Six ways Google built a bolder, more creative workforce

The secret? A psychological safety net for their top performers

Six ways Google built a bolder, more creative workforce

After a two-year study on team performance at Google, Paul Santagata – the tech giant’s head of industry – found that the firm’s top-performers had one thing in common: psychological safety.

Psychological safety is a measure of how willing one is to take risks, knowing that one will not be punished for making mistakes. Studies have found that higher psychological safety correlates with more creativity and bolder decision making, building blocks for game-changers.

Laura Delizonna, clinical psychiatrist and Chief Learning Officer at Wisdom Labs, explains the concept of psychological safety, and how to achieve it, just like Santagana did at Google:

1. Approach conflict as a collaborator, not an adversary.
We humans hate losing even more than we love winning. A perceived loss triggers attempts to reestablish fairness through competition, criticism, or disengagement, which is a form of workplace-learned helplessness. Santagata knows that true success is a win-win outcome, so when conflicts come up, he avoids triggering a fight-or-flight reaction by asking, “How could we achieve a mutually desirable outcome?”

2. Speak human to human.
Underlying every team’s who-did-what confrontation are universal needs such as respect, competence, social status, and autonomy. Recognizing these deeper needs naturally elicits trust and promotes positive language and behaviors. Santagata reminded his team that even in the most contentious negotiations, the other party is just like them and aims to walk away happy.

3. Anticipate reactions and plan countermoves.
Skillfully confront difficult conversations head-on by preparing for likely reactions. For example, you may need to gather concrete evidence to counter defensiveness when discussing hot-button issues. Santagata asks himself, “If I position my point in this manner, what are the possible objections, and how would I respond to those counterarguments?” He says, “Looking at the discussion from this third-party perspective exposes weaknesses in my positions and encourages me to rethink my argument.”

4. Replace blame with curiosity.
If you believe you already know what the other person is thinking, then you’re not ready to have a conversation. Instead, adopt a learning mindset:

  • State the problematic behavior or outcome as an observation, and use factual, neutral language.
  • Engage them in an exploration of the problem.
  • Ask for solutions. The people who are responsible for creating a problem often hold the keys to solving it.

5. Ask for feedback on delivery.
Asking for feedback on how you delivered your message disarms your opponent, illuminates blind spots in communication skills, and models fallibility, which increases trust in leaders.

6. Measure psychological safety.
Santagata periodically asks his team how safe they feel and what could enhance their feeling of safety. In addition, his team routinely takes surveys on psychological safety and other team dynamics. Some teams at Google include questions such as, “How confident are you that you won’t receive retaliation or criticism if you admit an error or make a mistake?”


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