Missing this one thing makes team collaboration impossible

Posted 26 May 2020 by
Claire Bremner, Principal Consultant, The Myers-Briggs Company

I recently worked with a senior leadership team to help them continue on their journey towards becoming high performing. As part of my preparation for this work I revisited Black Box Thinking (Syed, 2016). This was prompted by the team leader having suggested his team read the book. From this I inferred that he wanted to create a culture of ‘Black Box Thinking’ in his team. As it turned out, this was part of him aspiring to help the team build trust and psychological safety. Being able to shift attitudes about failure and mistakes was part of this.

I touched on the concept of ‘Black Box Thinking’ in part 1 of this series of three self-awareness and leadership pieces. As a quick summary here, this type of thinking is about embracing the process of learning from failure as an evolutionary mechanism – creating growth and high performance through experimentation, trial and error and the cumulative effect of marginal gains.

“Well, “ I hear you say, “easy in theory not so easy in practice.” Indeed. 

Syed (2016) deftly weaves a story of all the factors that keep failure and mistakes in the “not okay, not talked about/avoided at all costs” box but that is perhaps a topic for another time. 

What I want to look at here is the role that self-awareness plays in building trust and psychological safety in teams. And in turn, how psychological safety brings with it the ability to disagree, have constructive conflict, share with each other when we don’t know something or when we have made a mistake and then use this as an opportunity to learn from this together, so as to become more high-performing as a team.

So why is trust so important in teams?

Team effectiveness hinges on collective interest and working together in a collaborative way, with the team focusing both on the task and the process – i.e. the interpersonal dynamics and relationships within the team. 

An absence of trust makes it almost impossible to work collaboratively. 

Teams with high levels of trust are more flexible and resilient in the face of challenges. Team members feel able to be honest and vulnerable – sharing their genuine ideas, views and feelings, or asking for help, without fear of being devalued or made to feel ‘less than’ if there are differences or mistakes are made. 

This is what we mean when we talk about psychological safety. As Amy Edmondson puts it: “…in a psychologically safe workplace, people are not hindered by interpersonal fear. They feel willing and able to take the inherent interpersonal risks of candor.” (Edmondson, 2019).

What’s the difference between trust and psychological safety? 

As Edmondson (2019) explains, psychological safety is experienced at a group level while trust relates to interactions between two individuals or parties.  She adds, “trust is about giving others the benefit of the doubt, and psychological safety relates to whether others will give you the benefit of the doubt, when, for instance, you have asked for help or admitted a mistake.” (Edmondson, 2019).

So how does self-awareness act as a foundation for trust and psychological safety in teams?

Trust is inherently reciprocal. 

A leader’s own actions may communicate a lack of trust on their part. Lack of awareness of their impact on others would allow this to continue, making it hard for the team to trust the leader in return: “Why should I trust you if you don’t trust me?” 

In terms of psychological safety, the leader needs an awareness of their own attitudes towards failure. Are they unintentionally conveying that it’s not okay to fail or make mistakes because this is the attitude they have about their own failures and mistakes? 

The team leader can also help build trust by understanding how their personality preferences influence their leadership style and how and when to flex to get the best out of team members with different styles and needs.  

And for the whole team, having an awareness of all the different styles in the team and learning to appreciate all of these differences for the complementary value they bring, is a critical step towards building trust.  There’s a reason why so many teams in so many different organisations ask us to work with them using the MBTI® as an underpinning framework – it helps them understand each other better and lays the foundation for greater levels of trust.

Team members (including the team leader) who get to know each other at a deeper level - beyond the tasks and transactional elements of work – are more likely to feel able to show vulnerability.
Let’s go back to the leadership team (of ten) I mentioned at the beginning.  

The most powerful part of the whole team development session was a self-disclosure activity (unplanned and something that they asked for as a result of what was emerging during the session) which took them a significant stride forward in developing psychological safety as a team. 

Each team member spent around five minutes sharing what they viewed as the key strength they brought to the team and the main area for development that they either needed help with or needed people to be aware of. Being vulnerable with each other and seeing that it was safe to do so, helped start the shift in attitudes towards mistakes and failure the team leader had been hoping for. We saw evidence of this the next day, during an activity based around a live case example that required some honest reviewing of an initiative that was not going the way they’d hoped.

Self-awareness helps build trust in teams. Trust and psychological safety in teams is the foundation for all of the other elements of high performance and better performance means greater contribution to organisational success.  


Top tips for building trust and psychological safety in teams:

*Edmondson, A. (2019). The fearless organization. Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth.  Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.