Why psychological safety plays such an important role in team performance
1: 43 out of 44.
That’s the number of groups that behaved the same way in the “Bad Apple Experiment.”
An actor Nick was placed into these four-person groups instructed to create a marketing plan for a start-up.
Will Felps, a professor of organizational behavior at the University of New South Wales in Australia, designed the study. He trained Nick to play one of three different negative archetypes: “the Jerk (an aggressive, defiant deviant), the Slacker (a withholder of effort), and the Downer (a depressive Eeyore type),” Daniel Coyle writes in The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups.
“The other people in the room do not know it, but [Nick’s] mission is to sabotage the group’s performance,” Daniel shares.
Which is exactly what Nick did in 43 of the 44 groups. Sabotaged them.
2: Except for one group. The outlier group. Group #44.
“They first came to my attention when Nick mentioned that there was one group that felt really different to him,” Will says. “This group performed well no matter what he did. Nick said it was mostly because of one guy.”
“You can see this guy is causing Nick to get almost infuriated—his negative moves aren’t working like they had in the other groups, because this guy could find a way to flip it and engage everyone and get people moving toward the goal.”
Jonathan is a thin young man with curly hair, a quiet, steady voice, and an easy smile. “Despite the bad apple’s efforts, Jonathan’s group is attentive and energetic, and they produce high-quality results,” Daniel writes.
What’s most fascinating about Jonathan?
“At first glance, he doesn’t seem to be doing anything at all,” Will shares. “A lot of it is really simple stuff that is almost invisible at first.”
Exhibit one: “Nick would start being a jerk, and [Jonathan] would lean forward, use body language, laugh and smile, never in a contemptuous way, but in a way that takes the danger out of the room and defuses the situation,” Will observes. “It doesn’t seem all that different at first. But when you look more closely, it causes some incredible things to happen.”
Jonathan’s responses follow a pattern: “Nick behaves like a jerk, and Jonathan reacts instantly with warmth, deflecting the negativity and making a potentially unstable situation feel solid and safe,” Daniel writes. “Then Jonathan pivots and asks a simple question that draws the others out, and he listens intently and responds.”
What happens as a result?
“Energy levels increase; people open up and share ideas, building chains of insight and cooperation that move the group swiftly and steadily toward its goal,” Daniel notes.
Jonathan is comfortable, engaging, and curious about what everyone has to say. “It was amazing how such simple, small behaviors kept everybody engaged and on task,” Will reflects.
Through his actions, Jonathan makes it safe for others in the group. He asks them, ‘Hey, what do you think of this?'” Will recalls. “Sometimes he even asks Nick questions like, ‘How would you do that?'”
Even our “Bad Apple,” Nick, found himself starting to cooperate.
3: There are two big takeaways from Group #44, led by our outlier, Jonathan.
“First, we tend to think group performance depends on measurable abilities like intelligence, skill, and experience, not on a subtle pattern of small behaviors,” Daniel writes. “Yet in this case those small behaviors made all the difference.”
The second lesson is that Jonathan doesn’t take the actions we typically associate with strong leaders.
“He doesn’t take charge or tell anyone what to do,” Daniel writes. “He doesn’t strategize, motivate, or lay out a vision. He doesn’t perform so much as create conditions for others to perform, constructing an environment whose key feature is crystal clear: We are solidly connected.”
Is Jonathan’s group somehow “smarter” than the 43 other groups?
What they are is safer.
“We don’t normally think of safety as being so important,” Daniel observes.
“Safety is not mere emotional weather,” writes Daniel, “but rather the foundation on which strong culture is built.”
Reflection: Where does psychological safety come from? What do Jonathan’s actions tell me about how to build it?
Action: Journal my answers to the two questions above.