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Google’s Psychological Safety Strategies are Actually Pretty Simple

“There’s no team without trust.”

Image courtesy of Unsplash.

Depending on how you measure it, Google—or Alphabet, if you prefer—is more or less the world’s most valuable brand, synonymous with creativity and innovation.

According to the company’s own research, a lot of this comes down to “psychological safety,” or whether or not people can take risks without feeling insecure, embarrassed, or worse. “There’s no team without trust,” Paul Santagata, Google’s head of industry, tells Laura Delizonna at the Harvard Business Review.

The emotional mechanics of this are pretty straightforward: when people feel socially threatened, they’re not going to risk the exposure inherent to creativity and risk-taking, but if there’s support instead, they’ll be game to be vulnerable. When there’s a psychological safety net, the brain’s reward-seeking, creativity-enabling regions take control back from the older, fear-based systems.

A lot of the insights about collaborative creativity are flavored by close relationships research, which makes sense given that it’s largely about two or more people’s personalities rubbing against each other. Head over to Harvard Business Review for the full take; we’ll dig into two below.

Don’t place blame, get curious.

The University of Washington relationships researcher John Gottman has shown empirically what anyone who’s gone through a spat with a family member, partner or friend knows first hand: telling someone about what they’re doing wrong is a surefire way to put them on the defensive and escalate the conflict.

The alternative, in line with nonviolent communication, is to neutrally observe the behavior and put it in matter-of-fact, objective terms. Investor Erik Torenberg has a beautiful reflection on nonviolent communication at Medium, and he highlights how often people entangle observation, which is free of blame, and judgement, which is colored with blame, whether of person, situation or beyond. Telling a friend “you’re always busy” is a judgment; saying “the last few times we’ve tried to hang out, I haven’t been able to get on your calendar” is an observation. The first will make them feel defensive; the second is more likely to get them to act thoughtfully.

The same strategy can be brought into the office. Instead of telling a direct report that they’re aloof and off-task, you could stick to the quantitative: “Over the past two months, you’ve been participating less in meetings.” Then, Delizonna says, you can open the conversation up to collaboration. “I imagine there are multiple factors at play,” she suggests. “Perhaps we could uncover what they are together?”

That way, even difficult conversations can be more collaboration than competition.

Ask for feedback on your delivery.

One of the ironies of being human is that if you want people to trust you, it’s important that you show them you’re aware of your own fallibilities. Asking people for feedback after a potentially tense interaction not only shows that you, too, are a person, but also holds up a mirror to your your own communication style. Santagata, the Google exec, likes to end difficult conversations with standard questions like “How did it feel to hear this message?” and “How could I have presented it more effectively?” This allows both parties to decompress and makes the information flow go two ways rather than one.

After one delicate meeting with a senior manager, Santagata asked for feedback, and he was told that the message he delivered could have felt “like a punch in the stomach,” but he had presented objective, convincing evidence that lessened the blow. Furthermore, being eager to discuss challenges lead to solutions. When people feel respected as individuals, in other words, they’re more likely to invest in the team—and risk doing the experiments that lead to real innovation and creativity.

Go to Harvard Business Review to read more about how Google makes psychological safety a reality for employees.

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