Psychological Safety and Competition: Redefining Successful Teams In an Age Where Resilience Matters 

Is there a fundamental tension between psychological safety and competition? How does psychological safety affect success in a competitive world? We try to answer these questions, and reflect on what successful teams actually look like during a time where resilience is more important than speed?

One of the best parts of facilitating team building workshops and events for teams is getting to see how our products and ideas work in action. While we consider ourselves experts – with years of experience designing, creating and running successful team building experiences – we are always learning as well, and finding new ways to improve and grow. 

Seeing how our clients react to our programs helps us do that. We get to observe how they deal with the challenges we give them, we get to gauge how well we have designed our games in order to properly guide participants through them. 

And in the case of our workshops, we get to hear insights into team building concepts that help us deepen and expand our own understanding, which in turn helps us to create more impactful informational content for future workshops.

This past week we ran an Online Game + Psychological Safety Workshop program that was a perfect example of this. The team was small, only about ten people. With two facilitators, it meant that we could really listen to what was being said during the discussions.

The team that I was on had a discussion after playing the online game (in this case Okinawa Adventure) that really made me pause and think. I wanted to write down everything that was said, and I scribbled notes upon notes of new ideas that popped into my head as I listened to them.

The tension between psychological safety and competition 

The gist of their conversation centered around the tension that exists between psychological safety and competition. Members of my group noted how, despite everything they learned about in the lecture on psychological safety and the importance of making everyone feel safe and on the same page, their competitive drives took over. They wanted to win, and so they cut corners when it came to really implementing aspects of psychological safety during the game.

Ultimately, they did end up winning (they beat the other team in terms of puzzles solved). But their win started to sound more hollow to themselves once they had some time to reflect,

What was fascinating was that the cutting of corners by players in the drive towards winning was directed both at their teammates and at themselves. Group members noted how they didn’t do such a good job listening or reaching out to their team members if they needed help, and making sure that everyone was keeping up. 

But some members of the group also brought up the fact that they felt that they couldn’t speak up when they themselves were in trouble or needed help. One member shared that she felt lost during parts of the game, but didn’t want to mention it because she was worried that it would slow down the rest of her team (other members chimed in agreement).

Another team member mentioned her technological troubles (her screen froze at some point and she couldn’t click on some of the puzzle answers). Instead of letting us, the game masters, help her figure out what was wrong, she had refused, saying that she didn’t care because she just wanted to win. 

What I was witnessing was how a psychologically unsafe environment slowly takes hold due to the need to compete, how it produces certain fears, and how these fears manifest in ways that make team members incapable of speaking out. 

How competition affects psychological safety

What is clear from the discussion  is that it seems that psychological safety operates on two levels: you’re ability to relate to other team members (helping them, reaching out, listening to their needs, etc.) and you’re ability to self-advocate (to stand up for yourself, express your needs and opinions, share your ideas). 

What happens when teams shift their focus solely on competition (or when competition overrides psychological safety)?

  1. Teams don’t stop to create an environment that is psychologically safe for other team members. The fear is that doing this will take time away from more important tasks, or tasks that could be used to create an advantage against competitors. 
  2. Individual team members don’t speak up when they are having issues out of fear of slowing down the team (again, note the importance of time here, we’ll come back to it later) or out of fear of being seen as stupid or ineffective. 

Redefining success: how psychological safety affects competition 

The question that I kept running up against while listening to my team’s discussion was “How are psychological safety and competition compatible?” After all, we live in a society dominated by competition. Competition is how many of us determine what success looks like, and many of us have internalized competition as a necessary motivating force. In other words, it isn’t something that we can ignore or wish away for the sake of making teams feel better.

However, maybe what we can do is change our perspective on what competition can actually achieve, and what success actually looks like.

Take the team that I was working with as an example. Again, they “won” according to the measures that define success in our society: They solved the most challenges, and did better than the team that they were up against.

But listening to their conversation, it’s clear that they didn’t all feel like winners. The fact that many of them had suppressed their needs throughout the game to win, even though it prevented them from contributing fully and owning their win, didn’t leave them feeling as good as they had imagined (I do want to emphasize that they all enjoyed the game itself and the program as a whole, it was just their feelings about winning that were affected). 

Knowing this, I wonder what would happen if the same exact teams had gone on to play more games together, more rounds if you will. Maybe that initial win would motivate them to win a few more rounds. But equally as likely is that their inability to create a psychologically safe environment would eventually catch up with them. 

Perhaps the members who had suppressed their needs would eventually lose interest in hollow wins and not participate as much. Perhaps that would lead to bigger issues on the team in the future – resentment, feelings of isolation, lack of teamwork, etc,

This opens up the potential for a reorientation of how we define success on teams. When success isn’t  truly shared, and when it doesn’t benefit all members, is it really success? If psychological safety creates a framework that makes team members feel more fulfilled, and therefore more motivated to take part in the next round, doesn’t that make teams more competitive in the long run, even if it takes more time?

Shifting perspective on competition: time and balance

The truth is that creating psychologically safe environments on teams takes time. It takes time to listen to others’ needs, it takes time to check in and hear feedback, it takes time to undo many of the more toxic and limiting aspects of work culture that many of us have grown up with. 

It’s worth it, though, because it makes teams stronger and more competitive in the long run. It makes teams more capable of dealing with issues and crises (we’ll talk about that more in a second), and it makes them more unified. And it’s worth it because it makes the wins actually feel like wins, because the wins are part of something bigger.

But it also takes balance. Teams don’t have infinite amounts of time, and there are pressing tasks and challenges to face. Again, we can’t ignore competition as a driving force either. So balance is key. Teams have to understand what both psychological safety and competition achieve, what their limits are, and how to balance both together to meet the specific needs of the team and its members.

This isn’t easy, of course. And it’s certainly not something that can be done within the space of an hour, as my team learned. However, being aware of this tension between psychological safety and competition is the first step in using that tension to shift our perspective on competition and what it really means. It’s also part of the process of turning that tension into a harmonious balance between the two. 

Zooming out: polycrisis, resilience and adaptability 

I want to end by zooming out and looking at how these ideas are connected to what’s happening in the world right now. This year at Davos – the yearly conference for political and economic leaders and shapers – the buzzword was “polycrisis”. This basically means a situation where crisis piles on top of crisis, creating interlocking crises. Example: a global pandemic that disrupts supply chains, plus a war in Europe that limits energy and food production, plus a climate change crisis. The effect: a really fragile and potentially dangerous political and economic environment, especially for developing countries. 

What’s the connection to psychological safety and competition? Many believe that if we had been more focused on building resilient economies, rather than focusing solely on competition and economic growth at all cost, the world would be in a better position. If we hadn’t been rushing to develop as fast as possible (that need for speed again), then perhaps we would have taken the time to deal with these issues while they were still manageable (create more stable and local supply chains, shift to a carbon neutral energy system, etc.)

Think of psychological safety as the cornerstone of a team’s resiliency. In order to build a strong team that can withstand a crisis (or multiple crises) and adapt accordingly, teams need to take the time to cultivate psychological safety. They need to balance that competitive desire to go faster and farther than everyone else with the knowledge that that drive can leave the team in a weaker position at the end of the day. Because, as my team learned this week, simply winning doesn’t always feel so good.  

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