Growth Is a Team Sport (Part II)

Jack Cohen
9 min readDec 7, 2018


See here for Part I.

Fist bumps are still optional.

Psychological Safety

Put simply, we want our colleagues at work to help people by creating great products or services and improving bad and mediocre ones. This relies on people speaking up with their ideas and questions — even the ideas and questions we aren’t sure are good at first. The environment we create is the most powerful determinant of whether that sharing happens across our teams.

How do we create those environments?

Definition & Impact

Actionable feedback from our teammates is a great start. It lets us know very clearly where we stand with them. This both comes from and creates psychological safety, which is far more than some touchy-feely term I made up. In fact, researchers at Harvard and at Google identified it as the trait that most distinguishes high-performing teams. The Google researchers found that individuals on teams with higher psychological safety are less likely to leave Google, more likely to harness the power of diverse ideas from their teammates, bring in more revenue, and are rated as effective twice as often by executives.”

Why? Psychological safety expands beyond “I trust you” to “You trust me, and I know it.” Harvard Professor Amy Edmondson, who coined the term, explains: “Trust involves [you] giving others the benefit of the doubt…In contrast, in discussing psychological safety, the question is whether others will give you the benefit of the doubt when, for instance, you have made a mistake or asked an apparently stupid question.”

This impacts our micro-decisions, that moment in a meeting when your hand is about to raise or your mouth about to open — and you decide whether to speak up or stay quiet.

Like water, the environment deeply influences our reflex reaction: if it’s warm, everybody wants to jump in; if it’s cold, only the courageous do so, and less frequently.

When we don’t feel safe with each other, we put our shields up, protecting ourselves. Think of the last meeting you headed to with a colleague, steeling yourself for a confrontation. Our fight-flight-freeze systems go online, and we revert to a Pretend-and-Defend game of covering up our weaknesses and vulnerabilities. In this game, when people resist our feedback or suggestions, we ask why they are being so defensive. We might be wiser to ask what we could each do to make the environment more psychologically safe.

Since challenging and uncertain contexts inherently involve gaps in our knowledge, we can’t maximize growth and performance without cultivating the psychological safety that makes revealing those gaps tenable.

Here’s how it works:

How Psychological Safety Leads to Better Performance

Still, some people worry that psychological safety means anything goes, no one can be fired, and standards will eventually drop. The truth is quite the opposite.

Psychological safety does not mean that we will never be fired at work. Instead, it means both:

  1. If we were fired, it would never come as a surprise because we always know exactly where we stand with our colleagues and where we are in relation to what is expected of us.
  2. We have the ability to meet those expectations and thus avoid being fired (and more generally, we experience our own agency in co-determining our future).

In an environment where it seems that anyone could be fired or punished at any minute, employees spend a lot of time wondering whether they will be next and thus Concealing any errors or failures. This is an enormous distraction. Psychological safety, on the other hand, means helping people learn from failure — and under some conditions, even promoting failure — instead of punishing people.

Acing Failure

If Growth as a Team Sport has Before, During, and After components, Acing Failure constitutes the After. If you judge me negatively or punish me after I take a risk, I will become less likely to take risks in the future. That makes the “water” colder. I will tend toward Conceal instead of Reveal. How can we shift from this toward learning from, and even acing, failure?

Let’s start with understanding the problem. One of the most common confusions in organizations occurs when managers use an execution paradigm (expectations, standards, and processes) in an innovation environment. This destroys growth and experimentation.

As Amy Edmondson’s Uncertainty Spectrum shows, execution environments are predictable, which means failure is preventable; thus, the obvious strategy for excellence and improvement is to Prevent failure. (For most of us, this was the environment in which we were educated as kids.)

Use the degree of Uncertainty to inform how you approach failure

Innovation environments, on the other hand, are characterized by high uncertainty and unpredictability; as such, failure is not only inevitable, it is necessary. The only way to avoid failure would be to do nothing, which is exactly what often happens in larger, more established organizations that urge people to innovate while applying the same standards they use to execute (i.e. “prevent failure”). Thus, the productive approach to failure here is not Prevent but Promote, through hypothesis and exploratory testing, just as a pharmaceutical company does in research and development.

Settings that are not innovative but are complex also experience high uncertainty and, as a result, need a different approach to failure from both execution and innovation settings. In complex settings with many moving parts (think of a hospital), failure is also inevitable but undesirable; it causes process and system breakdowns. Thus, the approach here is Detect: early detection keeps failures small and minimizes the impacts (Teaming, Edmondson 2015). Again, mistakenly applying a “Prevent” approach here can inadvertently communicate that errors are unacceptable and the fault of an individual, which means those individuals might cover them up instead of speaking up.

Example in Complex Environments: Hospitals

Amy Edmondson’s 2004 study comparing eight nursing units in hospitals in Boston showed just this. She found that nursing teams with higher psychological safety had reported error rates ten times higher than the most fearful units. How could this be? Shouldn’t it mean that they would be more effective?

Nursing teams ranked by level of psychological safety, with most safe at the top. Yes, you read that right.

Here’s the rub: it was reported errors. In the less psychologically safe teams, nurses were keeping quiet about problems & errors, underreporting them because they were afraid of punishment, ridicule, and reprimand. Their managers were taking a “Prevent” approach to errors. In the best units, mistakes were shared so they could be addressed immediately and inform everybody’s learning — clearly a “Detect” approach.

In contrast to the earlier example of Dave and his colleague, psychological safety increases accountability by supporting team members in taking the necessary interpersonal risks to pursue high standards (Teaming, Edmondson 2015). Instead of telling oneself, “I’m not their manager; it’s not my place to correct them,” team members think, “It is my duty to correct their action — and an opportunity for all of us to grow.”

Growth as a team sport is not just about me revealing my growth areas; it also requires me revealing YOURS (and you revealing mine). Growth and feedback must be mutual, regardless of our roles in a hierarchy.

Nowhere is this more evident than in a startup. A startup, as startup guru and Stanford professor Steve Blank defines it, is essentially an organization testing a hypothesis about the repeatability and scalability of a particular business model (or an aspect of one). Startups learn more as a result of the level of risk that this failure Promotion attitude allows. As the startup team refines its hypothesis through experimentation and develops the necessary knowledge and skills to repeat and scale it, uncertainty is reduced; thus the startup can shift into execution mode.

Building a Failure-Safe Organization

To get there — and for innovation-oriented organizations who want to stay there — we must overcome our conditioned aversion to failure and tendency to cover up our weaknesses. To do this, organizations benefit from developing explicit norms of celebrating failure in complex and uncertain contexts. What can this look like? At NerdWallet, they have a Failure Wall where people post failures.

At Spotify, CEO Daniel Ek says, “We aim to make mistakes faster than anyone else.” This plays out in Spotify’s practice: “An incident ticket isn’t closed when it’s resolved; it’s closed when the learnings are captured so we avoid the same problem in the future.”

At Etsy, as (former) CEO Chad Dickerson describes, they have a similar norm: “It’s called a PSA and people will send out an email to the company or a list of people saying I made this mistake, here’s how I made that mistake, don’t you make this mistake. So that’s proactive and I think really demonstrates that the culture is self perpetuating.” See Etsy CTO John Allspaw’s expansion on this practice in a post about “blameless post-mortems.” One highlight:

“Failure happens. This is a foregone conclusion when working with complex systems. But what about those failures that have resulted due to the actions (or lack of action, in some cases) of individuals? What do you do with those careless humans who caused everyone to have a bad day?

“Having a ‘blameless’ Post-Mortem process means that engineers whose actions have contributed to an accident can give a detailed account of:

  • what actions they took at what time,
  • what effects they observed,
  • expectations they had,
  • assumptions they had made,
  • and their understanding of timeline of events as they occurred.

…and that they can give this detailed account without fear of punishment or retribution.

We gather details from multiple perspectives on failures, and we don’t punish people for making mistakes…We enable and encourage people who do make mistakes to be the experts on educating the rest of the organization how not to make them in the future… They are, after all, the most expert in their own error.”

In this example, we see each of the elements of Growth as a Team Sport:

  • people share what they were working on,
  • get feedback from teammates on their actions and impacts,
  • do so in a psychologically safe environment, and
  • have the opportunity to learn from failures after the fact.

They get to show off as expert learners instead of flawless performers. Finally, the leaders — the CEO and the CTO — are speaking to the importance of this practice.

Leader Modeling

The last point emphasizes the support of leadership, but there is a practice that makes it still more powerful: when the CEO and CTO send out such emails themselves.

Leader modeling is not something different from the previous four conditions; rather, it is an emphasis on the inordinate influence organizational leaders have in the message their behavior models. The pressure to Conceal is present at all levels of the organization, and it increases the higher you go in leadership positions, where the impact of Concealing your growth areas is magnified. Just as the impact of Concealing is magnified, so too is the impact of Revealing.

We Are Not Finished Products

When leaders model vulnerability in sharing their own growth areas and soliciting feedback, it counteracts the Finished Product Assumption and gives everybody on the team greater permission to grow out loud. If you are used to working in a high-performing execution environment, your model of a leader is likely one who has domain mastery, having dealt with countless situations in the past such that s/he can answer whatever questions come up. That leader looks like a polished Finished Product. If you compare yourself to that same model while working in an innovation environment characterized by high uncertainty and complexity, you won’t measure up. As Multipliers author Liz Wiseman says, “If you are leading in a growth environment, every day you are unprepared for your job.” As such, leading in uncertain, innovative domains requires a willingness to vulnerably Reveal your own questions. In this domain, confidence derives not from having the answers but from having a systematic process for investigating the questions.

We are not Finished Products. Even if, magically, we were somehow perfectly trained for the challenge at hand, the world we live in is one of rapid and accelerating change, so the challenge at hand will change, and we will need to grow in order to adapt to it.

When we embrace Growth as a Team Sport, we can move from Concealing these growth areas to Revealing them, and we can unleash all the energy saved into growing together.

My Big Reveal:

This framework itself is, of course, still a work in progress. I invite your comments below about what resonates, what parts of the framework you want to challenge or refine, and whatever else has sparked in you as you have been reading.



Jack Cohen

Voracious learner applying evidence-based insights to help values-driven workplaces. Founder, Brain-Based Workplace, LLC.