Google & Psychological Safety

Background

Post recent layoffs, one of the areas that has been raised is the relationship between Google and its employees; specifically the employees “Psychological Safety“.

 

What is Psychological Safety?

Center for Creative Leadership

What Is Psychological Safety at Work?

Link

Psychological safety is the belief that you won’t be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes. At work, it’s a shared expectation held by members of a team that teammates will not embarrass, reject, or punish them for sharing ideas, taking risks, or soliciting feedback.

Psychological safety at work doesn’t mean that everybody is nice to each other all the time. It means that people feel free to “brainstorm out loud,” voice half-finished thoughts, openly challenge the status quo, share feedback, and work through disagreements together — knowing that leaders value honesty, candor, and truth-telling, and that team members will have one another’s backs.

When psychological safety in the workplace is present, people feel comfortable bringing their full, authentic selves to work and are okay with “laying themselves on the line” in front of others. And organizations with psychologically safe work environments — where employees feel free to ask bold questions, share concerns, ask for help, and take calculated risks — are all the better for it.

In a research study we conducted of nearly 300 leaders over 2.5 years, we found that teams with high degrees of psychological safety reported higher levels of performance and lower levels of interpersonal conflict.

It’s important to note that not all team members hold the same perceptions, though. The stakes are particularly high for senior leadership teams, where our research found members reported the greatest differences in their perceived levels of psychological safety — 62% of senior teams in our sample demonstrated significant variability around their team’s psychological safety. This has real business repercussions; when innovative ideas go unsaid, creative problem solving is squashed, and teams fail to collaborate and innovate together to their full potential.

 

Importance of Psychological Safety

Center for Creative Leadership

The Importance of Psychological Safety at Work

Link

A lack of consistent psychological safety at work is not just a “nice to have;” it impacts the organization’s bottom line. Having a higher level of psychological safety helps to unlock the contributions of all talent in the enterprise and ensures the organization is better equipped to prevent failure.Research has repeatedly found that organizations benefit from diversity of thought, and groups of people with different life experiences are better able to recognize problems and offer up creative solutions than groups with similar life experiences.

But what if some team members don’t feel comfortable speaking up? What if they’re afraid to share their perspective, raise concerns, or asking challenging questions? What if they avoid suggesting new and innovative ideas because they’re worried about the repercussions?

Unfortunately, many people feel this way about their workplace. According to a 2019 Gallup poll, just 3 out of 10 employees strongly agreed that their opinions count at work.

It can be especially challenging for members of social identity groups that are often marginalized by society to feel high levels of psychological safety in the workplace. For example, a recent survey from Catalyst found that nearly half of female business leaders face difficulties speaking up in virtual meetings, and 1 in 5 reported feeling overlooked or ignored during video calls. Those who are members of historically underrepresented groups may feel this reality even more keenly.

Colleagues who feel their work environment is psychologically safe are more willing to engage in interpersonal risk-taking behaviors that contribute to greater organizational innovation — like speaking up, asking questions, sharing unspoken reservations, and respectfully disagreeing. This ultimately yields a more robust, dynamic, innovative, and inclusive organizational culture.

In contrast, when psychological safety at work is low and people are uncomfortable raising concerns, initiatives that aren’t working move forward anyway, the organization isn’t equipped to prevent failure, and talent begins to disengage. When employees aren’t fully committed to shared organizational success, ideas aren’t stress-tested, processes aren’t optimized, solutions aren’t vetted, and the enterprise has lost an opportunity to leverage the contributions of all its talent.

 

Google

Google is often touted as being one of the best places to work.

Google Research

Google was founded by research students at Stanford University.

Thus a lot of what it does is researched based.

 

Project Aristotle

Link

Researchers at Google worked on a project code named Project Aristotle.

The name was titled Aristotle as a tribute to Aristotle quote “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts”.

The goal of the project is to crystalize the question “What makes a team effective at Google?“.

Data Collection & Measuring Effectiveness

They conducted hundreds of double-blind interviews with leaders to get a sense of what they thought drove team effectiveness. The researchers then looked at existing survey data, including over 250 items from the annual employee engagement survey and gDNA, Google’s longitudinal study on work and life, to see what variables might be related to effectiveness. Here are some sample items used in the study that participants were asked to agree or disagree with:

Researchers conducted hundreds of double-blind interviews with leaders.

Annual employee engagement surveys were looked at.

gDNA, Google’s study of work and life, was dissected.

  1. Group dynamics: I feel safe expressing divergent opinions to the team.
  2. Skill sets: I am good at navigating roadblocks and barriers.
  3. Personality traits: I see myself as someone who is a reliable worker (informed by the Big Five personality assessment).
  4. Emotional intelligence: I am not interested in other people’s problems (informed by the Toronto Empathy Questionnaire).

 

Finding

The researchers found that what really mattered was less about who is on the team, and more about how the team worked together.

In order of importance:

  1. Psychological safety
    • Psychological safety refers to an individual’s perception of the consequences of taking an interpersonal risk or a belief that a team is safe for risk taking in the face of being seen as ignorant, incompetent, negative, or disruptive.
    • In a team with high psychological safety, teammates feel safe to take risks around their team members.
    • They feel confident that no one on the team will embarrass or punish anyone else for admitting a mistake, asking a question, or offering a new idea.
  2. Dependability
    • On dependable teams, members reliably complete quality work on time (vs the opposite – shirking responsibilities).
  3. Structure and clarity
    • An individual’s understanding of job expectations, the process for fulfilling these expectations, and the consequences of one’s performance are important for team effectiveness.
    • Goals can be set at the individual or group level, and must be specific, challenging, and attainable.
    • Google often uses Objectives and Key Results (OKRs) to help set and communicate short and long term goals.
  4. Meaning
    • Finding a sense of purpose in either the work itself or the output is important for team effectiveness.
    • The meaning of work is personal and can vary: financial security, supporting family, helping the team succeed, or self-expression for each individual.
  5. Impact
    • The results of one’s work, the subjective judgement that your work is making a difference, is important for teams.
    • Seeing that one’s work is contributing to the organization’s goals can help reveal impact.

 

Employees Response

Communal

Within the backdrop of the millions of dollars spent on research and extending luxury care to employees, laying off over twelve thousand of their fellow employees came as a shock to many.

An end of innocence, so to speak.

The percentile is 6%.

That is one out of every twenty.

In a company that is intentionally communal, that is a lot.

Everybody knows people who are affected.

How do we feel safe?

As witness to the innocence, an employee asked “How can we reestablish psychological safety for Googlers after these layoffs?“.

Another employee from one of the UK Office, asked “How are we supposed to ever feel safe again?“.

 

Researchers

Amy Edmondson, Harvard Business School Professor

Amy Edmondson, a professor at Harvard Business School, has down some ground breaking work on psychological safety.

Ms. Edmondson states “It’s so important to be clear that psychological safety is not the same thing as job security“.

“How you handle those challenging moments,” Edmondson said, “will have an impact on psychological safety and others’ willingness to take risks.”

She added that in the wake of a challenge like mass layoffs, an organization will “have to take special care to reinvigorate that innovative risk-taking culture that they value.”

She furthered that employees in a public Q/A felt comfortable voicing concerns about psychologic safety at an all-hands meeting suggest that there might yet be room for risk-taking at Google.

“One can readily imagine that most people would think that, but not say it aloud,” she said. “That’s almost a potential irony.”

 

Organizational Psychologist

Ben Dattner

Ben Dattner a practicing Organizational psychologist in New York City concurred.

Psychological safety is about interpersonal dynamics, not about economic or organizational reality.You can still have psychological safety without necessarily having job security.

Dattner says what is in question is not psychological safety.

But, a disruption of a psychological contract.

In using the term, psychological contract, he speaks to an unwritten agreement between an employers and its workers. The unwritten agreement describes informal expectations and understanding of the relationship.

Google has set very high and exclusionary standards for itself.

An employer that pays very well and offers lavish perks.

As Google attempts to constrain the number of people that are covered within that umbrella, employees feel let down.

 

Google’s Leadership Response

Philipp Schindler ( Chief Business Officer – CBO )

Phillip Schindler responded that psychological safety refers to “an environment where people feel safe to speak up, where they want to take risks, where they want to solicit feedback, make mistakes, question the status quo for example.”

Phillip continued “If you interpret psychological safety as removing all uncertainty, we can’t do this”.

He added “the reality is sometimes we need to adjust priorities based on the external environment.”

 

Referenced Work

  1. Business Insider
    • Rebecca Knight and Shana Lebowitz
      • Googlers prize ‘psychological safety,’ but it won’t save them from layoffs
        Link
  2. Google
  3. Center for Creative Learning
    • What Is Psychological Safety at Work? How Leaders Can Build Psychologically Safe Workplaces
      Link
  4. Harvard Business Review
    • Laszlo Bock
      • Google’s Scientific Approach to Work-Life Balance (and Much More)
        Link

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