• Adam Tarnow

Does your team feel safe?

Updated: Jan 9, 2021

Last summer, I had a proud dad moment. I got to take my family to Disneyland. It was an epic 18 hour day that we’ll never forget. I’ve almost finished paying for it. Kidding…kind of. One of the many highlights was Hyperspace Mountain. The ride was fun, but the picture they took of our family while on the ride was priceless (we’re in the first two rows).

I think my youngest son is going to be a lot of fun at parties. That was his reaction for the entire three minutes of the ride—pure joy. You’ll notice, my older son had a different reaction. Two people. The same ride. Different reactions. How can something like this happen? It has to do with how safe they felt. My youngest felt very safe. So, to him, it was time to throw your hands in the air (like you just don’t care). My oldest only felt kind of safe. To him, it was time to care, so he made sure his hands were not in the air. Same ride. Different experience. The difference was determined by how safe they felt. The feeling of safety doesn’t just impact your experience on a roller coaster. It also affects your experience at work. It’s the number one factor that determines how you experience your team. A healthy team is a team that feels safe. Google figured this out years ago. They studied their teams. The good ones and the not-so-good ones. What did they figure out? The number one predictor of a strong team was the feeling of psychological safety. Employees on safe teams acted like my youngest son on Hyperspace Mountain. Employees on non-safe teams acted a little more like that kid in the third row. Go back and check out his face. So, what specific actions lead to a feeling of psychological safety on your team? Dan Coyle, the author of The Culture Code, has produced the best list I’ve found. Based on his studies, safe teams exhibit the following behaviors:

  • Close physical proximity, often in circles

  • Profuse amounts of eye contact

  • Physical touch (handshakes, fist bumps, hugs)

  • Lots of short, energetic exchanges (no long speeches)

  • High levels of mixing; everyone talks to everyone.

  • Few interruptions

  • Lots of questions

  • Intensive, active listening

  • Humor, laughter

  • Small, attentive courtesies (thank-yous, opening doors, etc.)

Here’s your homework, leader. Take this list into your next team meeting. Ask everyone to rate on a scale of 1 to 10 how well your team lives out these behaviors. Anything with an average score of less than a 6 indicates where you need to do some work. Great teams feel safe. If you want your team to perform with excellence, there has to be a feeling of safety. If they don’t feel safe, you won’t get their best. Lean in. Have the conversation. It might be a little awkward, but it’s worth it.

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