Teams: How to Develop Feelings of Safety and Social Ties

Mathis Schulte, Professor of Management and Human Resources - June 15th, 2010
touch screen of people - team social ties

In a team, where does the feeling of safety come from, and how do social ties between team members form? According to Mathis Schulte, Andrew Cohen, and Katherine Klein,relationships within social structures and the psychological state of a teamare tightly linked. Members’ perceptions affect the evolution of the social structure of the team, which in turn affect the team members’ perceptions. 

Mathis Schulte ©HEC Paris

Mathis Schulte has been professor of human resources management at HEC Paris since 2009. He previously taught negotiation and conflict resolution at the Wharton School of (...)

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In recent decades, as the importance of collaboration in business has grown, numerous researchers have taken an interest in the way in which teams’ general state of mind and the social ties formed within them can influence their results. But while many studies have sought to understand the consequences of these two factors in collective performance, until now few have looked into how they emerge. In this study, Schulte, Cohen, and Klein try to understand the mechanisms through which collective perceptions and social networks mutually influence each other. To do so, they concentrate on psychological safety and the ways in which it can impact or be impacted by affective and professional bonds. 


PSYCHOLOGICAL SAFETY

The psychological safety of a team is a shared perception of the climate reigning within the group. Members feel safe if they expect to be treated with respect and goodwill, and in particular if they think that they will not be punished or put into difficulty by their peers if they express their opinion or show their weaknesses. Psychological safety thus encourages expression and promotes personal engagement. It improves both members’ learning and overall team efficiency. But individual perceptions of psychological safety also influence interactions  between team members. The basic building blocks of team-internal social networks thus rest on the bonds between individuals and these individuals’ perceptions of psychological safety. But how can the emergence of these bonds and perceptions be explained? 


INTERACTIONS BETWEEN INDIVIDUAL PERCEPTIONS AND SOCIAL TIES

To evaluate how psychological safety influences social ties, the researchers looked at three mechanisms:

• Prospective action: an individual’s perception of the team can influence the bonds he wishes to form with other team members. The more positive the perception, the higher the probability that one adopt a constructive attitude (offers of friendship ties, or advice offered in anticipation of a favorable response). 
• Attraction: an individual with a positive perception of the team will more easily attract requests for friendship, advice, help...
• Homophilia: individuals with similar perceptions of the team are more inclined to form bonds together. But an opposite phenomenon can also be observed: the social ties within a team can in turn shape perceptions.

In this case, the researchers speak of retrospective sense-making, which is marked by:

• Reactions: the social ties that an individual receives influence her perception of the team. The more sought-after one is, the more positive a representation he has of his environment.
• Assimilation: the individuals in a team tend to adopt a perception similar to that of individuals who they trust and with whom they have privileged and positive ties. 



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The more positive individual perceptions are, the more ties, advice, and mutual aid develops between team members.



PROSPECTIVE ACTION AND ASSIMILATION AS UNIVERSAL LEVERS

The conclusions of the study suggest that prospective action is a major lever for the psychological safety of the team (the more positive individual perceptions are, the more ties, advice, mutual aid, etc., develops between team members). The assimilation effect is important too, as individuals do seem to adopt the positive and negative perceptions of members of their network. On the other hand, the study shows that there is no attraction effect: individual perceptions do not seem to set off reactions in the individual’s social environment. Finally, the researchers show that retrospective sense-making has an effect on the perception of difficulties: the ties formed by an individual with other team members who express difficulties tend to modify their own perceptions of difficulties, even if he has not directly experienced them. 


Based on an interview with Mathis Schulte and the article “The Co-Evolution of Network Ties and Perceptions of Team Psychological Safety” (to be published in Organization Science ), co-written with Andrew Cohen and Katherine Klein.  

APPLICATIONS FOR MANAGERS
APPLICATIONS FOR MANAGERS

Many team projects bring together members known for their experience and expertise—but are they able to work together? To answer this question, Schulte suggests that the manager:
 

• Evaluate psychological safety within the team: mechanisms such as assimilation demonstrate that the members who have formed friendship ties develop this feeling more easily. Conversely, the researchers show, a lack of safety can damage collaboration.

•  Take account of the responses to difficulties met along the way, which have a considerable impact on networks and on ways of working together. Early warning signals on difficulties and the behavior of team members can foretell a negative spiral within the team.Hence the importance of staying attentive to conflicts, even minor, within teams.

Schulte also points out that not only the manager, but every team member has the potential to change the dynamic of the group: the ways that members interact and react with each other determine the psychological state and the social structure of the team as a whole.

METHODOLOGY
METHODOLOGY

For this study, the researchers formed teams of 9 to 12 people working on public interest projects. In total, eighty teams (including 834 participants) were studied at three steps in their evolution: at the beginning; after five months; and at the end. Sixty-nine teams produced usable results related to feelings of psychological safety, friendship bonds, advice given and received, as well as perceived interpersonal difficulties between members of a team.