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Project Leadership: How to Create High-Performing Teams

Written by Susanne Madsen

Psychological safety is the key to creating a high performing project team

In light of a fast moving economy and growing competition more organisations are relying on a project-based model to deliver value to the business. Large sums of money are being invested in project management frameworks and in aligning project deliverables with organisational strategy. But the most important success factor is the formation of a great project team. An empowered and inspired team, that feels psychologically safe, has the potential to come up with new and innovative solutions that meet the needs of their clients and move the organisation forward.

Creating an inspired and motivated project team isn’t as obvious as we may think, although we instinctively know what it looks like. Consider for a moment the most successful team you have been part of or that you know of. How did the team members communicate with one another? What was the feeling you had when you interacted with the team? Did the team members make you feel accepted and trusted and did they listen to your ideas?

In high performing teams everybody speaks in roughly the same amount

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Google have gone to great lengths to identify the factors that contribute to a team’s performance. Their studies show that high performance is closely correlated to a team’s communication patterns and whether all team members actively contribute to making decisions and moving the project forward. They found that high performing teams seem to spend a lot of time communicating face-to-face or via videoconference. Emailing, texting and speaking on large conference calls were found to be a lot less effective and led to poorer performance.

The researchers also found that in high performing teams everybody appeared to speak roughly the same amount. Team members didn’t just communicate through the team leader and there weren’t pockets of people who weren’t involved. This means that when leading a team where only three out of five team members are actively contributing to discussions, the manager must spend time activating the last two people.

What’s really interesting is that Google’s studies show that equal communication and contribution happens when the project leader is able to create an environment where team members feel safe enough to contribute. In teams where some members are allowed to dominate discussions or where the team leader is too controlling or judging, many members simply don’t come forward with their views and ideas out of fear of being dismissed.

Project Leaders need to have a high level of social sensitivity

The key is for project leaders to take on the role of a facilitator and thereby moderate the team’s discussions in such a way that the members feel that it’s safe to come forward and share what’s on their mind. Leaders can do that by explicitly asking the more reserved team members what their views are and by recognizing their contributions during meetings. At the end of a meeting for instance, they can let each person summarise their views to make sure that everyone has contributed. Team leaders need to have a high level of social sensitivity and emotional intelligence to do this, as moderating a meeting and making people feel safe is all about listening, empathising and knowing how to make people feel that they belong in the group.

We sometimes think of great leaders as people who come up with novel ideas and push them through the organisation. But leaders who perceive themselves as strong, decisive and fast moving don’t always realise that they cut off the team in the process because they are not sufficiently inclusive. High performance happens when all team members play along. This requires the leader to slow down and take the council of all members instead of rushing to implement a decision, which only a few contributed to.

Vulnerability creates psychological safety and openness

Leaders can set a good example and become advocates for trust and respect by sharing something personal and showing their vulnerability. This could be a time in the past when they made a wrong decision, failed at implementing a project or made a faux pas with the client. What they will find is that they begin to create what psychologists refer to as psychological safety – a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject or punish someone for speaking up or for sharing something sensitive.

When psychological safety is present, people feel free to share what’s on their mind – whether it’s a bright new idea or a tough personal challenge. They are able to talk about what is messy and have difficult conversations with colleagues who have different opinions. And this is when high performance can occur. Because when people feel psychologically safe, they bring their entire personality to work where they contribute with all that they have without fear that they will be judged or criticized.

To all of you who are involved in strategic projects, be mindful of how you come across to the team. Reduce your levels of control and judgment, and replace it with vulnerability, empathy and sensitivity.

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