Jennifer Newman: How to be on a high-performing team at work

Workplace psychologist Jennifer Newman says "psychologically safe" teams are effective because they give everyone a chance to have their say, and also keep all the members in check.

'Psychologically safe' teams consider each member's opinions and feelings

How well team members interact can make a big difference to team performance, workplace psychologist Jennifer Newman says. (Getty Images/Hero Images)

In many workplaces employees can expect to work together at least some of the time — and how well team members interact can make a big difference to team performance, says workplace psychologist Jennifer Newman.

Newman sat down withThe Early Edition host Rick Cluff to talk about what makes teams tick, and how people can avoid being on teams where the experiences is negative and dissatisfying.

Rick Cluff: What seems to be the key difference between teams that gel and those that don't?

Jennifer Newman:  It depends on how psychologically safe your team is. Psychological safety is the degree to which team members are confident their team will not embarrass, reject or punish them for speaking up. And, on the positive side, it's a team climate characterized by interpersonal trust, mutual respect, where people can be themselves.

If you work in a psychologically safe team, it's probable everyone gets a chance to speak. There's equal airtime and it can be fun. Plus, team members are aware of each other, they're tuned into their co-workers' moods, emotions, nonverbal cues, tone of voice and facial expressions.

What are the benefits to being on a psychologically safe team?

These teams tend to get more done and get right to the heart of matters. That's because the team isn't dominated by one person, or a small sub-group. Everyone has a chance to give input, and the team cares about individual team members and how they're feeling and what they're thinking.

Workplace psychologist Jennifer Newman. (Jennifer Newman )

It's not all rosy, though. The team hears out objections and actively seeks opinions. If someone crosses the line, they call it. There's also a lot of appreciation for each other's efforts, and people feel supported and validated.

You mentioned when someone crosses the line, the team calls them on it. How is that psychologically safe?

On unsafe teams, what tends to happen is that they let inappropriate things go, over and over again. Then, they lose the chance to deal with legitimate issues. For example, there was a team member who noticed her teammate started doing his paperwork at meetings. At first, everyone let it go. Then, when he did it again, and so she acknowledged everyone was swamped with their work. That started a discussion about how busy everyone was and what to do about it. So you can use things that happen to understand more about the team

What if there is a dominant member, or a clique that takes over, what can be done about that?

Sometimes it happens when an extrovert gets on a roll. For example, if the extrovert is talking a lot, the team can encourage someone else to speak. When that person is speaking, the team can ask their extroverted member to wait a second to let that person finish. Afterwards, you can underscore how you liked hearing from everyone.

This reminds the dominant member to make room for quieter folks to chime-in. The bigger problem comes if your teammate's agenda is to dominate the team and get their way. In that case, you can ask the whole team if the direction that's being advocated is a done deal. This allows one to check-in with everyone else, before setting on a final plan.

You seem to be saying creating a psychologically safe team is up to team members?

It is — and it is also up to the team leaders. For example: I worked with a service worker whose team leader used to become defensive and frazzled in team meetings, and he'd try to control the team whenever he was anxious. The worker spoke with the team leader privately about his reactions and asked how the team could help.

Being on a psychologically safe team is about listening and having empathy for everyone on the team, being willing to bring things up and finding caring ways to do that. So it's everyone's responsibility — team members and team leaders alike.

This interview has been edited and condensed

To hear the full interview listen to the audio labelled: Workplace psychologist Jennifer Newman explains what makes teams tick


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