When the results of Google’s research on team effectiveness (called “Project Aristotle”) were revealed earlier this year, the conclusion was surprising: the best teams have just one thing in common.
Factors such as clear goal-setting and team member dependability are certainly important, but they’re not what definitively sets great teams apart from their average counterparts. Google, a company for whom data analysis is a high art, was able to parse out the single most important determinant in their teams’ effectiveness: the ability to speak up without fear of retribution. This element is known as “psychological safety,” an idea put forth by Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmonson in a study published in 1999.
It probably comes as no surprise to you that leaders who create an atmosphere of interpersonal “safety” have team members who are more likely to speak up. Yet there’s an additional piece to the puzzle necessary to create the optimal safe place for productive conversation. Joseph Grenny, a four-time New York Times best-selling author, points to an important nuance in how to create this sense of security: the gap between when a team member sees something and actually decides to say something about a problem or concern.
Grenny, a co-founder of the consulting firm Vital Smarts, notes, “Our research over the past 30 years has shown that you can largely measure the health of a team by measuring the average lag time between identifying and discussing problems.”
It’s this gap -- the lag time between when someone on your teams sees, feels, or hears something and when he or she decides to speak up that determines how well a team functions. And, the longer the time between the event and the discussion, the more chance for what Grenny calls “mischief” to occur.
“That’s where all of the politics fester. If you can shrink that lag time so things get brought up quickly, then you can employ the brains of the organization, the collective genius of the people that you have assembled to going after the problems. But the longer [the unresolved issues] sit there dormant or unaddressed, the more people starting attributing bad motive, becoming divisive, competitive, political, and so on,” he warns.
Are unspoken issues creating mischief in your team dynamics? Here are five questions to help you decide.
- When someone brings a concern to your attention, are you surprised by how long it took them to speak up?
- Do team members leap to conclusions that seem (to you) illogical?
- When helping your team unravel a contentious or complex interpersonal issue, how willing are people to contribute their comments immediately?
- Think back to the past two or three issues that plagued your team communications. What was the average lag time between people who “saw something” and finally “said something” about it?
- When team members describe the issue, how many broad, generalized statements (such as, “they always” or “they never”) are used?
Silence on your team creates disruption, miscommunication and hard feelings. Don’t let problems fester. Encourage your team members to speak up in a timely way. You’ll create an environment of psychological safety that allows your team to quickly air differences and then get down to the business of solving your company’s most pressing challenges.
Jennifer V. Miller is a freelance writer and leadership development consultant. She helps business professionals lead themselves and others towards greater career success. Join her Facebook community The People Equation and sign up for her free tip sheet: “Why is it So Hard to Shut Up? 18 Ways to THINK before you Speak.”
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