Chapter 5

Psychological Safety

Extracting from my learnings from effective teamwork, China's cultural context, and interviews with the industry, a curious concept called psychological safety manifests itself as an important framework that is applicable to China.
Checking In
Our exploration in conditions for effective teamwork, culture trends in China, and finally a summary of findings through industry leader interviews (Constructive cultures can be learned through mini-cultural experiences, structure is the foundation of creativity, leaders need to be coaches, and interpersonal conversations are good for teamwork) bring us to the following insight:

Moving toward constructive cultures is necessary for innovation and to engage China's more individualistic workforce. Progressive companies have adopted changes, but often they remain top-down directives or artifact-level. Leaders need a simple theoretical model to empower employees toward constructive cultures, with practice through micro-cultural experiences in teams. In other words, effective teamwork will lead to stronger, healthier cultures.

Psychological safety, with its build-in learning behaviors, is an important concept and practice to implement for better teamwork in China.
What is Psychological Safety?
Medical Teams
Amy Edmonson defines psychological safety as "a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking" (1999). While conducting a study of medical teams, she discovered a contradiction: successful teams made more mistakes than average teams. Then the revelation, they were not making more mistakes, but simply admitting to them more due to a "climate of openness." The ability to be unafraid of speaking up in a group with all team members present is what separates the best. This isn't easy to do, especially for those in the position to initiate learning behaviors such as admitting to a mistake, asking questions and seeking feedback because these behaviors pose a threat to the face (Brown, 1990). In high power distance cultures like China, "losing face" is a social phenomenon that often lead to conflict avoidance.

Intelligent Units
Edmonton builds on the work of some of her mentors, including J. Richard Hackman, who noted in Chapter 2 Teamwork that the 2008 financial crisis might have been avoided if more people spoke up. Hackman conducted a study himself on the critical factor that makes US intelligent units effective, and he came to realize it wasn't who was on the team, how many people were on the team, a clear vision, defined roles, appropriate awards, resources, or strong leadership, but helpfulness towards each other (Grant, 2013), and this became an underlying thesis of Wharton professor Adam Grant that Giver cultures, where employees help others, share knowledge, and make connections without expecting anything in return are more successful in the long run.

Google Teams
Google saw this too. In their recent study, through rigorous analysis and data mining of their own work teams, they came up with the same "surprising" results — who is on a team matters less than how the team members interact, structure their work, and view their contributions. (Rozovsky, 2016). Then in a list complied in Chapter 2 Teamwork, they referred directly to Edmonson's psychological safety as the single most important dynamic for a successful team. Google's confirmation continues to underscore the importance of communication and trust for the modern, creative team, with articles like "What Google Learned From Its Quest to Build the Perfect" in The New York Times attracting attention with an mainstream audience. MIT's similar data-driven approach is even more explicit, with four out of the four recommendations being — "talk frequently, take equally, and talk informally, talk about something else other than work."
Psychological Safety
Learning Behaviors
In Chapter 2 Teamwork, we referred to Edmonson's qualification of needing psychological safety — "facing uncertainty and needing interdependence" as a good definition of what creative teams are like today. The foundation of psychological safety is to allow learning behaviors —to ask questions, seek help, and tolerate mistakes (Edmonson, 1999) — in the face of uncertainty in the face of organizational change, fast-paced work environments, and the aforementioned "wicked problems" creative teams face. The need for learning aligns two facets. First, what we establish is a rise of individualism in China's younger generation. Beyond money and prestige, young people are more interested in self-development and meaningful work. Second, framing teamwork as a continuous learning experience increases a need to admit mistakes, question, and seek help. So what are some basic learning behaviors surrounding teamwork? Many of the following behaviors are tried and tested learnings from Hyper Island.
Experiential Learning
Experiential learning is the process of learning through experience, or "learning through reflection on doing" (Felicia, 2011). Educational theorist David Kolb (see the "Wisemen" section from Chapter 2 Teamwork) came up with the Experiential Learning Model (Loo, 2002), a loop that governs learning by doing through — Concrete Experience —> Reflective Observation —> Abstract Conceptualization —> Active Experimentation. Or in other words, Do Something —> Reflect —> Generalize —> Apply is the best way to get better at what you do.
Experiential learning is a great framework for what teams do, and reflective practice is an essential part of it. Popularized by philosopher and professor of urban studies Donald Schön in his book The Reflective Practitioner, reflective practice is the capacity to reflect on action so as to engage in a process of continuous learning (1984). Learning researcher Graham Gibbs furthered the facilitation of reflection involving stages of debriefing in the following (1988): Description (What happened? —> Feelings (How did you feel about it) —> Analysis (What was really going on?) —> Conclusions (What did you learn) —> Action plan (What would you do differently in the future?). The Hyper Island toolbox provides a step-by-step toolkit for a team reflection session.
Defined by the business dictionary as "friction or opposition resulting from actual or perceived differences or incompatibilities," conflict within teamwork generally lead to the assumption that it's bad and we should try our best to avoid them. This tendency is at the root a lack of psychological safety, where we think disagreeing creates disharmony in a team. Studies on team dynamics have proven otherwise. In Bruce Tuckman's stages of group development (1965), he proposed teams go through the phases of forming-storming-norming-performing in order to grow and tackle problems. Susan Wheelman builds on his work and introduced the Integrated Model of Group development (1999) with Dependency & Inclusion —> Counter-dependency and Fight —> Trust & Structure —> Work & Productivity. Both Tuckman and Wheelman's stage of storming or dependency & inclusion suggests that conflict is inevitable in the team's process of unifying goals and values. It should be viewed positively, and only by going through conflict will a team achieve results and create trust.

Feedback is an essential part of experiential learning. Giving and receiving feedback allow us uncover our own blindspots, yet giving honest feedback is often a source of conflict. Instead of dealing with it in a direct, but non-violent manner, we often let squabbles become estrangement. In his seminal work Nonviolent Communication, Marshall Rosenberg outlines a four-part process of nonviolent expression to confront this constructively. Observation (When I see, hear) —> How I feel (It made me I feel…) —> What I need or value ( I need…) —> Request (Would you be willing to). In this model of feedback, the I-message format is powerful because it removes the assumption of blame that we often do in conflicts ("you're unreasonable!"), and instead bring it to a lens with the understanding that people have different value systems. An example of this would be:

"When you interrupted me in the meeting, it made me feel like unvalued and unimportant, I need to feel apart of this team, would you try to let me finish next time."

Giving feedback, in fact, is an effective way of dislodging the "perceived differences or incompatibilities" that is often at the root of conflict, and bring it a step forward to the "actualities." It also needn't be criticism. Effective feedback often includes something positive, and something one could work on. The Hyper Island toolbox provides many feedback models.

Leaders are crucial in creating and fostering environment for psychological safety. They need to understand their role as both leader, facilitator, and more importantly, a coach of the entire process. They need to reconcile both a high power distance's need for a strong leader who is respected, and an increasingly individualistic workforce who need them to also empower others. According to Edmonson, leaders that allow for questions and discussions and also hold their employees accountable for excellence fall into the "learning zone," or the high-performance zone. By contrast, leaders who only hold their employees accountable for excellence without creating psychological safety fall into the "anxiety zone," which can be dangerous. And leaders who only create psychological safety without holding their employees accountable for excellence remain in the "comfort zone," which isn't typically the highest performing. A combination of psychological safety and accountability is vital for teams to achieve their full potential (Leibowitz, 2015).

How to Create it

So how do we create psychological safety. Edmonton has outlined three conditions in her Ted Talk.

  1. Frame the work as a learning problem: Recognize there is enormous challenges, we need everyone's voices.
  2. Acknowledge your own fallibility: "I may miss something." "I need to hear from you." That creates more safety.
  3. Model curiosity: that create necessity.

While these are powerful over-arching mental models to keep in mind, I want to see if we can use psychological safety as a framework to apply to a specific team experience so that it can be made more tangible. If we extract from the pillars of psychological safety — learning behaviors — and combine it with our insight of creating "mini-cultural experiences" with conversations through coaching, we can arrive at something that can be practiced.

Brown, Roger 1990 "Politeness theory: Exemplar and exemplary." In I. Rock (ed.), The Legacy of Solomon Asch: Essays in Cognition and Social Psychology: 23-37. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Felicia, Patrick (2011). Handbook of Research on Improving Learning and Motivation. p. 1003.

Gibbs, Graham (1988). Learning by doing: a guide to teaching and learning methods. London: Further Education Unit.

Grant, A. (2013). Givers take all: The hidden dimension of corporate culture. [Online] [Accessed 02 Mar 2016]

Lebowitz, S. (2015). Google considers this to be the most critical trait of successful teams. [Online] [Accessed 02 Mar 2016]

Kolb, D. (1984). Experiential Learning: Experience as the Source of Learning and Development. New Jersey: Pearson Education

Rozovsky, J. (2016) The Five Keys to a Successful Google Team. [Online] [Accessed 02 Mar 2016]

Schön, Donald A. (1983). The reflective practitioner: how professionals think in action. New York: Basic Books.

Tuckman, B.W. (1965). Developmental sequence in small groups. Psychological Bulletin, 63(6), pp: 384-399.

Wheelan, S. (1999). Creative Effective Teams. London: SAGE Publications.
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