Can We Make Teams Psychologically Safe? — Introducing Restorative Management.

New tools from the justice system are supercharging creative companies.

Google recently conducted a study called “Project Aristotle” that studied what exactly made the best teams tick. The researchers were surprised to find that their exhaustive data did not support many of the common beliefs of managers and HR.

It didn’t matter if a team was diverse or gender-balanced. It didn’t matter if teammates socialized outside of work, or whether they were all introverts or all extroverts, or a careful balance of psychological profiles. So if a team’s composition or leadership or any other textbook team building theories made teams the best, what did?

The researchers at Google discovered that the number one factor shared among the most productive teams was a trait the researchers called Psychological Safety.

Psychological safety boiled down to a few concrete team behaviors that researchers observed. One was equal speaking time. Teams where people spoke roughly equal amounts performed better. The second trait was social sensitivity — or the average ability for teammates to intuit how each other felt from tone of voice and nonverbal cues.

The researchers had discovered that psychological safety was the common variable across high performing teams, but they didn’t provide much in the way of a manual for creating psychologically safe teams.

After reading the Google study, I realized that I could adapt practices from what in schools is called Restorative Practice, and in justice system is called Restorative Justice to write the manual on how to build psychologically safe workplaces and teams. I call it Restorative Management.

Restorative Management:

Restorative Management (RM) is a pattern of HR practices and mid-level and executive management techniques to build teams that are productive. RM techniques do not replace formal project and team management such as deadlines, meetings, etc, but offer norms and concrete team and 1:1 processes to support psychological safety, and thereby increase a team’s productivity, creativity, and success.

The square on the left compares and contrasts a restorative set of norms to other norms a team might have. The x-axis is the amount of support and encouragement employees receive. The y-axis is the amount of expectations, rules, and control a company puts on its people.

As you can see, if there is low support and low control, a team is neglected and the leadership feels irresponsible. High expectations and control without any support, a team is punitive and the leadership feels authoritarian. If there is lots of support but low levels of expectations (or not clear expectations) a team feels permissive and leadership feels paternalistic. However, if there is both high expectations and a lot of support then a company is restorative and leadership is authoritative.

Where would your company or your team fall on this square?

Most people are so used to being in communities of other three quadrants they can’t even understand what an RM workplace would be like. Often a new employee in an RM work environment will think that it is either punitive (because of the high, clear expectations) or permissive (because of the ton of real support and community), and they won’t even realize that there is another, restorative way to run a company or a team.

How RM Works

Restorative Management has two major axes that it operates on:

  1. Informal practices vs. Formal practices
  2. Establishing psychological safety vs. Restoring it

Building Psychological Safety

Psychological safety is not a given in every team when it starts. It is something that must be built up inside the team.

How can this be done?

Every team probably does ice-breakers for new teammates, maybe has social outings or group lunches. But these conventional practices do not assure creating a working climate of psychological safety.

RM suggests a few informal practices and a few formal ones that will assure that a team creates a psychologically safe environment.

Informally, team leads and veterans of RM teams use various unspoken norms and patterns to continually support the sense of psychological safety of their team. For example, the use of “affective statements”.

Formally, the use of circles is a powerful way to develop psychological safety. The Google research showed that equal talk-time among a team was a sign of psychological safety. The RM circles assure this by taking turns sharing on a particular prompt. Prompts can be topical or work related but should include the opportunity for people to share about what they are most proud of or find most difficult in their lives. Such as, “What was the hardest part of the last sprint for you”.

Restoring Psychological Safety

Sometimes psychological safety is broken or ruptured due to particular events or people. RM provides discrete formal and informal practices to restore pyschological safety when it is damaged.

Informal practices might be a manager pulling aside someone who made a callous remark or who was domineering in a meeting and using affective statements, make them aware of how their comment made them feel uncomfortable and might have made others feel like they couldn’t speak up.

The classic formal practice in RM is a Restorative Conference.

Restorative conferences take place when one or more people feel harmed by another person’s or persons’ actions. The conferences are conducted by a third party and independent moderator. The conferences follow a specific set of restorative conference questions that were created by the original inventors of Restorative Justice and have turned out to be incredibly powerful and dynamic questions.

Beginning with those harmed the moderator asks each question in turn to the two people starting always with who was harmed. Question 4 is for those harmed and question 5 is for the wrong-doer.

To the wrong-doer:

  1. What happened?
  2. What were you thinking at the time and what have you thought since?
  3. (those harmed) — What has been the hardest thing for you about this?
  4. (wrong-doer) — Who has been effected by your actions? In what ways?
  5. What needs to happen now to make things right?

This list of questions takes about 15 minutes to run through. It is wonderfully built to first elicit empathy in both parties, and especially the wrong-doer, then both parties come together to solve the final question of what needs to be done now to make things right.

Some Psychologically Safe Googlers