Byte of Prevention Blog

by Jay Reeves |

Is Your Law Office Psychologically Safe?

To create a law firm that even Aristotle would admire, you can start by making sure your office is psychologically safe.

This has nothing to do with political correctness or snowflakes, and everything to do with trust and teamwork.

Studies show that the number one factor in creating a successful team is not who is on the team, but how well they work together. Do they feel safe in voicing their opinions? Are they unafraid to take risks? Are they confident about putting themselves out there, even if it means sometimes failing?

In other words, do they feel psychologically safe?

In 2016, Google embarked on a two-year quest to discover what makes a great team. The study – called Project Aristotle in homage to the philosopher’s quote “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts,” – interviewed hundreds of top executives and studied dozens of high-performing businesses.

What Google found was that psychological safety was the most important factor shared by stellar teams.

Read more about Project Aristotle here.

Five Qualities of Top Teams

Here is how Google defines psychological safety:

“In a team with high psychological safety, teammates feel safe to take risks around their team members. They feel confident that no one on the team will embarrass or punish anyone else for admitting a mistake, asking a question, or offering a new idea.”

The five pillars of great teams are:

  • Psychological safety. “If I make a mistake on our team, it is not held against me.”
  • Dependability. “When my teammates say they’ll do something, they follow through with it.”
  • Structure and Clarity. “Our team has an effective decision-making process.”
  • “The work I do for our team is meaningful to me.”
  • “I understand how our team’s work contributes to the organization’s goals.”

The common thread running through all of these is trust.

“This may appear to be a simple concept, but building trust between team members is no easy task,” says Justin Bariso, author of EQ, Applied: The Real-World Guide to Emotional Intelligence in this Inc. article “For example, a team of just five persons brings along varying viewpoints, working styles and ideas about how to get a job done.”

Having Shared Beliefs

Harvard organizational behavioral scientist Amy Edmondson is credited with originating the term “team psychological safety,” which she defined as “a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.”

Risk-taking does not have to be dramatic. It can be as simple as feeling free to ask a basic question like “what’s the goal of this project?” without being branded as clueless or a troublemaker.

In a popular TEDx talk, Edmondson provides a test for gauging a team’s level of psychological safety. Team members are asked how strongly they agreed or disagreed with these statements:

  1. If you make a mistake on this team, it is often held against you.
  2. Members of this team are able to bring up problems and tough issues.
  3. People on this team sometimes reject others for being different.
  4. It is safe to take a risk on this team.
  5. It is difficult to ask other members of this team for help.
  6. No one on this team would deliberately act in a way that undermines my efforts.
  7. Working with members of this team, my unique skills and talents are valued and utilized.

Edmondson also suggests three simple things individuals can do to foster team psychological safety:

  1. Frame the work as a learning problem, not an execution problem.
  2. Acknowledge your own fallibility.
  3. Model curiosity and ask lots of questions.

Bariso says leaders can promote psychological safety by being good listeners, showing empathy, being transparent, and setting a good example.

How psychologically safe is your law office? What steps can you take to improve?



About the Author

Jay Reeves

Jay Reeves practiced law in North Carolina and South Carolina. He was Legal Editor at Lawyers Weekly and Risk Manager at Lawyers Mutual. He is the author of The Most Powerful Attorney in the World, a collection of short stories from a law life well-lived, which as the seasons pass becomes less about law and liability and more about loss, love, longing, laughter and life's lasting luminescence.

Read More by Jay >

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