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Two important behavior norms for any team

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Have you ever worked on a team where several people, or even one person, dominates the group discussion?

Perhaps there are times when you are afraid to articulate an idea or opinion because  “the boss”, parent, or a colleague will challenge you and devalue your idea.

Whether you are part of a corporation, non-profit board, small business, school, team sport or even your own family, working together is key to high performance and goal attainment.

Researchers and organizational psychologists have been analyzing management styles, personality traits, leadership attributes, and team dynamics to discern qualities that create the perfect high achieving team.

In 2012, Google undertook a major investigation, project code name Aristotle,  to understand what made certain groups soar while others floundered.  

“Some groups said that teammates interrupted one another constantly and that team leaders reinforced that behavior by interrupting others themselves. On other teams, leaders enforced conversational order, and when someone cut off a teammate, group members would politely ask everyone to wait his or her turn. Some teams celebrated birthdays and began each meeting with informal chitchat about weekend plans. Other groups got right to business and discouraged gossip. There were teams that contained outsize personalities who hewed to their group’s sedate norms, and others in which introverts came out of their shells as soon as meetings began.”

Over the course of several years and countless of hypotheses, what surprised the researchers was that high performing teams weren’t necessarily comprised of the brightest minds working together or a certain type of leadership style, but rather an adherence to two types of group norms which were:

1.   A balanced conversational turn-taking among the members.  

In other words, everyone spoke for equal amounts of time and no one dominated the discussion.

2.  An attunement to “social sensitivity.”  

Team members were skilled at emotional intelligence; the ability to intuit how others were feeling based on tone of voice, facial expressions, and other non-verbal cues.

These traits of “conversational turn-taking” and “social sensitivity” are components of what Harvard Business Professor, Amy Edmondson,  calls “psychological safety.”  When these safety conditions are present, there will be enough trust where all team members are willing to speak up with concerns, questions, ideas, and even bring up any mistakes. Interpersonal risk-taking where individuals feel respected and accepted is the cornerstone to high performing teams and organizational effectiveness.

Why does this matter, you may wonder?  

When we instill a climate of openness within our groups where we can talk about errors and question the status quo, we can tap into our collective innovation and creativity and can achieve greater engagement and performance.  

Beginning in grade school, we learn how to become adept at “impression management.”  We regulate the impressions that people have of us through our social interaction.  When we want to influence others to think favorably about us, then we modify our responses to what others might want to hear, refrain from asking questions to avoid appearing stupid, and so on.

How do you build psychological safety in teams so that people want to participate?


1.  Frame the work as a learning problem

Setting the stage with comments such as this, “Given we don’t know the outcome, we need input from everyone to help sort through possibilities.”

2.  Acknowledge your own fallibility   

“I may miss something, so therefore I need to hear from you.”

3. Model curiosity.  

Ask a lot of questions.


Building psychological safety and using these tools will help encourage increased risk taking and trust from team members and lead to greater emotional bonds.  Connection, worthiness, and respect – isn’t this what we are all seeking?


More leadership books

This link below contains an affiliate link and I may earn a slight commission at no extra cost to you.

Teaming: How Organizations Learn, Innovate, and Compete in the Knowledge Economy by Amy Edmondson



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