The ‘Psychologically Safe’ Public Sector Space…

May 20th, 2016


This posting is about high performing teams.  And how maybe to get there in public service.

Google’s little science experiment — the Google Perfect Team Quest — got me thinking.

It’s what drove me to pursue a ‘psychologically safe‘ space at Service Lab – Innovation, Science & Economic Development’s (ISED) design space.

In 2012, Google set loose researcher Julia Rozovsky and others on “Project Aristotle”.  The goal:  to figure out why some teams stumble, and others soar.

Examining over half-century of data, initially researchers struggled to find patterns.  Rozovsky, now a lead researcher after several years, honed in on unpacking which behavorial norms mattered in a sea of non-patterns.

What they uncovered what was psychological safety – a group culture Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson defined as a ‘‘shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.’’   Moreover, psychological safety is ‘‘a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject or punish someone for speaking up,’’ she wrote in a 1999 study. ‘‘It describes a team climate characterized by interpersonal trust and mutual respect in which people are comfortable being themselves.’’

Rozovsky and team took these findings and applied them to Google teams recognizing that psychological safety research pointed to particular norms  and behaviors vital to success.  Stuff like making sure teams had clear goals and creating a culture of dependability. The data pointed that more than anything that the presence of ‘psychological safety’  helped make a team work & succeed.

Here’s how NYT reporter Charles Duhigg describes it:

“What Project Aristotle has taught people within Google is that no one wants to put on a ‘‘work face’’ when they get to the office. No one wants to leave part of their personality and inner life at home. But to be fully present at work, to feel ‘‘psychologically safe,’’ we must know that we can be free enough, sometimes, to share the things that scare us without fear of recriminations. We must be able to talk about what is messy or sad, to have hard conversations with colleagues who are driving us crazy. We can’t be focused just on efficiency. Rather, when we start the morning by collaborating with a team of engineers and then send emails to our marketing colleagues and then jump on a conference call, we want to know that those people really hear us. We want to know that work is more than just labor.”

“The fact that these insights aren’t wholly original doesn’t mean Google’s contributions aren’t valuable. In fact, in some ways, the ‘‘employee performance optimization’’ movement has given us a method for talking about our insecurities, fears and aspirations in more constructive ways. It also has given us the tools to quickly teach lessons that once took managers decades to absorb. Google, in other words, in its race to build the perfect team, has perhaps unintentionally demonstrated the usefulness of imperfection and done what Silicon Valley does best: figure out how to create psychological safety faster, better and in more productive ways.

‘‘Just having data that proves to people that these things are worth paying attention to sometimes is the most important step in getting them to actually pay attention,’’ Rozovsky told the NYT author. ‘‘Don’t underestimate the power of giving people a common platform and operating language.’’

Project Aristotle is a reminder that when companies try to optimize everything, it’s sometimes easy to forget that success is often built on experiences — like emotional interactions and complicated conversations and discussions of who we want to be and how our teammates make us feel — that can’t really be optimized. Rozovsky herself was reminded of this midway through her work with the Project Aristotle team. ‘‘We were in a meeting where I made a mistake,’’ Rozovsky told me. She sent out a note afterward explaining how she was going to remedy the problem. ‘‘I got an email back from a team member that said, ‘Ouch,’ ’’ she recalled. ‘‘It was like a punch to the gut. I was already upset about making this mistake, and this note totally played on my insecurities.’

If this had happened earlier in Rozovsky’s life — if it had occurred while she was at Yale, for instance, in her study group — she probably wouldn’t have known how to deal with those feelings. The email wasn’t a big enough affront to justify a response. But all the same, it really bothered her. It was something she felt she needed to address.

And thanks to Project Aristotle, she now had a vocabulary for explaining to herself what she was feeling and why it was important. She had graphs and charts telling her that she shouldn’t just let it go. And so she typed a quick response: ‘‘Nothing like a good ‘Ouch!’ to destroy psych safety in the morning.’’ Her teammate replied: ‘‘Just testing your resilience.”

‘‘That could have been the wrong thing to say to someone else, but he knew it was exactly what I needed to hear,’’ Rozovsky said. ‘‘With one 30-second interaction, we defused the tension.’’ She wanted to be listened to. She wanted her teammate to be sensitive to what she was feeling. ‘‘And I had research telling me that it was O.K. to follow my gut,’’ she said. ‘‘So that’s what I did. The data helped me feel safe enough to do what I thought was right.’’

So what does a ‘psychologically safe space’ look like in Canada’s public service?

The same it looks like at Google or elsewhere.

A space where public servants can be messy, hesitant, experimental, cautious, bold, funny, out-of whatever box possible, studied, evidence-based, driven, intelligent, hopeful, innovative, risk-sensitive, honest, challenged, thoughtful, collaborative, empathy-based, inventive, fearful, and ultimately human.

With the goal of empathizing with Canadians on different levels both at home and abroad.

Remembering public service is and always will be a calling.


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