Great Teams Require Psychological Safety

Dr. Bob Milligan

Dr. Bob Milligan

Imagine that everyone on your farm in each of your teams feels safe to take risks, voice their opinions, and ask judgment-free questions. Today that situation or culture is described as psychological safety. Research by Google found that teams with psychologically safety had employees who were less likely to leave, more likely to harness the power of diversity, and ultimately, who were more successful.

I believe that TODAY in this crazy time is the ideal time to strive for psychological safety. Everyone is so uncertain, confused, and frustrated that efforts to create the clarity and calm of psychological safety will resonate with employees.

How, then do we create psychological safety in our teams from our leadership team (partners) to our operations (crops, etc.) teams to our specialty teams (milkers)? In this article, we draw from the “Team” chapter in a great book – Smarter, Faster, Better: The Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg – to shed light on this question.

The Smarter, Faster, Better book draws on research by and experiences at Google and the successes of the Saturday Night Live team to identify team success factors. Perhaps the most surprising result is that the many aspects of team composition – size, location, individual success, level of diversity, etc. – did not explain team success.

Research found that group or team norms are the key determinant of team success. Team norms are the traditions, behaviors, standards, and unwritten rules about how the team functions. On great teams, these norms override individual tenancies, personalities, and strengths/weaknesses.

The question then is what are the norms that contribute to team success? To illustrate the difficulty of determining team success factors and to illustrate a norm, let’s look at a study of hospital error rates. The initial results did not make sense as the result was that strong teams make more mistakes. Upon further analysis, it was determined that strong teams were actually making far fewer mistakes; however, on weak teams many of the mistakes were not being reported.

The norm that was crucial in these hospital teams was whether people were punished (different from coached or redirected) for mistakes. From this we see an important good norm of encouraging team members to speak up without retribution. Consider the danger of unreported mistakes in a hospital or on your farm!

The research by Google clearly identified two key norms for great teams. The first is psychological safety. Psychological safety requires that team members be able to sense how others feel from their tone of voice, their expression, and their body language. Members must then respond empathically to the needs of team members.

The second key norm is that all team members speak roughly the same proportion of the time. This does not mean on each topic or necessarily in an orderly way. An informal atmosphere is more conducive to psychological safety that great formality. The members of the Saturday Night Live teams have not all been particularly nice people or personal friends, but the longevity and success of the program speaks to the greatness of the team.

The Google report identified five key norms that embody and expand the two norms:

  • Teams need to believe their work is important.
  • Teams need to feel their work is personally meaningful – vision.
  • Teams need clear goals and defined roles – “chalking the field.”
  • Team members need to know they can depend on one another.
  • But most important, teams need psychological safety.



These findings speak volumes about how to create an outstanding leadership team (owners and partners) or other farm or agribusiness team. The greatest responsibility for creating psychological safety rests with the leader:

  • First, as usual, is lead by example. Your actions must always contribute to psychological safety.
  • Recognize and practice active listening. Never interrupt and make certain every team member’s voice is heard.
  • Continually monitor the emotions of the team and of each individual. Reading tone of voice and body language is very important. Respond empathically to those experiencing negative emotions due to team actions or external impacts.
  • Make certain every team member is heard. This will require tactfully engaging passive team members and perhaps restricting assertive team members.
  • Provide structure – agendas, responsibilities, expectations, accountabilities, etc. – without formality that constrains discussion and debate.
  • Continually reinforce the vision, goals, and expectations for the team.

As a team member, you can also contribute to team psychological safety. You can a) be a great listener, b) monitor the emotions of the team and members and respond with empathy, c) draw out those who are not participating, and d) visit with the leader if you feel he or she is not contributing to psychological safety.

Concluding comment: Great teams are more about how the team functions – psychological safety – that who is on the team. You already have the people you need to have great teams!

Reference: Smarter, Faster, Better: The Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg

Editor’s note: The author is with Dairy Strategies and can be contacted by phone at 651.647.0495 or by email at This article appears in his October LearningEdge Monthly newsletter.

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