In 2012, Google conducted a multi-year study to determine what made an effective team. They defined “effective” using a combination of performance metrics and evaluations by leaders, executives and members. They found that “psychological safety” was the most important feature of high-performing teams. This concept, which comes from the work of Harvard professor Amy Edmondson, means that members feel that the team is a safe environment to take interpersonal risks. In other words, they feel comfortable asking a question or bringing up a new idea, and confident that other members won’t embarrass or punish them for making a mistake.

In our current environment with many teams working remotely and communicating digitally, psychological safety and leadership trust are extremely important, perhaps even more so than in Google’s study where most teams were likely meeting in person. To explore this issue further, we at Cultivate recently collaborated with one of our multinational Fortune 500 customers to identify digital behaviors that indicate high-performing leaders and engaged teams.

We examined annual performance ratings from the fiscal year 2020 (ending March 2020) for over 400 managers across 6 career levels and 20 job family groups at the enterprise in question. Managers were rated as “Consistent,” “Strong” or “Outstanding.” We calculated Cultivate digital behavioral stats for the same set of managers using Outlook emails, Skype IMs and Microsoft Teams IMs over a 90-day period ending on March 27, 2020.

Outstanding Managers Create Psychological Safety

We found that digital behaviors suggesting a psychologically safe relationship between managers and subordinates (such as a willingness by direct reports to share doubt or uncertainty) are highly related to manager performance and team engagement. The most effective leaders seem to be the ones that create a safe and open “digital dialogue” with their team members. We hope that these findings will help show organizations some concrete actions they can take to improve trust and psychological safety among their teams in the highly digital and remote workplace of the COVID-19 era.

Expressing Doubt

We found that managers who express doubt to subordinates more often (or say “I don’t know” when asked a question) and vice versa tend to have higher performance ratings. In fact, managers rated as “Outstanding” express doubt 31% more often than managers rated as “Consistent.” And managers rated as “Outstanding” have direct reports who express doubt to them 16% more often than managers rated as “Consistent.” These results suggest that leaders are more effective if they create a team environment where members feel safe saying, “I don’t know.”

Requesting Feedback

We found the same relationship when examining requests for feedback. Managers that request feedback from their teams more often and vice versa have higher performance ratings. “Outstanding” managers ask for feedback 22% more often than “Consistent” managers, and have teams that request feedback 23% more often than “Consistent” managers. Our analysis also found a relationship between leaders who receive more feedback requests and their organizational engagement, but no significant relationship between leaders making more requests for feedback and organizational engagement.

Sharing Opinions

Managers that make time for their teams and encourage them to share their thoughts and opinions also tend to be better performers and have more engaged teams. “Outstanding” managers have teams that share opinions 21% more often than “Consistent” managers, and spend 17% more time in 1:1s with their teams than “Consistent” managers. There is also a positive relationship between team members requesting feedback and team engagement.

Putting It into Practice

These findings appear to line up with existing research from Google; behaviors that indicate a psychologically safe environment (sharing opinions, requesting feedback and expressing doubt) are linked to high-performing managers and more engaged teams at this particular enterprise.

But knowing this information doesn’t do any good on its own. Leaders have to change their behavior in order to create these benefits. To help this enterprise take the next step toward organizational change, Cultivate can incorporate these findings into our platform and then provide AI coaching to improve their leaders at scale. Cultivate smartly nudges and coaches managers who have an opportunity for improvement in the areas identified by our analysis. By focusing on the digital behaviors that drive performance and engagement at this particular enterprise, we can tailor our platform’s feedback to what will be most effective for their particular leaders. This has huge potential to create more personalized feedback that helps shape more effective managers and more engaged teams.

Andy Horng, Co-founder

Andy Horng, Co-founder

As co-founder and Head of AI, Andy is building products to facilitate healthy, frictionless workplace relationships. He is inspired by the ideals of intelligent infrastructure: machine learning woven into our lives to help us synthesize information and overcome cognitive biases.