Have you ever felt afraid to express an opinion, point out an error, or disagree with a colleague’s analysis because doing so might put you at political risk with the team or organization? 

Do you know what it feels like to be completely open and honest in your relationships with colleagues and bosses, free to experiment, fail, learn, and try again, all with the team’s support?

Difficult Team Dynamics

If you’re like most of us, you’ve studied or worked in environments where you weren’t encouraged to share a point of view that differed from those who held power on the team or in the organization. You and your colleagues were careful not to draw attention to yourselves by speaking up, even when you had ideas or explanations of data that would benefit the enterprise. You feared taking a contrary position might offend someone in power, making your professional development more difficult. At the very least, you had reason to believe your opinions were unwelcome, so you kept them to yourself. Better safe than sorry.

The result? Job dissatisfaction, work avoidance, and thin connections with colleagues.

If you’re a lawyer in private practice, you’ve likely experienced overt bullying in the office. According to an illuminating survey conducted by the International Bar Association, half of women and a third of men in law firms are bullied and/or harassed by colleagues, usually people who are more senior. The effects of bullying on the individual who is the object of the abuse — distress, depression, anxiety, sleep disruption — are devastating and lasting. The impact on the firm is less devastating but serious nonetheless. Over half of the people bullied in law offices quit, and many leave the profession altogether. 

Most bullying and harassment go unreported for fear that reporting will come with negative professional consequences. A U.S.-based IBA survey respondent offered this summation, ‘Some law firms and their membership … diminish reports of misconduct, condone a hostile work environment, and penalize those who speak out about these wrongs. In effect, lawyers can become the antithesis of advocates when it comes to supporting and protecting the victims among them.’

A Better Way

On the other hand, if you’ve been lucky in your career, you might have had the opportunity to work with and for people who welcomed your emotional investment in the work and the professional relationships that held the team together. Collaboration, debate, experimentation, and learning came naturally because everyone supported one another in the effort to grow and develop. There was no need to fear reprisal simply for proffering an unusual idea or suggesting an alternative to the majority opinion. Novel ideas were welcome, even expected. As a result, you, the team, and the organization thrived.

Psychological Safety

Google’s now famous study of teams, Project Aristotle, looked closely at the factors that determine team success as measured by several evaluation sources, including:

  • Executive evaluation;
  • team lead evaluation;
  • team member evaluation;
  • and sales performance.

After a massive data collection effort and hundreds of double-anonymized leadership interviews over two years, researchers found that psychological safety was the most crucial determiner of team effectiveness. As it turns out, Google teams that produce the best outcomes for the enterprise provide a safe environment for people to experiment, take risks, and to do so without fear of embarrassment or punishment.

Speaking up is not a natural act in hierarchies. It must be nurtured. When it’s not, the results can be catastrophic – for people and for the bottom line. But when it is nurtured, you can be certain that it is the product of deliberate, thoughtful effort. – Amy Edmondson

In our work as search consultants and coaches, we regularly hear stories of great teams. These are the teams that foster an ethos of togetherness and mutual support. Team members are respectful. They value a diversity of opinion, and they take responsibility for their words and deeds. Everyone feels safe to show up as they are without fear of criticism or self-consciousness. It sounds ideal, and it is, but it’s also real and, therefore, achievable.

These counterpoint scenarios may describe the extreme ends of a work culture spectrum, but they illustrate the critical difference psychological safety makes in our working lives and our overall sense of well-being. 

Creating Psychological Safety in Teams

How can those of us who lead teams create a psychologically safe environment so that every team member brings their very best to the group’s work? It starts with an understanding of our own psychological state and a willingness to developing a clearer understanding of our fears and professional insecurities. 

In her TEDx talk, Harvard professor of Leadership and psychological safety pioneer, Amy Edmondson, offers three things we can do to foster team psychological safety:

  • First, frame the work as a learning problem, not an execution problem;
  • Acknowledge your own fallibility;
  • Model curiosity and ask a lot of questions.

By being vulnerable, building empathy, exhibiting compassion, and demonstrating the courage to step out of our comfort zones, we model the behaviors we want to inspire in those we lead. 

Our Work

We work with in-house legal leaders and their HR colleagues to build inclusive, empowered legal teams through executive search, individual and team coaching, and organizational development. If you would like to learn more about our leadership and team development consulting, please reach out to connect with our Partners.