As employees spend an ever-growing proportion of their time in teams at the workplace, companies and psychologists the world over have long been trying to decode the ideal mix of individual qualifications and group traits that make those teams operate as optimally as possible. It came as surprise, then, that a company as data-driven and analytical as Google recently found that it wasn’t a team’s individual personality traits or even expertise that coalesced to allow a team to shine; the distinguishing factor, Google learned, came down to a team’s naturally-adopted, subjective collection of “group norms.”
According to Charles Duhigg’s New York Times article published on the findings earlier this year, Google’s research-oriented People Operations Department determined that the tech giant’s most successful teams shared two key norms — equally distributed conversational turn-taking, wherein all members of the teams spoke roughly the same amount, and high average social sensitivity, wherein members of the group displayed a keen awareness of their teammates’ feelings.
Such norms contribute to a group culture that academics refer to as psychological safety, in which members exhibit trust and mutual respect for each other while also feeling comfortable taking interpersonal risks within the team. High psychological safety, it turned out, was the biggest indicator of a team’s eventual success.
While Google’s research primarily focused on the impact that a team’s psychological safety had on that team’s eventual performance, Darden Professor Kristin Behfar and colleagues examined how psychological safety and team satisfaction might affect members of a team before that team received any external feedback. Many corporate teams will often collaborate for months at a time before being validated with success (or branded with failure), and Behfar’s study sought to examine team members’ biases in assigning or assuming credit for completed work absent any forthcoming indicators of group success.
Bias is an important concept for managers and companies to understand, as individuals who believe they’ve done more work than their teammates, also known as those with a self-serving bias, are not only rated as unlikable by the rest of the group, but also have less interest in working with the same team again. If individuals do not see their work as consistent with their peers in a group project, they will exhibit either self- or other-centric biases in performance evaluations; that is, they either assign more credit to themselves than to other members for contributions to the group’s work, or vice versa.
The research performed by Behfar and her colleagues has demonstrated several team dynamics that will mitigate or breed these performance evaluation biases well before feedback is received. The first key finding revealed that team satisfaction influences a team member’s perceptions of work distribution, where team satisfaction is defined as a shared happiness and belonging toward a group, and dissatisfaction is defined as feeling a lack of connection to those members and the group. Through two empirical studies, the research revealed that individuals feeling unsatisfied with their teams displayed a greater self-serving bias.
The reasons for this bias do have logical explanations embedded in human behavior; individuals generally have the greatest access to details of their own work contributions and can easily “unpack” the sub-tasks associated with their deliverables. Thus, in unsatisfied and unconnected teams in which there is not a sense of belonging, individuals will be even more attuned to their own work, while viewing others as a collective category without fully unpacked or understood work efforts. In satisfied teams, on the other hand, the happiness and sense of belonging inherent to the group creates a positive orientation toward other team members, which allows individuals to pay greater attention to the actions and contributions of others and mitigates the feeling of taking on a greater proportion of the work.
One surprising finding from Behfar’s research demonstrated that high levels of team satisfaction could even produce an other-serving bias, wherein members of satisfied teams allocated more credit to others than they assign to themselves. This phenomenon of being more likely to perceive and appreciate others’ contributions in satisfied partnerships is akin to (and prevalent in) happy marriages: Smitten partners might better understand the time and steps involved in a spouse’s dinner preparation (recipe selection, grocery store visit, produce washing and chopping, etc.) than an unconnected spouse might when seeing the final product on the table.
The second key finding from the research related to the impact of psychological safety on this connection between team satisfaction and individual bias in teams. Despite what managers might assume, psychological safety can be either high or low in both satisfied and unsatisfied teams (see Table 1 below), and the research demonstrated that for teams high in psychological safety, the effects of team dissatisfaction on self-serving bias were diminished. That is, psychologically safe norms can actually lessen the effects of team dissatisfaction on self-serving bias, while the highest level of self-serving bias occurs when both team satisfaction and psychological safety are low.
The impact psychological safety has on diminishing self-serving bias is best understood when considering the behaviors that are characteristic of such teams. Individuals in psychologically safe teams feel comfortable asking for help and questioning assumptions; they honor others’ ideas and unique skills and problem-solve in an open way; they even take risks without fear or finger-pointing or shame. Through these norms, the contributions of each member are more visible and bias is mitigated, even when teams don’t feel the human connection or belonging that they might in a satisfied team.
Table 1: Team Norms as Categorized by Satisfaction and Psychological Safety
What the Findings Mean for You
Despite the subjective feelings and connected attitudes that must arise organically to create satisfied teams, there is good news for managers: Psychological safety, which packs a bigger punch in mitigating self-centric bias amongst employees, can be actively fostered and promoted. Known ways that managers can increase psychological safety for their employees include creating participative or inclusive management styles and clear team structures, which allow members to feel comfortable enacting their set roles within the team. Additionally, managers can create an integrative style of conflict resolution, wherein different ideas from all members are accepted and honored. In these ways, managers looking to create team players and increased cohesion across teams, satisfied or not, can make their teams’ psychological safety an adopted norm.
Kristin J. Behfar co-authored “Impact of Team (Dis)satisfaction and Psychological Safety on Performance Evaluation Biases,” which appeared in the journal Small Group Research, with Ray Friedman of the Owen Graduate School of Management at Vanderbilt University and Se Hyung Oh of Konkuk Business School at Konkuk University.