Issue 44

Psychological safety and team cohesion

Ștefania Duica
IT Recruiter @Endava

The IT domain is a dynamical one and the development teams hold an important place in the delivery of application to different clients. Thus, the focus of attention is more and more on the role of the teams within the organization, in order to identify the different methods that can contribute to increase their efficiency.

On the group there are people from many fields and in many situations they are working together only for a limited period of time (most of the times, only for the duration of a single project). In this context, the big challenge is given by the fact that individuals with a relatively different experience, have to deliver a high level product meeting rather tight deadlines most of the times. This leads to the wide scope that the group has and the successful development of an application depends on the manner in which the individuals collaborate. The development cycle of a soft is a complex one, both from the point of view of the way in which the team members work together and individually, for each and every group. One of the great challenges they face is that of coordinating the activities for the period in which they are assigned to projects that engage a large number of people. In order for the delivery to be a success, it takes technical knowledge and abilities specific to each and every role (programmer, tester, PM, BA, DevOps, etc.), as well as creativity, ingenuity and problem solving (Cusumano, 2004). And this is where we can notice the manner in which every team operates and how it manages to increase performance in a complex context. Writings in the domain of organizational psychology highlight the difficulty faced when the individual has to work with different people, as for some it is easier to collaborate with certain personality typologies, and for others it is more difficult (Hackman, 1990).

Hence derives a new challenge on the level of the organization, namely, what can be done in order for the teams to function as well as possible and for the members of the group to have high performances that might lead to the development of an application which will offer satisfaction to the client. Thus, the focus of attention is more and more centered on what collaboration means and how one can establish healthy relationships in the work environment within the group.

Collaboration involves interaction among the team members, offering support in carrying out different tasks, understanding the needs of those around, accepting the fact that there are certain facts that one does not know the answer to and other things that cannot be carried out individually. This need of collaboration steams out from the existence of some tasks that push the individual to step out of his comfort zone. Working in a collaborative manner is done, first of all, by sharing ideas and information, integrating perspectives and coordinating tasks. The focus is more and more on the team and the way in which it works, performs and to what extent learning is stimulated within the group. Thus, the teams end up ensuring a structured mechanism through which collaboration is done. In the context where the team plays a key role, it is essential to understand its defining characteristics. Hackman (1987) said that it is about the need for different individuals to work together in order to be able to reach a result that they can share.

The question that arises here is related to what it is that determines people to share ideas by themselves and some of them even to contribute to a collaborative idea?

There has been a lot of talk that still goes on about the impact that cohesion has in increasing the performance, the role that is played by trust between the team members and, last but not least, how we can build a climate to facilitate communication, offer feedback and encourage the team members, so that each of them contribute with his own ideas and actions to the collective work.

Team cohesion is seen as a mixture of characteristics such as interpersonal attraction, the pride of belonging to the group and commitment to solve the tasks (Mullen & Copper, 1994). On the other hand, in order to create a high cohesion team, trust is essential, that is the acceptance of solidary relations. By trust, we understand that an individual is not afraid to feel so comfortable around his colleagues that he is not afraid to be vulnerable in front of them. This vulnerability is identified the moment when the team members reach that point where they feel totally comfortable, being transparent, honest and they say and believe in statements such as: "I blew it", "I need help" or "your idea is better than mine". Trust leads to a series of behavioral expectancies among the individuals, allowing them to manage the risk or insecurity associated with their interactions. It is often seen as a choice and based on different sociological patterns, one can distinguish the cognitive, behavioral and emotional types of trust.

Cohesion is probably the most common method through which the performance of a group is increased. Many companies are trying to bind-up the team by determining people to get closer to one another, to appreciate one another and also, to create that pride of belonging to the group. Probably, when cohesion is strong, the group is motivated to perform well and has better abilities to coordinate the activities towards a successful performance (Cartwright, 1968; Davis, 1969).

However, many studies have accepted the plausibility of there being a relation between the group cohesion and group performance. Empirical observations of the relation have varied quite a lot, determining some authors to ask themselves questions related to the possibility of generalizing such results (Stegdill, 1972; Tzimer, 1982). The most powerful relation to performance seems to belong to the individuals' commitment to carry out the tasks. Cohesion components, such as interpersonal attraction or the pride of belonging to a group, have proven not to be related directly to performance (Beal et al. 2003). Thus, cohesion needs a greater power to increase team performance.

More recent studies make reference to the fact that this concept of cohesion can reduce the desire to disapprove and challenge the points of view expressed by the others, just like in the phenomenon called groupthinking (Janis, 1982), also implying a lack of taking risks (Edmondson, 2003). This phenomenon is derived from the behavior manifested by the group members when interpersonal attraction or the pride of belonging to the group increase, people avoiding to freely express their ideas for fear not to enter conflicts with the other group members.

Based on the minuses that team cohesion present, a new concept has appeared in psychology, called psychological safety, which aims at making up for the flaws of the first. Thus, this concept has appeared as a necessity to create a comfortable environment for individuals, so that they feel confident and capable to change. The biggest advantage of psychological safety is that it offers the confidence that the team will not reject or punish a member for expressing his point of view. In conclusion, psychological safety within the group is defined as a shared belief that the team is the safe environment where you can stand interpersonal risk. In a team where the psychological safety of individuals is high, freedom and willingness on the interpersonal level increase and individuals will engage more easily in risky behaviors that are necessary in their learning process. However, the existence of the need to create a comfortable learning environment does not necessarily involve a peaceful environment where the group members are close friends by all means and does not suggest the lack of pressure or different problems. The total lack of conflicts within the team is an inhibiting factor in its development. The better a conflict is being managed, the bigger the benefits it brings to the group.

By comparing the component that plays an important role in increasing group cohesion, namely the trust, to the psychological safety, one can notice that between the two there is a series of similarities, but we can also identify quite many differences. Psychological safety encourages learning behaviors, while trust reduces cost management and the need to monitor behaviors. Most recent studies have proven the fact that psychological safety has a much bigger impact on small groups, while trust is particularly relevant for dyadic relations. What trust does not manage to cover is a particular dimension of interpersonal experience, more precisely the extent to which an employee feels appreciated and comfortable in his work environment.

A very important difference between the two concepts, psychological safety and trust, is given by the point of focus: on oneself versus on the others.

A second difference is that which is conceptualized as being the analysis level of the group. As it turns out from the literature in the domain, psychological safety rather characterizes groups and not individual or behavioral differences. It is seen as an emergent property of the team, which describes levels of interpersonal safety experienced by the members of a particular group.

The last dimension is the one regarding the contraction of temporal limits. This concept highlights the fact that in the context of psychological safety, a person also takes into consideration the immediate results of the actions he gets involved in. Whereas, in the context of trust, the individuals tend to anticipate the consequences on a longer period of time, which is relatively far away in the future from the present moment.

A last question this article wishes to answer to is related to what can be done in order to create an environment that facilitates the enhancement of psychological safety?

One of the key factors is considered to be the behavior the leader has within the team. Thus, it has been proven that the manner in which the leader carries out the team management can have a rather high impact on the learning process within the group. In facilitating the development of such an environment, it is very important to focus on:

• Looking for help from colleagues in order to become aware of the importance that cooperative behaviors can have.

• Asking for feedback constantly in order to improve the learning process and increase the performance of both the leaders and the team.

• Discussing the errors and being concerned - in the context of psychological safety - with allowing the team members to say aloud what worries them and what their problems are, by relieving them from the fear of repercussions.

• Innovative behaviors and innovation - innovative behaviors can be defined as being the completion of different tasks in an intelligent manner so as to obtain useful results. Innovation appears more often if people feel safe within the group they are part of. Consequently, psychological safety, by facilitating risk taking and the desire to come up with new ideas where there's no fear of embarrassment, can support innovating behaviors and innovation within the team.

• Extending the boundaries - these behaviors describe external communication with other groups. They may involve taking on interpersonal risks, including the request of help or resources, looking for feedback and conveying negative news such as delays or exceeding the established deadlines.

The conclusion is not related to the fact that one of the concepts is more suitable than the other. Cohesion has its advantages, helping to form the relations between the members of a team, but psychological safety also has the role of creating a climate more oriented towards the creation of a favorable context, so that the individuals of a certain group be open to change and express their ideas freely.

The line between team cohesion and psychological safety is well enough drawn in pictures 1 and 2.

fig. 1

fig. 2

It is clear where the two are different and where the common element comes. What is difficult to establish is when one of them is better than the other one. This is a statement that is difficult to make, since, depending on the context or the team, each of them can have a different impact. Cohesion creates an environment where people feel comfortable, they are not afraid to be vulnerable in front of the others, they are honest with the team members and proud to belong to that group, but the central point is trust. These positive aspects can give birth to some behaviors that are not necessarily correlated with group performance. On the other hand, psychological safety facilitates the creation of an environment that favors learning, as the individuals feel confident and capable to change. Regarding the manner of interaction of the group members, in this context, they are not necessarily best friends, and the conflicts between them may contribute to their development, if they are well managed.




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