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High-Performing Teams Need More Than Trust

Organizational psychologist and team culture expert Dr. David Burkus shares how high-performing teams go beyond basic trust-building activities to foster psychological safety.

It’s hard to find any discussion about high-performing teams that doesn’t include the word “trust.” In my work with leaders and teams across all industries, I expect to hear them discuss how much the team trusts them, and each other. But I’m also quick to inform them that trust alone can’t be their focus.

Research suggests that trust alone is insufficient. Instead, what’s essential is the establishment of psychological safety — a collaborative environment characterized by mutual trust and respect, enabling team members to comfortably engage in interpersonal risk-taking. This includes expressing unique or unconventional ideas, acknowledging failures, and openly discussing disagreements.

High-performing teams are much more likely to exhibit this psychological safety and create a culture where members are free to be vulnerable and genuine. Such an environment fosters creativity and innovation, as team members are encouraged to propose unconventional ideas and perspectives. It also enhances problem-solving by allowing dissenting views to be voiced, leading to a more diverse and robust decision-making process. Crucially, psychological safety minimizes failures by promoting open communication, which can prevent potential mistakes. Researcher Amy Edmondson, who first discovered the power of psychology safety on teams, describes psychological safety as “a team climate characterized by interpersonal trust and mutual respect in which people are comfortable being themselves.”

While trust and respect might appear similar, they play distinct roles in creating psychological safety. Trust relates to how freely we can reveal our true selves to others, whereas respect pertains to the degree to which others accept and value our authenticity. Trust encourages open sharing, and respect ensures that what is shared is valued. High-performing teams excel not just through mutual trust but also by learning to respect each members’ contributions. Trust and respect together foster a cycle of psychological safety, which can be either positive or negative, depending on the team dynamics.

So how can leaders’ build psychological safety on a team?

Signal Vulnerability

Trust is a two-way street. When leaders candidly acknowledge their own shortcomings, uncertainties, or areas for improvement, they are essentially placing their trust in the team. This approach might seem unconventional in corporate environments that typically celebrate individuals who exude confidence and apparent flawlessness, especially in leadership roles. However, perpetuating a facade of perfection does not foster trust; rather, it sets a precedent for team members to mimic this behavior, gradually undermining genuine trust. By showing vulnerability, leaders reinforce the concept of mutual reliance — a cornerstone of effective teamwork. After all, the essence of being part of a team is recognizing that we achieve more collectively than in isolation. Leaders who champion the spirit of teamwork but shy away from acknowledging and learning from their own mistakes often face a decline in their credibility and the trust of their team.

Actively Listen

The easiest way to signal disrespect to someone is make them feel ignored. Conversely, ensuring that individuals feel acknowledged and genuinely listened to is a crucial expression of respect for their opinions. In high-performing teams, a notable characteristic is the extent to which team members actively listen to one another, ensuring everyone has a chance to speak and feel heard. However, it’s a natural human inclination to want to offer advice as soon as others present us with their problems — even if it means cutting off the conversation to do so. This desire is often amplified in team leaders, who are typically approached for solutions. In their eagerness to provide help, leaders might inadvertently begin to dominate the conversation, thereby shifting from listening to speaking. This shift, while well-intentioned, can result in missing out on valuable insights and feedback from team members.

Celebrate Failures

Celebrating failures in a team context doesn’t imply celebrating each setback with enthusiasm, nor does it mean resorting to a blame game, or avoiding discussions about unsuccessful projects. Failures are a natural part of any team’s journey, often resulting from factors beyond their control, such as changing client demands, budget constraints, or external disruptions like global pandemics affecting supply chains and shifting work dynamics to virtual platforms. To foster trust within a team, it’s crucial to cultivate an environment where failures are not just accepted, but also viewed as valuable learning opportunities. And those learning opportunities, and the transparency needed to properly discuss the failure, is what gets celebrated and appreciated. Failure is inevitable, learning is a choice.

It’s important to clarify that the concept of psychological safety is not an endorsement of repeated failures. Embracing psychological safety on a team does not equate to a lack of accountability for continuous underperformance. It doesn’t imply that team members can shirk their responsibilities or that persistent failures are acceptable. However, it does signify that team members shouldn’t fear seeking assistance or acknowledging the occasional setbacks they encounter. Psychological safety fosters a culture where learning and personal growth are prioritized, encouraging individuals to openly discuss their challenges and mistakes without apprehension.

And that’s why high-performing teams are psychologically safe teams.

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