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    How to Create a Collaborative Team Culture

    on 3 December 2018

    Tags: ,

    Posted by Pavel Bukengolts
    iStock 500044568

    For decades, people have tried to figure out how to encourage collaboration, how to make people work together more effectively.

    Most of the early research in this area focused on who should work together, or what mix of people make the best team. Was it a mix of high performers? Or perhaps colleagues who got along well outside of work?

    It turns out these are the wrong questions. Research shows the key to unlocking the collaborative potential of any team lies not in who’s on the team, but how they work together.

    That’s right. Most people can work together as a high performing team as long as they feel psychological safety within the group.

    What is psychological safety?

    Psychological safety refers to feeling secure within a group setting. Specifically, it means each person on the team feels they have an equal voice and that the other members on the team are sensitive to their emotions.

    So when someone makes a mistake or takes a risk, they’ll feel confident that their colleagues won’t embarrass them with harsh critiques. If anything, they’ll receive encouragement from the team.

    Similarly, when the team works on a big new strategy for next year, everyone will feel confident their input is valued. Certain members of the team won’t be elevated over others.

    We know psychological safety is important because Google spent two years conducting over 200 hundred employee interviews to uncover what made the perfect team. They actually found five keys to successful teams, but psychological safety was far and away the most important.

    Google’s Julie Rozovksy explains: “Individuals on teams with higher psychological safety are less likely to leave Google, they’re more likely to harness the power of diverse ideas from their teammates...and they’re rated twice as effective twice as often by executives.”

    This is precisely why Jeff Weiner, the CEO of LinkedIn no less, says the most in demand skills for business professionals are soft skills. It turns out they’re the glue that holds good teams together.

    How to establish a collaborative environment

    For collaboration to succeed, the right culture must be in place. Every team will adhere to different behavioural norms, but a strong foundation is always built on psychological safety.

    Laying the groundwork starts and ends with leaders. Everyone in the team will take their cues from how their manager acts, so the leader’s behaviour has a direct impact on shaping how everyone on the team collaborates.

    Collaboration is required for creativity, and good teamwork is often what separates good UX design firms from bad ones. Consequently, I’ve spent a lot of time in my career building psychological safety into the culture of design teams.

    Here are a the most important ground rules to establish:

    Everyone needs to speak, and listen

    Research into psychological safety tells us that people need to feel heard, even if their opinion doesn’t ultimately change the course of a project.

    You should take this literally. In each meeting, pay attention to how often each team member speaks. To get the balance right, everyone needs to have their say.

    If one person has a shy disposition or just hasn’t had the opportunity to contribute, give them a platform by asking their opinion directly.

    And be sure to listen. When someone is talking, don’t look at your phone and don’t interrupt. Giving the speaker your full attention is a signal to the entire team that it’s important to listen to everyone.

    Reward risk taking

    At DePalma, we have design reviews every day. During this reviews, one person presents their work to the group, and everyone gives their feedback.

    Creative work is always personal, so if the designers don’t work collaboratively, these can be tense meetings. And if we can’t collaborate, we can’t do our best work. So it’s critical that everyone feels psychologically safe.

    To do that, we make sure to reward risks. We need people to innovate, so if someone comes up short, or even makes a mistake, there isn’t an environment of judgement. We applaud the effort and support each other.

    This concept may seem more important in creative work, but rewarding risk has a place in nearly any team. If you want your people to think outside the box, you must create an environment where it’s safe to do so.

    That means treating mistakes as learning experiences, rather than an opportunity for judgement. It means encouraging new ideas rather than shutting them down.

    Encourage honesty

    People love to say business isn’t personal, but that’s never true. Everyone gets upset at some point in their work. That’s normal. The trick is how you address these situations when they arise.

    To create a truly collaborative team, you have to let people express themselves when they get upset — whether that’s with you or with another teammate.

    Now, this doesn’t mean they have carte blanche to start yelling, but it does mean they have a platform to articulate what’s bothering them and discuss a solution.

    Everyone has to believe that honest discussion is the best path to solving problems.

    Even when someone isn’t upset, the idea of honesty should be encouraged. If someone has reservations about an idea, their feedback could lead to a better solution. But if they aren’t empowered to express their concerns, a subpar idea could make it to production.


    Collaboration has many requirements — the right tools, the right leadership, the right environment — but chief among those requirements is the right culture. By fostering an environment of psychological safety, you’ll fundamentally improve how your team collaborates.