Task conflict informs us of the best ways to make decisions and get things done. Relationship conflict leads to low morale and poor decision-making. Conflict over tasks is healthy, but conflict over relationships is unhealthy.) 

Campbell insisted that high-performing teams don’t consist of people with similar personalities who never disagree about anything; they consist of team members who feel psychological safety at work. You can create psychological safety within your teams by ensuring that everyone can be fully themselves and take risks without fear of reprisal from other team members. 

(Shortform note: Organizational behavior scientist Amy Edmondson coined the phrase “psychological safety” in 1999, describing it as an environment where people can speak out, challenge, and contribute to a group dynamic without fear.) 

Example: At one point when Campbell was CEO of Intuit, the company was having a rough quarter and wasn’t going to make its numbers. Campbell met with the board, who wanted to focus on investing for the future and not worry about the current quarter. Campbell disagreed. He wanted to curtail spending immediately. After much discussion, board member John Doerr of the investment capital firm Kleiner Perkins spoke up, saying, “We should back the CEO.” Even though Doerr didn’t agree with Campbell’s position, he thought it was important to create psychological safety at work. It would allow Campbell to function, knowing his board would support him.    

(Shortform note: In 2018, billionaire Doerr authored Measure What Matters, a handbook for setting and achieving big goals. Read our summary of Measure What Matters.)  

Don’t Make Decisions by Consensus

The principle: A manager’s job is to make the best ideas come to light, which should happen through discussion, not consensus. Democracy doesn’t work well in business (and neither does dictatorship). Campbell would not allow teams to make decisions by simple all-in-favor voting. He wanted to make sure that all perspectives were considered and thoroughly analyzed by the team before any decision was finalized. 

Campbell recommended an “ensemble” approach to decision-making. All team members should put their ideas on the table. (To ensure the ideas were well-thought-out, Campbell often met with individuals prior to the meeting, allowing them to talk through their ideas before presenting them.) All perspectives should be heard and considered, and then the team should have an open debate about which idea was best. Heated discussions should be encouraged because dissenting opinions usually lead to better decisions. The best idea should rise to the top as the debate evolves. Psychological safety at work enhances the debate.

If the team can’t decide on a best decision, then the manager has to step up, end the debate, and make a decision. Failure to make a decision can be worse than making a bad decision. 

When decisions are particularly hard—either for the team or the manager—Campbell recommended that the decision-makers reframe the problem in terms of the company’s “first principles.” Every company has its own set of foundational principles that are the reason for the company or product. When faced with a tough decision, the leader or manager should always fall back on the company’s founding principles.

Example: When Brad Smith became CEO of Intuit, Campbell told him that he should let his teams make decisions through organized discussions. He said that 8 out of 10 times, the team would make a good decision on their own, but when they didn’t, Smith would have to make the call. Campbell called this the “King Arthur Round Table” decision-making model. Most of the time, the knights can figure it out. When they can’t, the king has to make a ruling. 

Supporting research: Numerous communication studies have shown that when groups try to achieve consensus or make decisions by majority vote, poor decisions are made. “Groupthink” is a common problem—team members may not want to disrupt the team’s progress toward decision-making, so they won’t offer a dissenting opinion. Efforts to keep the peace, or not point out possible downsides to a largely popular solution, result in dysfunctional decision-making.

Psychological Safety at Work Leads to Better Results

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Rina Shah

An avid reader for as long as she can remember, Rina’s love for books began with The Boxcar Children. Her penchant for always having a book nearby has never faded, though her reading tastes have since evolved. Rina reads around 100 books every year, with a fairly even split between fiction and non-fiction. Her favorite genres are memoirs, public health, and locked room mysteries. As an attorney, Rina can’t help analyzing and deconstructing arguments in any book she reads.

One thought on “Psychological Safety at Work Leads to Better Results

  • February 3, 2021 at 12:50 pm
    Permalink

    Hi Rina,

    Good to involve leadership – in the end, psychological safety in a team can only blossom when the leader buys into it and has the personality to sustain it.

    Reply

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