What does a highly successful team look like? You might imagine a bunch of extroverted rock stars with stellar resumes — all born with the natural gift of being indistractable.
But who is on a team matters less than how the team members interact, structure their work, and view their contributions.
After more than five years of studying the traits of extremely focused people and the root causes of distractions in the workplace, I've found that the highest-performing teams work in an environment in which they feel that management is genuinely listening to their concerns and feedback.
This isn't as easy as it sounds. In fact, a lot of leaders only think they're doing what it takes to create this type of culture. But that's usually not the case; most don't actually listen (or do much to show that they are) to employees.
When people don't have a way to affect change at work, they feel frustrated and powerless. So an employee who feels as if he has little influence will be driven to seek a sense of control in other ways.
Often this manifests in distracting, corrosive behaviors such as corporate politicking and other time-wasting "psuedo-work" activities — unintentionally making work not aligned with their company's real objectives.
The solution can be found in a 2012 study from Google, which attempted to understand the drivers of employee retention and quality of team outcomes. The researchers found five key dynamics that set successful teams apart.
The first four were dependability, structure and clarity, meaning of work, and impact of work. However, the fifth was without doubt the most important (and actually underpinned the other four). It was something called psychological safety.
As Julia Rozovsky, a researcher on the project, explained: "Individuals on teams with higher psychological safety are less likely to leave Google, and more likely to harness the power of diverse ideas from their teammates. They bring in more revenue, and they're rated as effective twice as often by executives."
The term "psychological safety" was coined by Amy Edmondson, an organizational behavioral scientist at Harvard University.
In her TEDx talk, Edmondson defined psychological safety as "a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes."
Speaking up sounds easy, but if you feel you don't have psychological safety, you'll keep your concerns and ideas to yourself. That's because humans are reluctant to engage in behaviors that could negatively influence how others perceive their competence, awareness and positivity.
"Although this kind of self-protection is a natural strategy in the workplace, it is detrimental to effective teamwork," according to Rozovsky. "On the flip side, the safer team members feel with one another, the more likely they are to admit mistakes, to partner, and to take on new roles."
Great leaders understand that fostering psychological safety is imperative to building a culture where employees are motivated to do their best work.
Here are some ways to do that:
1. Frame the work you do as a "learning problem," not an "execution problem." Because the future is always uncertain, you must emphasize to your employees that "we're all in this together" and that you want — and need — their unique and valuable contributions.
2. Take action. Action speaks more powerfully than words. If you say you're going to do something to address an employees' concerns, don't dilly dally — see things through. Losing their trust can have a drastic effect on team morale, and result in a domino effect that leads to poor performance and productivity.
3. Never penalize an employee (or make them feel as if you have) for sharing feedback. At some point, you will almost certainly receive feedback that feels personal and painful. When you do, commit to hearing it with an open mind, and refrain from any sort of backlash toward the employee.
4. Practice humility. Don't be afraid to make mistakes, to say "I don't know," and to be vulnerable with your employees. Not only will they feel more comfortable doing the same, they will also trust you more and stay more open to learning.
5. Model the behaviors you want to see. This is perhaps the most important thing you can do to encourage employees to prioritize focused work. Be transparent with your schedule; let them know when you need to be offline. And of course, don't interrupt people during their focused work time or off-hours.
Nir Eyal is a behavioral psychology expert and former lecturer at Stanford University's Graduate School of Business. He is the author of the best-selling books "Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life" and "Hooked: How to Build Habit-Building Products." He has written for Harvard Business Review, TIME and Psychology Today. Follow him on Twitter @NirEyal.
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