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team safety

Feeling emotional safety is a prerequisite for optimal performance

What are the first principles for building a high performing and happy team?

Google and others have done extensive research into this question and some of the results are surprising, yet some not...

So what have you done to make your team a place where individuals can flourish?



By Danie Eksteen( This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it )and Danielle du Toit (senior vice president of global customer success at Bullhorn, Boston USA).


[This article was published in FinWeek of 4 August 2016 under the title 'The key ingredient for optimal employee performance"]

“How do I build trust [in my team]?”, Thabang asked me. He had recently been placed in charge of a large team of actuaries, CA’s and consultants. While the answer is not a simple one and there are many aspects to it, it really is an important question. It is our deep belief that trust is the thread with which the tapestry of human relationships is woven. Without this thread – human relationships don’t flow. And, in the context of teams, performance will not be optimal.

Most people spend significant portions of their lives in work teams

All of us were created with a deep need to live lives of meaning and purpose. While it is critical to achieve this in our families and personal lives, this only represents a small portion of our lives time-wise. In fact, those in full-time employment spend an estimated 70% of our awake hours at work. This highlights just how important finding meaning and purpose at work is to our wellbeing.

Since the world of work is organised in terms of teams, much of this will be worked out in the team environment, and increasingly so. A recent study found that ”the time spent by managers and employees in collaborative activities has ballooned by 50 percent or more” over the last two decades.

In search of the critical components of the perfect team

Google recently set out to find out what it takes to create the perfect team. After spending enormous amounts of money assessing, analysing and understanding every possible aspect of 180 teams across the organisation, there was nothing that showed that a specific mix of personality types or skills or background would predict a successful team. Google, who is so good at finding patterns that they are advising the Centre for Disease Control (CDC) on upcoming diseases globally, could not identify strong patterns amongst its own teams!

After yet even more research, what they eventually found boiled down to this…. Wait for it… (this deserves a drum roll…): effective high performing teams need psychological safety!

Clear team goals and a culture of dependability were found to be important too, but the critical component for consistent and continued team success is psychological safety. This sounds a lot like what neuroscientist Evian Gordon is talking about when he says that the fundamental organizing principle of the brain is to steer away from things that are threatening, and towards those that feel good, like reward. This drives our social behaviours.

So Google did not come up with revolutionary conclusions (which is somehow comforting), but rather confirmed and eloquently contributed to this field of study. In fact, Maslow, more than 70 years ago, concluded that humans have a hierarchy of needs that starts with physiological needs and safety. Only if these basic needs are met, can we advance to the higher level needs such as a need for love, belonging and self-actualisation. Put another way: I can’t fulfil my purpose etc. unless my tummy is full and I feel safe. Extrapolating this concept to groups and teams Ed Batista says that teams require psychological safety, and also trust and intimacy, before they can take risks, be vulnerable and experiment, and ultimately learn together and evolve.

How can a leader create safety in his/her team?

1. Make room for the whole person

People want to bring their full selves to work – this includes cognition and emotion. To be fully present at work there needs to be the freedom to honestly share all of life: emotion, pain, grief, things I worry about and am scared of.

2. Encourage empathy

One of Google’s important findings was that high levels of empathy among team members contributes significantly to creating the psychological safety needed for the freedom to have personal and emotional conversations in the team. Meeting this deep human need allows us to unlock buried creativity. The Oriah Mountain Dreamer eloquently captured this need when she said: ”I want to know if you can sit with pain, mine or your own, without moving to hide it or fade it or fix it.”

3. Give all the opportunity to be heard

Another interesting factor, first identified by the Carnegie Mellon study (and confirmed by Google), is that to give people on a team equal opportunity to speak, helps create psychological safety. But teams achieve this in very different ways. Whether by orderly conversational turn taking (in line with the Time to Think work by Nancy Kline) or robust, sometimes interrupted, conversations, it is important that by the end of the process everyone has had roughly the same chance to talk.

4. Be brave: your boldness could be the game changer

But does the space need to be safe before I can open up and do my share of the talking, or might my opening up help build a safe space? Which comes first: is it a safe space or my bold honesty? In our experience, it often takes one team member’s (or a leader’s) bold honesty to unlock or give ‘permission’ for that safe space.

Perhaps you might be brave enough to take your team a level deeper…. Here are three examples of how the contributions of an individual did just that.

In a team effectiveness session with a senior IT team, one of the most senior leaders bravely said “I sometimes don’t speak up because I don’t like to be wrong. I fear that”. His honesty was appreciated by others and suddenly unlocked a whole different level of open and honest conversation.

In another session, focussed on building trust and relationships, we had asked participants to share their personal stories – the successes, failures, dreams, events and people that had influenced their lives. Despite clear guidelines, the session started off with the first two people sharing very little other than their professional selves (qualifications, achievements and career history). The third person, however, changed the day with his second sentence, which started something like this: “my whole life changed the day my father was shot in a robbery while I was at university…”. He told his story not as victim or because he wanted sympathy, instead, he honestly shared the wisdom and strength he had gained. We were all inspired. And, more importantly, he gave ‘permission’ to everyone else after him to be honest and real, in a way that my guidelines as facilitator, could not. He laid the first brick in creating a psychologically safe space – it was an amazing experience to observe, and this team is now achieving exceptionally.

The third example was shared with me by a leader who was tasked with turning around a large dysfunctional department. Not only were all business metrics truly unhealthy, but clients were unhappy, and the team demoralised. Six months in, the leader realised that their normally strong ability to motivate wasn’t working with this team. This leader decided that a strong message and bold approach were necessary. In a web-conference with the global team she shared with real honesty how she was feeling about the team: desperate, tired and needing their help. The bold honesty with which she delivered the message was a powerful turning point for the team and the way they interact with each other. The psychological space has shifted, and so have the numbers.

Closing remarks

So back to where we began: Thabang, you want to build a great team and you instinctively know that trust is needed for that. I suggest that the next time we sit down for a craft brew we brainstorm around how you can build psychological safety within your organisational reality – in the meantime, I hope this helps.

To our other readers, I look forward to hearing what you have done to build psychological safety in your team.

Contact us at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it if you need more information on structuring your team's development in an appropriate manner.



[1] Harvard Business Review, January-February 2016: Collaborative Overload by Rob Cross, Reb Rebele and Adam Grant

[2] What google learned from its quest to build the perfect team, new research reveals surprising truths about why some work groups thrive and others falter, Charles Duhigg, Feb. 25, 2016,
[3] After linking up to a previous research study done in 2008 by a group of psychologists from Carnegie Mellon, M.I.T. and Union College and published in the journal Science in 2008.
[4] Gordon, E. NeuroLeadership and integrative Neuroscience: ‘It’s about validation stupid!’ NeuroLeadership Journal, 1, 71-80 (2008).
[6] Oriah Mountain Dreamer, The Invitation, Harper Collins, 2000> 


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