In a 2013 experiment, members of eight teams in an upcoming business school pitch competition were asked questions, including whether they liked horror movies and whether they got annoyed by spelling mistakes. The data-scientist running the experiment, Alastair Shepherd, knew nothing about the team members' business experiences, intelligence or leadership abilities. However, he accurately predicted the ranking of the eight teams in the subsequent competition, using only the quiz answers. That's because teams perform better if they're tolerant and welcoming of different perspectives.
There's plenty of evidence to back up this idea – what matters in a team is not the seniority or experience of the people involved, but their attitudes toward each other. And what really matters is the extent of psychological safety within the group. This is measurable by the degree to which members of the group feel free and able to propose ideas and thoughts without any risk of embarrassment.
When Google analyzed 200 teams in 2012, it found that the best performers were those who were part of teams with high levels of psychological safety. Not only were they less likely to quit; they were also twice as often described as effective by their superiors.
When teams aren't psychologically safe, performance suffers. A 2017 Wall Street Journal article recounted a simulation in which teams of doctors treated a supposedly sick mannequin. Some teams were assigned an observer who then treated them rudely, belittling their efforts during the simulation. These teams made serious mistakes, like misdiagnosis or failure to ventilate properly.
So if you're in a leadership position, how can you help create an environment of psychological safety? Well, a fun way to show that it's okay for your team members to share their ideas is to kick off discussions with a bad idea brainstorm – asking for deliberately absurd ideas. Taking the pressure off a little will loosen things up when it comes to the serious discussion.
Another way to encourage diverse ideas, particularly if there are introverts in a team, may be to ask everyone to write down their thoughts. Then the group leader can share them aloud and invite follow-up discussion. This way, it's possible to build a foundational framework for a safe, thoughtful exchange of ideas.