Google’s insights into high performing teams – Part 1: Psychological Safety

In 2015, Google ran a large scale research study (they interviewed 180+ teams) called the Aristotle project to investigate what makes certain teams more successful in their company than others. As most of value-creating work happens these days through intensive collaboration and teamwork, the findings on what factors enable high performing teamwork are critical.

Contrary to assumptions that personality profiles and a good mix of individual skills determine the effectiveness of a team, Google found a surprising insight.

Who is on a team matters less than how the team members interact, structure their work, and view their contributions.”

This finding is very much in line with our mission at StrongSuits to increase engagement and performance at work through increasing self-awareness and inclusion.

More detail on the Google Aristotle Study

“We learned that there are five key dynamics that set successful high performing teams apart from other teams at Google:

  1. Psychological safety: Can we take risks on this team without feeling insecure or embarrassed?

  2. Dependability: Can we count on each other to do high quality work on time?

  3. Structure & clarity: Are goals, roles, and execution plans on our team clear?

  4. Meaning of work: Are we working on something that is personally important for each of us?

  5. Impact of work: Do we fundamentally believe that the work we’re doing matters?”

Google encourages teams to self-reflect and discuss these points. Is our answer “yes” to these questions? What is holding us back to achieve a “yes”? How can we improve? In fact, there is a downloadable team guide shared by the company, if you would like to facilitate such discussion with your teams.

What tools and interventions can you use to develop your team?

While the Google study is clear on the key factors that create high performing teamwork in their organisation, the tools and coaching practices – the how – is a missing element not yet shared in their study. Therefore we have decided to devote a series of blogposts to enrich the Google findings with tried and tested tools and StrongSuits coaching interventions that can help your teams improve their performance.

How to improve psychological safety in your team

Let’s start with definitions. Psychological safety is defined as the most important contributor to high performance of a team. It is defined as a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking. It can be defined as “being able to show and employ one’s self without fear of negative consequences of self-image, status or career” (Kahn 1990, p. 708). The problem with not having psychological safety in a team that deal with uncertainty and interdependence is that the team is not in the learning zone. In unsafe teams people are so busy managing impressions that they don’t take risks or don’t innovate – said Amy Edmonson, Harvard Professor in her excellent TED talk video.

Trusting each other in the team, daring to be yourself and showing your weaknesses are well known, important factors for reaching a perception of safety. A latest study published by Ericsson (2018) adds a surprising factor to the mix: self-compassion seems to play a large part in creating psychological safety.

What does self-compassion actually mean?

According to dr. Kristin Neff, self-compassion researcher, self-compassion is about how you act towards yourself – with compassion – when you fail, have a difficult time or don’t like something about yourself. Research in social psychology shows that the way people perceive themselves has a powerful influence on how they perceive others, and that we tend to judge others through the lens of the self (Dunning, 2002). According to Kati Ilvonen, the author of the Ericsson article and head coach at Ericsson R&D , you can improve your team’s climate and psychological safety by connecting to your own feelings and needs, being your own best friend during hard times, and understanding yourself compassionately.

What tools and interventions can you use to develop your team?

Strengths are positive traits reflected in thoughts, feelings, and behaviours of a person (Selignman, 2004). StrongSuits has been designed based on research in positive psychology and based on 50+ strengths frameworks to create self-awareness, positive self-image and understanding of differences in people. Through 52 strengths cards designed to represent different preferences in a system of opposites, we have a day to day coaching tool that can be used in versatile ways with teams and individuals.

Here are 4 ways you can build psychological safety with the StrongSuits system:


  • Playing with the strengths cards with a trusted colleague or individually. StrongSuits allows you to express how you perceive your strengths with the cards. If someone is listening to you, there is an opportunity to receive feedback and reinforcement. The fact that all 52 cards are positive qualities, makes this exercise safe to play and creates space for appreciative feedback to yourself and to your colleagues.


  • Sharing your strengths through conversations with your team members allows for a dialogue in the wider team about each other’s strengths and an understanding of opposite strengths. An example of opposite strengths could be Big Picture or Detail, another example could be Diplomatic or Plain Speaking. Working with opposites builds the ability in the team to reframe perceived differences from the negative to positive traits. The way we normally coach this is to ask: “In which situation has the strengths of Big Picture been more useful to our team than Detail? How about the other way round?”


  • By building a StrongSuits Team Strengths Map where you can visualise the collective strengths of your team, each team member has the opportunity to voice their needs in how they wish to communicate or work with others on this team. Next, we also often do the exercise called Your Washing Instructions – yes, like those for garments – where you publish your requests, psychological and communication needs to your team members. From these discussions, we can build a collective Team Agreement, which is often a set of team values – practices expressed with practical examples. For example a team agreement could be that “We respect each other therefore we are always on time for our daily team meeting, or therefore we communicate on asynchronous persistent chats rather than via phone so that we can improve inclusion and knowledge sharing on our team.”


  • Establishing and maintaining good communication in a team is done by self-regulating behaviours such as reflection and feedback. By having the StrongSuits cards handy on your weekly team meetings or retrospectives, you can arrange a shout-out and share 1 card for each team member “at their best” that week and 1 card for a suggestion for an “even better if” behaviours. This creates an opportunity for regular appreciation and non-violent, specific feedback within your team.

Further reading:

  1. HBR article: High performing teams need psychological safety and this is how to create it
  2. Medium article from a manager of agile product teams: How to create psychological safety
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