Psychological Safety & High Performance

group-exercise-performance_hThis article stopped me cold. It explains so much about the different teams I’ve been on (sports, professional, faith-based) and why some worked, others didn’t, and some fell apart mid-course.

Ignore the whole lead it part about the athlete & coach falling in love. That’s neither here nor there. Instead, consider what it says about the high performance atmosphere this coach created:

“Psychologically-safe groups are characterized by deep trust and mutual respect. Risk-taking is encouraged and fear of failure, judgment, and alienation is minimal or absent altogether….

This does not mean that competition is lacking. But…in teams with psychological safety, tension between members is often positive, prompting individual members to push themselves in a productive manner. The competition is healthy and doesn’t spill over into defensiveness or become self or mutually destructive.   

Put differently, in psychologically-safe environments, competition raises everyone up. But when psychological safety is lacking, competition often breaks people down. In a sense, psychologically-safe teams function similarly to many families: Individual members may push each other and not always get along, but at the end of the day, they are united by trust and respect. They are in it together.”

I would highlight every part of this if I could, because I suspect that the predominant force in most faith-based groups is not psychological safety, but fear: Fear of offending, fear of making God look bad, fear of angering a friend or leader and being denied opportunity or some other sort of blessing. It’s a rare church where you can REALLY be yourself (and by this I mean your personality – thoughts, hopes, feelings, manner of expression, etc. – rather than you identity, which is a different conversation.) When you’re in this fear long enough it feels normal, almost holy. But it’s not.

Reading this article reminded me of experiences I’ve had with psychologically safe groups–one in grad school studying political science, another in a Unitarian Universalist Church in DC where I was trying to figure out why no one talked all that much about God. I THRIVED in these places. They were healing, motivating, and inspired me to new levels both professionally (as I left the PhD program to work for a mentor) and spiritually (and left the UU faith for a more Jesus-centered Christianity.)

Maybe a chief sign of psychologically safe groups is they help you grow enough to leave? Not in a bad way, but because you’re ready to take on new risks and challenges because of your time in this safe place. Interesting to think about in the church context, as the goal there is usually to keep people in one place over the long haul.

I went to the website for my local library to order the Duhigg book, Smarter, Faster, Better referenced in the article, only to see that I’d requested it two weeks ago. I suspect God might be telling me something here.

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