Reflections on ‘What’s Psychological Safety got to do with High Performance?’

Hockey team scrum

‘I was looking for one definition of Psychological Safety.  But I realised it means different things to different people – the richness is in the exploration together’  That was the reflection of one of our attendees at last week’s virtual Performance Hub ‘What’s Psychological Safety got to do with High Performance?’

Psych Safety as a term really hit our collective consciousness as a result of Google’s study into ‘What makes a Google team effective?’, published in 2015. The results named 5 key dyanamics that set successful teams apart from other teams at Googles – and Psychological Safety was far and away the most important of the five dynamics, underpinning the other four.

Google’s definition? ‘Team members feel safe to take risks and be vulnerable in front of each other’

That word vulnerable was referenced by all three of our speakers during the Performance Hub, which was participated in by over 40 leaders from business and high performance sport

Helen Richardson-Walsh, TeamGB Hockey Olympic Gold and Bronze medalist told us about her experiences in a team where ‘I could be myself, I could mess up and make mistakes’

Paul Gardner, Commercial VP Pet Nurtition Europe for MARS, talked about the impact of senior leaders ‘showing their emotions’

And Claire Davidson, Performance Psychology Lead for The FA pointed out the impact of the ‘power dynamic’ on psychological safety.  ‘There’s always someone in the room with power – you need to acknowledge this.’

In a recent Harvard Business Review article, Amy Edmondson (who coined the term Psychological Safety back in 1999) asserts ‘ 

“Contrary to popular belief, the omnipotent, macho-style effective leaders are not the ones who can best guide their countries or organizations through difficult, uncertain times. Rather the most effective leaders are the ones who are willing to show their vulnerabilities — who can admit to themselves and others when they are wrong and what they know and don’t know.  To cultivate that style of leadership, start by telling the truth; ask for help; go outside your comfort zone; when you make a mistake, admit it and apologize; and engage others in your journey of self-improvement.”

This ‘call to vulnerability’ is embedded throughout our Point of View on Leadership – from the balancing tension of Authentic Self, to the differentiating aspect of great leadership we have identified that include

  • Clarity of Identity
  • Trust Centered
  • Encourage Fail Fast, Learn Quick

These leadership qualities help build a visible and obvious culture – one in which the ‘Team members feel safe to take risks and be vulnerable in front of each other’.  And if that made such a difference to the success of teams at Google, I wonder what impact it could have for your organisation?



Thanks again to Claire, Helen and Paul for sharing their insights. You can see a video recording of the Performance Hub conversation on our YouTube channel

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Michaela Weller

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