Effectiveness requires psychological safety: Musings for higher education

Team work is not a new concept but is likely taking on greater significance in the 21st century.  Working in teams is needed not only to understand and address the complexity of the issues facing society today but to recognize the importance of and to engage actively with diverse perspectives in the conversation. The key to success is the effectiveness of these teams as investigated by Google in their study of team effectiveness and described in the Guide: Understand Team Effectiveness in 2015.

Although it is important to have particularly knowledgable individuals on the team, the “who is on a team matters less than how the team members interact, structure their work, and view their contributions”.  The study revealed the following five key factors were important to successful and effective teams:

  • Psychological safety – feeling safe to take risks and be vulnerable
  • Dependability – getting work done on time and meeting expectation
  • Structure and clarity – having clear goals and roles
  • Meaning of work – meaningfulness and personal
  • Impact of work – work matters and positive change

Google found that the psychological safety was the most important key factor and the foundation for the others.

Higher education can take lessons from these findings as we conduct much of our work in teams throughout the university (e.g., faculty research teams, task forces and committees, administrative units pursuing strategic goals, organizations and associations, and more).  In addition, the context of the 21st century university lends itself to an interactive and innovative learning environments at the core of our mission.

The “work” in higher education is often undertaken in teams or in collaborations with others. The “work” as demonstrated through the missions of the university (e.g., teaching, research and service) and seen in our outcomes (e.g., education/degrees, research findings) must be meaningful and relevant not only to the individual(s) but to society as well. Inasmuch as colleges and universities are preparing the next generations of professionals, it is important that we do so as global citizens who will work in an increasingly more collaborative contexts.  As I have argued before, the university (especially the 21st century university) is a social institution with responsibility to society and therefore our “work” must matter and be about positive change.

Following in the spirit of academic freedom and liberal education for students, U.S. universities tend to subscribe to principles that guide our words and actions (e.g., principles of community) and actively promote inclusion and diversity.  Universities must actively encourage inclusive pedagogy and ways in which to undertake the difficult dialogues.  Although challenged by the rhetoric and divisiveness that appears in society today, institutions of higher education must continue to situate themselves to provide a welcoming and affirming environment for all where differences are respected and valued. Further, colleges and universities have an obligation to create a “space” where all (faculty, staff, students and administrators) know that diverse perspectives are valued and feel safe about taking risks, being vulnerable and learning from failure.  Innovation and creativity depend upon this and our universities must become futurisktic in our thinking and our actions.

Higher education should build and sustain a strong sense of community and adopt a philosophy of “thriving” not simply surviving. To do so, requires leadership (throughout the university) that in words and actions demonstrates that it values diverse perspectives, actively encourages the sharing of differing views and welcomes individual voices to the table.

And of course, we must continue to value and respect independent work and scholarship and at the same time value collaboration and teamwork.  The relevance of universities today depends upon the meaningfulness of our “work” and how well and effectively we work individually and together in teams and through interdisciplinary and innovative collaborative environments.

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