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Why You Need to Build Trust in Your Team

Trust is the foundation of any successful team. In this blog we will explore how research into team working led to the recognition of psychological safety as a requirement for successful teams.

Back in the 1980s, researchers in the aviation industry were looking into fatigue in the cockpit by measuring error rates. In a series of flight simulations, astonishingly the fatigued crews performed better than the well-rested teams. Looking more closely, the findings showed that whilst the fatigued individuals made more errors, because they had been working as a team for the previous three days they were able to correct and catch each other’s errors – so as a team they performed better than the well-rested pilots who were unfamiliar with one another.

This work inspired another research team to look at errors and teamwork in a medical setting. Enter then doctoral student, Amy Edmondson, who was entrusted with the medical-error data. The research question was “Does better teamwork in hospital lead to fewer errors?”

Error rates and team effectiveness

An initial look at the results showed a statistically significant correlation between error rates and team effectiveness. But, when Amy looked more closely she saw the correlation was in the wrong direction, unexpectedly the better teams appeared to have higher, not lower error rates.

As a lowly graduate student, she thought that this surprise result was her “failure” until she started thinking about why better teams might have higher error rates. This led to her eureka moment –  better teams don’t make more mistakes, but they are able to own up to mistakes without fear of repercussion.

Much later she used the term psychological safety –  “a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes, and that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.”

Amy Edmondson is now renowned for her research into psychological safety and is a professor at Harvard Business School. Her journey is detailed in the article “The Intelligent Failure that Led to the Discovery of Psychological Safety” in Behavioral Scientist.

Remember teamwork begins by building trust. And the only way to do that is to overcome our need for invulnerability.”

Patrick Lencioni

Project Aristotle

In 2012, Google set about uncovering the ingredients that distinguish high-performing teams from the rest. Just like both the aviation and the medical setting research, their now famous Project Aristotle produced some surprising results. It wasn’t the diversity of the team or traits of individual team members that were indicators of success, it was the teams that exhibited psychological safety. In these psychologically safe teams, there was a willingness to collaborate, innovate and learn from one another.

When there is a foundation of trust, team members engage in unfiltered debate without fear of recrimination. This promotes better solutions, lowers levels of stress, encourages creativity and innovation and helps in employee engagement and retention.

This is echoed by Management consultant Patrick Lencioni who sees that an absence of trust inevitably leads to a dysfunctional team. Before you can tackle the problems, you need to be able to build trust.

“Remember teamwork begins by building trust. And the only way to do that is to overcome our need for invulnerability.” Patrick Lencioni.

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