Team psychology

26 06 2016

Every now and then you come across a concept or idea that strikes you unawares, opens up a new train of thought, enlightens you, or makes you look at things differently.

When I started listening to the chapter on Teams in Charles Duhigg’s latest book – Smarter, Harder, Better I was only expecting to hear more on the age-old wisdom on groups and teams, and all that I learnt as part of my Organization Behavior course in business school. But then I heard about Psychological Safety. It kind of blew my mind off. When he explained what psychological safety means and how it can be a key differentiator between the more productive, efficient teams and the rest, it made perfect sense.

Apparently Google, in its attempt to figure out the recipe for a perfect team, has researched teams and their effectiveness through a project named Aristotle over several years and discovered this. It is such a beautiful concept, which may simply be dubbed as “be nice”. 😛  As per Wikipedia, “Psychological safety is a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking. In psychologically safe teams, team members feel accepted and respected. ”

Psychological Safety has found to be a statistically significant factor associated with high-performing teams. However, it does not mean that it alone can make a team perfect.  As per the scientific research, other things like number and quality of social interactions between team members,  the existence of Shared Mental Models within the team, shared expectations regarding behavioral norms, as well as organizational issues such as the leadership and management culture all contribute to team effectiveness. Moreover, as Chris Alexander of Aglx Consulting points out, this insight is not actionable by itself as Psychological Safety is not a team skill. Read this enlightening article offering practical advice on how to build psychological safety in teams: Psychological Safety is just one piece of the larger puzzle

Another concept relevant to workplace that I happened to hear about in a recent event as part of a meetup is “Imposter Syndrome”. It’s such an eye opener.  The talk  couldn’t have been more timely for me personally. It was a very rewarding experience and the speaker, Lauren Jackman of Medallia, who is a PHD from Stanford, was very engaging.

According to Wikipedia, Imposter Syndrome refers to  high-achieving individuals marked by an inability to internalize their accomplishments and a persistent fear of being exposed as a “fraud”. Despite ample external evidence to their success, people succumbed to this syndrome have a tendency to think that they are not smart/talented etc. as others think they are.

One prominent internal cause for imposter syndrome could be complete access to our own fears and knowledge gaps.

As per the speaker, among the many factors contributing to the Imposter Syndrome phenomenon, is the “Duck Syndrome”. The Duck Syndrome is Stanford’s take on stress – be stressed out, but don’t show it! This relates to the culture of brilliance/performance, which underplays the hard work behind any success. In fact it may involve hiding all the work that went into something and projecting only the result.  It creates a misguided perception that success comes from being smart or a genius, and working hard to achieve it is a sign of weakness or failure. In fact, it’s rarely true that any success can be achieved without hard work. This can result in a fixed mindset which puts undue emphasis on “what is” rather than “what can be”.

This leads us to the concept called “growth mindset”, which refers to the belief that success is based on hard work, learning, training and doggedness. Carol Dweck in her 2006 book “Mindset” has elaborated on the fixed mindset – growth mindset continuum as part of her key contributions to social psychology on implicit theories of intelligence.

When we think about other team settings that can contribute to this imposter syndrome, the following emerge:

  • Under-representation
  • Stereotypes based on culture, age, race, gender etc.
  • Lack of belongingness
  • When others are watching

Leadership should make sure to watch out for the above pitfalls that can adversely impact team’s performance and effectiveness. Normalizing failure can be a powerful strategy to help combat imposter syndrome, instill growth mindset, and even develop psychological safety and bring out the best in teams.

I like my current team and I think it has reasonable levels of psychological safety. 🙂

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