Have you ever sat in a meeting and had a point to raise but felt unable to raise it? Have you ever litigated a case where a witness caves in, an expert unexpectedly changes their opinion or someone on the team suddenly gets cold feet? Have you ever led a team where something has gone unnoticed until it is too late? If so, one of the reasons may have been a lack of psychological safety within the team.

This essential communication tool is one of a dozen or so we teach at our communication skills workshops for barristers. It’s a foundational tool underpinning team communication because its presence or absence has a powerful influence on the willingness of people to speak up about the things that really matter. When people do not speak up, problems persist unseen and unremedied. The risk of failure is increased. Psychological safety and team performance march hand-in-hand.

Let’s start with basics. A team is much more (or much less) than the sum of its parts. A well performing team is far stronger than a group of talented individuals who cannot work together, as anyone who follows team sport or sits on a committee knows. For the individual, it is also far more stressful working in a poor functioning team.

An example of team dynamics

Let’s take a simple three-member team:

  • Yasmin, a newly qualified solicitor, is super bright. In the past this has led to tensions with seniors who feel inferior to her, and to her experiencing feelings of isolation. She has learnt to downplay her abilities through fear of rejection. As a newcomer, she is keen to fit in with the rest of the team.
  • John, an expert witness, defends his opinion and his abilities vigorously and articulately if challenged. As an expert, he feels that nothing should be beyond him. His vigour hides his insecurity at getting things wrong and not being good enough.
  • Robin is a new young silk and a little insecure in her new-found authority as a leader. She feels under pressure to prove herself. She remembers her pupil master’s reputation for closely testing his client’s witnesses during cons, and she adopts the same style in her own work.

At a pre-trial conference, Robin marks her authority by testing John’s evidence hard. She is impressed by his robust and articulate defence. While she senses something might be amiss, she is content to have done her job well. Yasmin thinks she has spotted a major problem with John’s expert report but she does not raise it. She fears her contribution may be unwelcome and the rigour of Robin’s treatment of John reinforces this. She is also a little intimidated being at a conference with a young silk. John is overworked and needs support from a colleague, but feels he ought to be able to cope. He is afraid of appearing inadequate. His fears are confirmed by Robin’s style. Pretending he is on top of everything he defends his report well, congratulating himself that Robin found no fault with it.

At trial John is ill prepared, the other side undermines his evidence with the point that Yasmin had spotted, and the client wonders what went wrong. Robin reassures herself that there was nothing else she could have done. ‘I tested his evidence in conference just like I was supposed to.’

Who is responsible? None of them, and all of them. Each has come to the team with their learned behaviour. Everyone played their part to the best of their abilities. Yet team performance was undermined, and the client was short-changed.

What was missing that the team needed?

The answer is: psychological safety. So, what is it and how does it work? In 1999, Harvard Professor of Leadership and Management Amy Edmondson undertook research into clinical teams and the mistakes that they made. To her surprise, she found that the better performing teams were actually making more mistakes than the teams with worse outcomes. The difference between the two was that the better performing teams were more likely to admit their mistakes and address them, whereas the poorer performing teams were more likely to hide their mistakes. She coined the phrase ‘psychological safety’ to describe a culture where people believe that they will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes. Since her work, other research has identified this trait as an essential foundation of high performing teams. Google’s Project Aristotle famously identified it as the most important factor. Its absence is said to have contributed to various tragedies, including the famous KLM-PanAm air collision in the Canary Islands in 1977, the deadliest in aviation history.

Psychological safety operates on the level of people’s belonging. As a species we favour safety and security, and are coded to find it by belonging to groups. It is an evolutionary tool for survival. The family is the basic unit of belonging. A functional family is the place we learn to bond and belong. When we step out from the home we experience belonging in other contexts: with friends, chambers colleagues, members of our Inn, and with those who share the same race, nationality, religion, football team. The flip side of belonging is exclusion, which we fear. The fear of exclusion comes when we perceive that members of the group, particularly those in authority, may judge us disapprovingly. This dynamic explains why a person may choose to stay quiet and not raise important concerns even though doing so is expected from their professional role. You can now see how some norms of barristerial behaviour while assumed to be helpful may actually undermine team performance and client service.

How to build psychological safety

Building psychological safety is an essential leadership skill. To build healthy team dynamics there must be a safe ‘container’ to operate in. The container sets the ground rules and standards for communication and behaviour within the team. Rules and standards which support healthy team dynamics are those which make team members feel safe and valued.

Leaders can create team culture by simply modelling the behaviour themselves. (‘If I show I can listen to the team, it will encourage people to speak up.’) In this way, culture can grow organically over time. This can work in long-term roles (like a head of chambers) but is unreliable in short-term roles (a barrister instructed close to litigation) because there is not enough time for culture to form. It also leaves culture to be inferred and assumes that everyone will respond in the same way and at the same speed to the same behaviour, which is unlikely.

A better way is to create the culture deliberately, collaboratively and expressly. When meeting a team, spend a few minutes creating the ground rules by asking open questions: ‘What kind of team culture do we want to create? How do we want to be together? What attitudes are going to support us in our work today? What mindsets will help us find the answers? How can we support the creativity we need to find the solutions we are looking for?’ This kind of approach also supports diversity and inclusion; it makes no assumptions about the sameness of people within the team or what they need to perform. When it comes to modelling behaviour, the following are helpful to display:

  • listening actively;
  • avoiding personal criticism and judgement (focusing on the point rather than the person);
  • ensuring that space is made to hear everyone (no matter how junior);
  • inviting views rather than requiring them to be volunteered;
  • ensuring there are no ‘taboo’ subjects;
  • maintaining confidentiality;
  • providing constructive feedback;
  • expressing gratitude for contributions; and
  • ensuring that points are followed up by actions where appropriate.

Go on, give it a go! You will enhance your team’s performance and reduce your own stress. You are more likely to succeed.