What does it mean to want your team to be a family?

May 13, 2020

By: Gabe Paoletti, EdD, MAPP*
Whether it’s your squad, sports team, or local place of worship, leaders often like to refer to their team as a “family” to emphasize their strength as a team. At first, I thought it had to do with how well everyone knows and likes each other. The image of a family picnic or vacation comes to mind. After researching the concept of psychology safety, which is a belief shared by members of a squad that it’s safe to take interpersonal risks, I realized that the image of a family argument is more on-target.
When you think of a strong family, all interactions aren’t happy-go-lucky. What makes families a great comparison to teams is that strong families challenge each other when they’re doing something wrong, give honest and candid opinions, and are willing to admit when they make a mistake. Family members also have enough trust in each other that they’re willing to say the thing you might not want to hear, but need to hear.
What is psychological safety?
Psychological safety is an important quality of effective teams. The words might lead you to think it’s about safe spaces, but it’s actually quite the opposite. Psychology safety is when everyone on your team believes it’s safe to give their honest and best opinions. They believe it’s OK to challenge bad ideas and be truthful in their feedback too. Also, your teammates believe it’s important to take accountability for their mistakes and find ways to learn from them.
Psychological safety is critical for team optimization!
If the people on your squad are holding back or heavily editing their best ideas, then your squad isn’t performing at its best. If those on your squad are hiding their mistakes, then problems won’t be addressed quickly, and things can get worse. And if the people on your squad aren’t open to challenging each other, then second-rate will become the standard.
How can you build psychology safety as a leader?
Try these quick tips to take your team to the top:
  • Regularly ask, “Who disagrees?” or “What are we missing?” Publicly appreciate when your views are challenged. Emphasize the importance of having “everyone’s brains and voices in the game” too.
  • Model vulnerability. Share about times you failed, missed something, or got advice that changed your perspective.
  • Be curious and ask lots of questions.
  • Set clear left-and-right limits on which behaviors are expected and when—and what’s out-of-bounds. Be consistent and fair with the expectations set.
  • Be open and honest when giving feedback. Don’t sugarcoat things. If accurate, frame the problem as an issue where you need to learn more, rather than an issue in execution. Also, ask for feedback on how you delivered your message to model a growth mindset.
To learn more about effective leadership, read HPRC’s article on how to build group trust.

About the Author
Gabe Paoletti, of the Henry M. Jackson Foundation, is a Mental Fitness Scientist for the Consortium for Health and Military Performance (CHAMP) at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences (USUHS).
* The opinions and assertions expressed herein are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of USUHS or DoD. The contents of this publication are the sole responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, or policies of The Henry M. Jackson Foundation for the Advancement of Military Medicine, Inc. Mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations does not imply endorsement by the U.S. Government. The author has no financial interests or relationships to disclose.

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