The Real Test of ‘Psychological Safety’ in Teams

July 27, 2022

Alex Firmin

CEO of Promethean Executive

In a fascinating experiment, Haxby and colleagues (2011) wired up a cinema audience to fMRI brain scanning equipment, and showed them Raiders of the Lost Ark.  What they observed was a gradual alignment of brain activity; at the outset individuals’ brains were behaving quite differently, but as the film progressed, people’s neurological activity began to synchronise.  By the end of the film, over 70% of participants were demonstrating identical brain activity.  Therefore, one could rationally presume that as the observable signals were the same, the thought processes that gave rise to them were also the same.

There are many situations where the synchronisation of individuals into a team ‘collective’ consciousness is extremely useful.  The most successful sports teams, musical groups, and elite military teams demonstrate a level of connectedness that might appear ‘psychic’ at times; consider experienced bands who can harmonise and play together without music or a conductor.  However, this also presents a risk; what if everyone on the team is in such a state of agreeable connectedness that they fail to identify a flaw in the plan, or agree on decisions that turn out to be flawed or misinformed?

The neurological harmonisation that Haxby observed in his experiment presents a risk when it comes to making decisions that matter, and which are likely to lead to complex outcomes.  It could be argued that many of Britain’s disastrous foreign policy decisions in the 2000’s were made by military or political teams of individuals who had fallen into this ‘harmonisation trap’.  Everyone in the team thinking along exactly the same lines may make for a harmonious and easy going environment, but carries the risk of ‘group think’; collaborative agreement based on the unquestioning acceptance of flawed premises.

Leaders who are building teams that need to engage with complex issues should be wary of too much comfortable agreement.  It may be necessary to bring in disruptors who, perhaps by bringing differing psychometric or cognitive properties, will see issues that others won’t.  The key challenge is creating an environment where these disruptors feel sufficiently safe to raise alternative views, thus encouraging disagreement and debate.   This requires huge levels of trust and is perhaps the test of whether the team feels psychologically safe; not where there is a culture of consistent agreement, but whether it is one of active debate and respectful challenge.

Haxby, J. V., Guntupalli, J. S., Connolly, A. C., Halchenko, Y. O., Conroy, B. R., Gobbini, M. I., Hanke, M. & Ramadge, P. J. (2011). A Common, High-Dimensional Model of the Representational Space in Human Ventral Temporal Cortex. Neuron72: 404–416.

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