Want to build high-performing teams? Prioritise psychological safety

30 April

A high-performing team is your most powerful weapon against poor quality products and a negative work environment. But the team is only as strong as the leaders that build and support them. So, what is the secret to building a high-performing team?

In 2012, Google researchers embarked on a quest to discover just that. Known as the ‘Aristotle Project,’ the research analysed 50 years’ worth of academic studies on the topic, in addition to analysing 180 teams over a two-year period to discover performance patterns.

The project identified five key factors for team success:

  1. Psychological safety: teams that feel safe to make mistakes, take risks, share new ideas and voice concerns without fear of punishment, embarrassment or blame are more likely to perform better and be more innovative.
  2. Meaning: it is difficult for teams to stay motivated and productive when they're not personally invested in the success of the project. It is important that work is meaningful.
  3. Impact: seeing work as being impactful and as part of creating change gives teams a purpose. Communicating the impact teams have is important in showing how their work contributes to the end product, other teams and to the organisation as a whole.
  4. Structure and clarity: having clear goals and plans that are specific and challenging but also realistic in terms of the time and effort that it will take to complete work, adds to the idea of work being meaningful and with a purpose.
  5. Dependability: dependable teams get work done on time and to a high standard of quality. This motivates other team members to follow suit.


Psychological safety and Modern Agile

Google’s study found that the number one driver of team performance is psychological safety. A safe environment allows for creativity, risk-taking and being able to freely share ideas.  But how can you make sure that your teams feel like they can make mistakes without fear of being embarrassed, blamed or punished? 

Since the agile way of working became mainstream as a way of simplifying work, being more responsive to change and more customer-focused, it became clear that for this approach to work, people need to feel safe.

Modern Agile builds on the existing Agile Manifesto by emphasising psychological safety. In keeping with the original manifesto, Modern Agile puts people at the forefront of everything we do when developing new solutions with these four guiding principles:

  1. Make Safety a Prerequisite
  2. Make People Awesome
  3. Deliver Value Continuously principle
  4. Experiment and Learn Rapidly

For people to be awesome, and to experiment and learn they need to feel safe. So how do leaders and team members build trust within the team? Here are five ways that you can help build trust in your team from Google's research on fostering psychological safety:

1. Demonstrate engagement

  • Ask questions with the intention of learning from your teammates
  • Be aware of your body language. This could mean making sure to lean towards or face the person speaking so that people know you're engaged.
  • Make eye contact to show connection and active listening.

2. Show understanding

  • Recap what has been said to make sure you have a mutual understanding. You could ask “what I heard you say is…” and then acknowledge areas of agreement or disagreement.
  • Avoid placing blame instead of saying “why did you do this?” you need to focus on solutions and instead, ask “how can we work toward making sure this goes more smoothly next time?”
  • Think about your facial expressions and make sure they aren't unintentionally negative like a scowl or grimace.

3. Be inclusive in interpersonal settings

  • Share information about your personal work style and preferences and encourage teammates to do the same.
  • Step in if team members talk negatively about one another.
  • Have open body posture, facing all team members and not excluding anyone.
  • Build rapport by talking with your teammates about their lives outside of work.

4. Be inclusive in decision-making

  • Get input, opinions, and feedback from your teammates.
  • Don’t interrupt or allow interruptions. Step in when someone is interrupted and ensure their ideas are heard.
  • Acknowledge input from others and highlight when team members contributed to success.

5. Show confidence and conviction without appearing inflexible

  • Manage team discussions by not allowing side conversations in team meetings and making sure conflict isn’t personal.
  • Support and represent the team, sharing the team’s work with senior leadership and giving credit to teammates.
  • Invite the team to challenge your perspective and push back.
  • Model vulnerability. Share your personal perspective on work and failures with your teammates
  • Encourage teammates to take risks and demonstrate risk-taking in your own work.


Building high-performance teams that share a common vision and goals, trust and challenge each other, that are excited and have a sense of purpose are the key to maintaining your organisation's competitive advantage. These teams are most effective when they are encouraged to fail fast, take risks and learn from their mistakes, When you create a culture of psychological safety you'll see more motivated, engaged and successful teams. 


Post by Toby Thompson