Think of the most fulfilling relationship you’ve ever had. One where you really felt valued, heard, and understood. Maybe it was a partner, a family member, a friend, or a teammate.
It’s pretty simple to get along with the barista who gets your coffee (and your name!) right, the people at the dog park, or someone you make small talk with at the gym. Making friendly, playful acquaintance is important for making us feel connected in our communities (and we need these!), but they aren’t how we build close, robust bonds.
More than likely, your best relationships have never been your easiest. The strongest relationships in our lives aren’t conflict-free, they’re judgment-free.
It takes work to build an environment where you can share your real self, admit your mistakes, and know that you’re valued, supported, and even challenged by people who want the best for you.
So why should work be any different?
Happy teams are all alike
You’re probably familiar with the opening line of Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
It’s often given a blackly comic interpretation that soothes us in our dysfunction – Hey, maybe we aren’t happy, but at least we aren’t boring.
We have a seemingly endless appetite for stories of people who suffered, struggled, and triumphed, giving rise to great art and invention. At work, we’ve absorbed and internalised the pressure to ‘crush it’, often at great expense to ourselves and others. Somehow we believe that we’ll be rewarded for living with intense anxiety.
But the point of Tolstoy’s opener isn’t that happy families are dull. It’s that there are many ways to be miserable and dysfunctional, but a relatively limited set of things are needed to build a foundation to be happy together. Happy families aren’t boring; they actually take care of each other.
We’re not here to tell you work needs to be your family (and even if you work in a family business, you deserve to have good boundaries). Rather, it’s probably true to say that your strongest, most nurturing relationships don’t all look the same, but they all have safety and security at their core.
In other words, the best teams seem to function the way you wish your family could.
What happens on a happy team?
You might have already read about the importance of psychological safety at work. Google’s Re:Work project was a four-year study that looked at what makes high-performing teams work so well together. They found that while it’s not the only factor in success, psychological safety was the thing all the best teams had in common.
On these teams, everyone felt they could speak up, make or call out mistakes, and experience their real feelings. People worked to see each other’s perspectives, and they chose collaborative behaviours over competitive ones. Conflicts, even when they were hard, didn’t destroy the team.
The characteristics of a team that has a good culture of safety include:
Being able to speak up or ask for help without fear of being mocked or belittled
Noticing or admitting to mistakes early, and supporting one another rather than lapsing into blame
Feeling free not just to say “I don’t know” but also to use knowledge gaps as opportunities for curiosity
Knowing your skills, contributions, and presence are valued by everyone on the team
Knowing that even when you fail at most of the above, your culture of taking responsibility will help everyone recover and grow together
These teams were chosen because they were creative, innovative, and high-performing, even by Google standards. They’d hardly be considered dull.
It turns out that making each other feel safe — not high-octane rockstars (who are actually bad for teams), impossible deadlines, hazard-filled management, or 10x engineers – is something they all shared.
Feeling safe is one thing, but how do you create it?
It’s true that a lot of people would prefer an uncomfortable silence than even a temporary conflict. That might be a good strategy for, say, an uncomfortable social or family occasion, or when you’re just not picking that battle today. But silence and civility don’t equal safety. In fact, they tend to perpetuate the status quo, including the same power dynamics and inequalities that can stifle creativity and make people unsafe.
Approaching conflict as a shared problem to solve, not as a chance to ‘win’ or dominate each other
Giving caring feedback, including praise and acknowledgement of strengths
Setting ground rules that everyone agrees on, that cultivate respect for all
Investing time and effort into both finding common ground and appreciating the way we all experience things differently
Creating routines and practices that help people feel safe, not restricted, within a structure
And – perhaps most importantly — accepting that change and growth take time.
How will you know?
One way you’ll know might sound counterintuitive: you might be in a safer environment if you start to hear a lot more “Oops”, “I don’t know,” and “Can someone help me?” It’s not that successful teams make more mistakes, it’s that they spot them earlier, and are less afraid to admit them.
Amy Edmonson and Jeff Polzer, professors of leadership at Harvard Business School, interviewed a senior executive who, when he had just joined his company, felt like airing his concerns about a takeover would make him be like “the skunk at the picnic,” and so he didn’t — and the project went in the direction he thought it would.
Now, no matter how safe your environment, being new is hard, and most of us won’t speak up unless we’re already familiar with our surroundings. But we can focus on one another’s safety, and role model “I haven’t got a clue” or even “I could use some positive feedback” and help people see more quickly that this is a skunk-friendly environment.
The biggest barriers are myths, especially the ‘rockstar’
Some of the biggest barriers to creating safe team environments are created by the myths we carry about things like performance and intelligence. Some of these are ones we’ve internalised, and others are perpetuated by management cultures. Some cultures cultivate or encourage rock stars, rewarding certain people with concessions on appropriate behaviour or respectful interactions are not healthy or safe.
And whatever innovation that rockstar might bring is often at the cost of a whole lot of other people, along with whatever creativity and value they could bring. They often also take unnecessary risks, instead of the calculated, managed risks that lead to creative solutions and successful projects.
Everyone wants to be their best, and to work with the most talented people possible. But companies that are obsessed with ‘talent’ rather than ‘people’ can often treat individuals as fungible, demanding impossible results, as if military-style management-by-fear (which even most modern militaries discourage) will jolt people into staying on their toes.
We can all cite great artists and innovators who struggled, suffered, and created great work, but many of them died in obscurity. And for every household name who made it, there are thousands of people whose suffering destroyed their creativity and extinguished whatever innovative spark they had.
Some people can be creative in survival mode, but living on the edge wears most of us down.
Be a growing team together
Teams that learn and grow together are made, not born, and while they’re limitless in varieties of purpose and membership, just like happy families, they have a few things in common, and they’re mostly the things we see as ‘soft’ qualities. And they can achieve more than teams that don’t do the work to take care of each other.
If you’re ready to try a few exercises to build safety in your team, try the approach we take to Feedback, which is a piece of The Teamwork Kit, our step-by-step approach to building creative, resilient teams.
Are you interested in more articles on design and group dynamics?