Our research shows that leaders and employees equally seek high autonomy and psychological safety. Yet, they are often absent within organisations. High-functioning teams need both to succeed. This requires a commitment from leaders and team members alike. Furthermore, high-performing teams conduct peer-to-peers—thoughtful conversations with other team members to share feedback, support development, and grow together. Leaders can nurture autonomy through a shared leadership model where team members feel like they influence the work at hand. In a workplace where meaningful interactions are at the heart of the work, psychological safety becomes an abundant resource to support a thriving team.
Team members are just as influential as leaders in affecting the daily employee experience, but team dynamics are often overlooked in initiatives to improve company culture. An employee’s team is fundamental to their wellbeing, engagement, and likelihood to stay. Teams must be safe, empowering places for all employees. Best practice teams have 57% lower odds of moderate-to-severe burnout.
Unfortunately, like leadership, teams are currently not as effective as they could be—only 26% of employees feel their team works together seamlessly. While 60% say their teammates are at least somewhat respectful of each other, only 28% of teammates are willing to let others lead a project, and only 19% report that their teams ensure credit is given to deserving members.
This is not an environment conducive to collaboration, innovation, or great work.
In our research, we’ve uncovered two essential characteristics of thriving teams:
1. A strong sense of autonomy
Autonomy means to be able to act independently. Employees in the modern workplace thrive on autonomy. But that doesn’t mean each individual works independently from the others. Instead, the team is granted autonomy as a whole. They can set goals, make decisions, and decide what projects to do and how to do them with little or no leader involvement. People crave autonomy, because no one likes to be told what to do. And the outdated traditional management practices of factories last century that tell people what to do and how to do it, no longer apply to the modern workforce.
In his book, Drive, Daniel Pink reveals four decades of research showing that humans are most motivated by the desire to direct their own lives.1
Autonomy isn’t a modern desire; people are just finally talking openly about it at work.
Our findings suggest that there are six elements to creating autonomy within the team at work:
Figure 10. ELEMENTS OF AUTONOMY
Six freedoms that foster employee independence.
Flexibility is a significant part of autonomy—giving employees the choice of when, where, and how they work. Work/life integration can provide this feeling of choice, but what it really takes is freedom. Freedom to create, take risks, innovate, select preferred projects, and identify what’s most important. Giving teams this flexibility and freedom sets them up for success. They feel a stronger sense of ownership, are more motivated, and more likely to innovate. With the freedom to own their own decisions, autonomous teams are more likely to take risks and improvise to achieve the best outcome.
This type of trust in employees is powerful. The 2016 edition of The How Report finds that organisations where employees are more “self-governing” (in other words, they act as leaders regardless of their role or job title) outperform their peers in market share, customer satisfaction, engagement, and long-term business sustainability. They also found that 99% of employees in these types of companies would recommend their employer as a great place to work, compared to 31% in “blind obedience” organizations.2 A study in the Journal of Managerial Issues supports this line of thought, showing that autonomy and the freedom to determine how employees did their jobs played a large role in getting the most effort from employees.3
Gallup4 finds a correlation between autonomy and increased performance and engagement, but also with an uptick in the sensitivity to failure. While teams prefer the flexibility and freedom of independence at work, they still need leaders to support them during challenging and stressful situations. Leaders can’t micromanage, but they can’t disappear either. They should serve as mentors, guiding and supporting their teams with resources and help as needed. Leaders are asked to keep their teams accountable, ensure goals are met, and that the team is functioning efficiently.
Currently, 37% of employees report having high autonomy at their organisations, 40% have a medium level of autonomy, and 23% have low autonomy. The impact of autonomy on employee experience, burnout, and workplace culture is compelling: employees who have a high sense of autonomy are 2-3x more engaged, much more likely do great work, have a good employee experience, and have less burnout than employees who have a medium or low sense of autonomy.
Team dynamics can also influence autonomy. Team members must be able to collaborate and be willing to share both their successes and their failures. When there’s a strong sense of working together to achieve and innovate, there is a 30% greater chance of individual employees feeling like they have autonomy in their role.
Team members must also support and listen to each other, rather than compete with one another or work in silos. Teams that do both well see a 33% and 34% greater chance of high autonomy.
Innovating, succeeding, and failing together can strengthen team bonds and create a well-defined team identity that fosters a high sense of autonomy.
Atlassian has been named one of the best places to work in Australia several times over. A big reason for those accolades has been the company’s approach to autonomy. Four days a year, Atlassian asks their employees to drop their normal work and spend time on any creative project they want. No limits. This policy has produced countless innovative results, including new product features and even a mini-arcade in their office. They’ve also created a system of giving each other “kudos” on handwritten cards and gifts in recognition of great work. Daniel Pink cites Atlassian as a prime example of how autonomy is better at encouraging creativity than any fi nancial incentive.5
2. A strong sense of psychological safety
The basic definition of psychological safety (Kahn 19906) is “being able to show and employ one’s self without fear of negative consequences of self-image, status, or career.” When employees feel emotionally safe at work and with their teams, they can take risks, innovate, share new ideas, and be themselves without worrying about being criticised or ostracised by their peers.
Employees are often hesitant to bring up new or radical ideas, fearing rejection. This hamstrings organisations, as a diversity of ideas and perspectives is key to team and company success. By only allowing thoughts and ideas that are safe or mainstream, companies miss out on a host of opportunities for improvement and innovation.
Interestingly, autonomy is an antecedent to psychological safety. When teams are given more latitude and flexibility to be creative and do things in new ways, they feel safer to take risks and speak up. No one wants to bring a new idea to the table if the company is always telling people what to work on and how to do their work. Even with only a medium sense of autonomy, there is a 200% greater chance of employees feeling psychologically safe. When they have high autonomy at work, the odds rise to a whopping 586%.
Psychological safety wasn’t generated by Millennials or Generation Z. The term originated in the late 1990s, when medical mistakes at hospitals were becoming an epidemic. At the time, researcher Amy Edmondson had been studying the performance of various hospital teams. Her big question was: Do better teams make fewer mistakes? According to her research, the most solid teams actually reported making the most mistakes. Did that mean the best teams in the hospital made more mistakes than their peers? Not exactly. They were simply more willing to talk about them—because they felt psychologically safe. This research became Edmondson’s influential 1999 paper, Psychological Safety and Learning Behavior in Work Teams. “The term [psychological safety],” says Edmonson, “implies a sense of coziness—you know, ‘Oh, we’re all going to be nice to each other,’ and that’s not really what it’s about. It’s about candor. It’s about being direct, taking risks, being willing to say, ‘I screwed that up.’ And being willing to ask for help when you’re in over your head.”7
Feeling like you can take risks and think outside of the box contributes to a great company culture. But culture can also detract from a sense of psychological safety. Company cultures where employees are stressed, overworked, unrecognised, and uninspired aren’t conducive to an environment of safety. Without work/ life balance, employees won’t feel the company cares about their wellbeing, and there’s an associated 26% decrease in psychological safety. A lack of peer-to-peer recognition is also a detriment to culture—when employees don’t feel their opinions or ideas are valued, there is a 37% decrease in feeling emotionally safe at work. And if employees don’t feel like their organisation positively affects the lives of others—has a weak or no purpose—there is a 31% decrease in the odds they’ll feel psychologically safe. After all, why would employees speak up if they don’t feel like their work matters?
Leaders play a big role in building psychological safety. A study published in the Journal of Organisational Behavior found “if a leader takes an authoritarian, unsupportive, or defensive stance, team members are more likely to feel that speaking up in the team is unsafe. In contrast, if a leader is democratic, supportive, and welcomes questions and challenges, team members are likely to feel greater psychological safety in the team and in their interactions with each other.”8
Even the algorithms prove it. Google has spent millions measuring nearly every aspect of its employees’ lives. This makes sense. The company is built on studying algorithms and trends. And, in 2012, the company’s top executives embarked on an initiative named Project Aristotle. The goal of the project was to study hundreds of Google’s teams and figure out why some teams thrived while others struggled. After studying the groups for more than a year, analysing everything from how much time employees spent together outside of work, to various personality styles with each team, to how much time each team member spoke during meetings, and what people talked about during those meetings, Project Aristotle researchers finally discovered the only common threads among the best teams—a concept known as psychological safety. Basically, psychological safety can be defined as a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject or punish someone for speaking up. Google’s data indicates that psychological safety, more than anything else, leads to a successful team10.
Leaders play a pivotal role in building both a sense of autonomy and psychological safety on their teams. They set the tone and expectations for how the team functions.
Leaders who micromanage their teams, set goals for (not with) their teams, are rigid in how and what the teams work on, need to approve or make every decision, and use traditional leadership practices will not build autonomous teams. Similarly, managers who create a workplace environment that stimulates favoritism, fear, and conformity will not have teams who feel psychologically safe.
However, leaders who treat their team members as people, who communicate so that all members are aware of what others are working on, who foster collaboration and encourage employees to actively contribute to each other’s projects, and who support the development of everyone, will build teams that thrive. After all, great leaders know their teams are collectively smarter than them and don’t always need to be told what to do. They just need guidance.
Successful leaders inspire. They mentor. They trust. They connect. They rally their team around a common purpose. They help their team succeed and celebrate their accomplishments. And they connect their people with each other, nurturing strong team bonds. When people feel connected to their organisation, their leader, and their team, they feel psychologically safe, have a better understanding of how to succeed, and feel empowered to go out and do great work.
When leaders connect people to their organisation’s purpose, teams understand what they need to do to fulfill that purpose and feel inspired to do so. They have a shared goal, a shared mission, and will be more likely to accomplish it together.
Companies with leaders who connect people to purpose have:
912% greater odds the employee will feel they have autonomy
347% greater odds of having psychologically safe teams
When leaders connect their people to accomplishment, teams know what success looks like and feel empowered to achieve it. As a result, there are:
713% greater odds that an employee has medium or high autonomy
343% greater odds of having psychologically safe teams
When leaders connect their people to one another, they build an environment of trust in team members, and see a:
1,079% greater odds that an employee has medium or high autonomy
363% greater odds of having psychologically safe teams
In 2018, members of a youth soccer team in Thailand got trapped in a deep cave that flooded, preventing their escape. As the world watched in horror, a multinational rescue team was formed to try and save the boys. The rescue team had to quickly think of new, out-of-the-box, often risky ideas, including drilling down into the cave and pumping the water out to allow the boys to walk out. The rescue was so dangerous and challenging that a former Thai Navy SEAL lost his life trying to save them. With time running out, each member of the rescue team not only had to brainstorm, but also analyse and consider every idea that was contributed in real time. The rescue team had to be a psychologically safe place where all ideas were taken seriously, no matter how unconventional they might seem, in order to come up with a solution. The creative thinking, openness to new ideas, collaboration, and support eventually led to the formation of a plan that successfully rescued every member of the boys soccer team, much to the relief of the world.11
Create a sense of autonomy by connecting employees.
While having trust in your team is fundamental to building a sense of autonomy, leaders can take more proactive steps to help employees feel connected to their teams and leaders in the organisation.
Leaders must cultivate strong relationships with and between each team member. Autonomy is only possible when the team can work together. When teams have strong bonds with one another and their leader, there is 42% greater odds team members will feel they have high autonomy.
Leaders must also connect employees with opportunities to grow, develop, and work on special projects. As employees create and work on things outside of their immediate job role, their sense of autonomy increases. Our research shows that when employees feel they can take advantage of these unique opportunities, there is a 33% greater sense of high autonomy.
And finally, make others aware of employee accomplishments, for when you do, there are 45% greater odds the employee will have high autonomy. Successful teams will be seen as subject matter experts in their area and valued for skills and talents they can use in new ways. Be sure to recognise team members’ contributions in their team and with the wider organisation. Share stories of success in company meetings, newsletters, emails, social platforms, and on public screens. Spread the word of employee accomplishments. The result? Employees will feel inspired to go out and do more great work.
Foster transparency, openness, and team identity.
Only when team members are willing to be honest, communicate well, and grow with each other, will they have a strong sense of psychological safety. Leaders should actively work to ensure all members feel a strong sense of team identity.
Leaders and team members should also know the roles of every individual on the team. How does each member contribute? What does their workload look like day to day? Make sure each team member knows their job has meaning and that they are valuable. Doing this leads to a 93% increase in the odds of psychological safety.
Decide as a team how tasks are distributed. When teams prioritise work and tackle projects together, they strengthen collaboration, purpose, and belonging. This contributes to an 88% increase in the odds of having a psychologically safe workplace.
Hold an honest review as a team after every major project. Team members must experience success and failure as a team, not individually, so everyone feels accountable and no one is singled out. They should be willing to give and receive honest, critical feedback to make the team stronger. When these things are done, there is a 55% and 91% increase in the odds of psychological safety, respectively.
Utilise peer-to-peer conversations.
Development is not just a leader’s responsibility. Deliberate time spent interacting with peers can contribute greatly to an employee’s development and experience, but it also increases trust and authenticity among team members. Just as one-to-ones deepen connections between leaders and employees, peer-to-peers can strengthen connections with peers.
Peer-to-peers can be individual or with the whole team, and should focus on how the employee can develop, innovate, and grow. They can cover a wide variety of topics, including:
• Introducing a peer to another colleague or someone within their network
• Learning a new skill
• Asking for or providing feedback
• Asking for help
• Brainstorming a new idea
• Inviting a peer to work on a special project
The key to a successful and not overly critical peer-to-peer conversation is that it happens in the moment and from a place of positive intent. They should not always be associated with failure and should be intentional and well thought through.
Deloitte’s study on inclusion found that “Organisations need to get teams to capitalise on the various forms of knowledge their members bring.” The study suggests a culture where senior employees provide guidance and mentorship while junior employees provide new perspectives and exposure can result in a “cross-generational dialogue that could foster appreciation and empathy.”12 By sharing knowledge and expertise, team members can help each other grow.
Peer-to-peers typically happen in highly autonomous and psychologically safe environments. Peers will not be comfortable having one-to-ones with each other if they do not feel safe enough to be honest and speak up. Nor will they provide helpful feedback if there’s not an environment open to change and creativity. It’s no wonder that high psychological safety and autonomy increased the odds of team members holding peer-to-ones by 867%.
Research from Harvard University found that giving or receiving peer-to-peer negative feedback rarely leads to improvement.13 Team members that received negative feedback would rather avoid the coworkers that gave them the feedback and build new relationships with those who complimented them (a prime example of confirmation bias). The only time negative feedback worked? When the recipient feels valued by the giver.
It bears repeating: Teams that thrive feel a strong sense of autonomy and psychologically safety. Their leaders allow them to be themselves and feel free to go out and share their greatness. As the workplace evolves and organisations change, autonomous, psychologically safe teams will be quicker to successfully adapt. Their leaders must be agile and forgo traditional leadership practices, as comfortable as they may seem.
Autonomy and psychological safety are important characteristics of thriving teams
Teams feel autonomous when there is flexibility and freedom to create
Psychological safety means employees can voice opinions and ideas without fear
Great leaders build great teams by connecting their people to each other, using tools like peer-to-peers
1. Drive, Daniel Pink, 2011.
2. “Why Trust Motivates Employees More Than Pay”, Jennifer Reingold, Fortune, April 27, 2016.
3. “Proactive Personality and Job Performance: Exploring Job Autonomy as a Moderator”, Jerry Bryan Fuller Jr., Kim Hester and Susie S. Cox, Journal of Managerial Issues, Vol. 22, No. 1 (Spring 2010).
4. “The End of the Traditional Manager’, Adam Hickman and Ryan Pendell, Gallup, May 31, 2018.
5. “Best Examples of Company Cultures That Engage Employees”, Impraise.
6. “Psychological Conditions of Personal Engagement and Disengagement at Work”, William A. Kahn, Academy of Management Journal, Vol 33. No.4.
7. “Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace”, Harvard Business Review, January 22, 2019.
8. “Making It Safe: The Effects of Leader Inclusiveness and Professional Status on Psychological Safety and Improvement Efforts in Health Care Teams”, Amy Edmondson, Journal of Organizational Behavior, Vol. 26, November 2006.
9. O.C. Tanner and Human Synergystics, “Findings from O.C. Tanner and Human Synergistics,” Available: https://www. humansynergistics.com/global-culturereport- supplement/.
10. “What Google Learned From Its Quest to Build the Perfect Team”, Charles, Duhigg, New York Times, Feb 27, 2016.
11. “The 4 Things Resilient Teams Do”, Bradley Kirkman, Adam C. Stoverink, Sal Mistry, Benson Rosen, Harvard Business Review, July 19, 2019.
12. “The Bias Barrier”, 2019 State of Inclusion Survey, Deloitte.
13. “Surprising Harvard Research Says Giving Negative Feedback to Peers Won’t Work (Unless You Do 1 Simple Thing)”, Scott Mautz, Inc., January 16, 2018.
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