Well before Google’s Aristotle Project identified the squishy, undefined condition needed to create a high-performing team, as a student NFO going through flight training in Pensacola, Florida back in the late 1990s, I was indoctrinated into a culture where speaking up, admitting failure, and debriefing were part of the job. No, scratch that. They were the job.
This squishy condition Google identified has been part of the culture of many high-reliability organizations such as carrier aviation for decades. Psychological safety—a belief that one will not be punished for making mistakes or speaking up when they have doubt, concerns, or questions—is not something that Google discovered. They simply validated what was known by academics who study high-performing teams. Interestingly, high-performing teams do not sit around and talk about psychological safety.
The way to foster psychological safety is not by talking about it but through the art and science of briefing and debriefing. Back in flight training in Pensacola, the way we learned to establish a psychologically safe environment was by admitting we were human in the brief. How? All aviators go through human factors or non-technical skills training where we become aware of our cognitive and physiological limitations. We learn that we cannot multi-task, we cannot hold more than a few things in our heads, we all have biases, and we cannot know everything. In short, we are human.
During a brief, we reinforced these human factors lessons through the use of direct language, acknowledging our limits of knowledge, and inviting participation. The brief was not a one-way conversation but a ritualized team re-planning event where we could anticipate threats and build a shared mental model of our complex environment. The most important part of the brief was the expectation of the debrief—where we knew we all would be held accountable (able to recount what happened during the mission) for our actions so we could all learn from our shared experience. Flying off the deck of an aircraft carrier is all about learning and performance.
In naval aviation, an effective debrief, the most important team event, begins with a leader admitting his or her own mistakes in front of peers and subordinates. This is the best-known way to create a psychologically safe environment. As a student NFO watching an instructor pilot admit her mistakes during one of my first debriefs, I have to admit that I was a little concerned for her. Because, after all, admitting mistakes is a sign of weakness, right? Not at all. I soon learned that this squishy thing that real leaders do is what builds a fearless organization.
Note: The concept of a fearless organization resonates with the military leaders I coach and is borrowed from Amy C. Edmondson’s new book, The Fearless Organization: Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth.