Psychology can explain why wildly successful teams get tempted to the dark side

Feeling safe to take risks isn’t always a good thing.
Feeling safe to take risks isn’t always a good thing.
Image: AP Photo/Jens Meyer
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A few years ago, Google conducted a massive internal study to understand how to build an effective team. Researchers concluded that the most important ingredient for good teamwork was psychological safety—in which members of a team feel comfortable expressing conflicting opinions and taking risks, knowing that their colleagues have their back.

Management researchers and organizational psychologists largely agree that this dynamic is crucial to a company’s success. There’s just one problem: The very psychological safety that helps employees come up with their best, most creative work may also make tempt them to break bad.

This may come as a surprise, given that psychological safety would seem to be a boon for ethical behavior. Theoretically, employees who feel secure venturing outside their comfort zones should be in a better position to shoot down bad ideas, call out misbehavior, and blow the whistle if necessary—especially if they’re supported by strong leaders. But when you take a closer look at psychological safety, its blemishes start to show.

In research I’ve described in the past, organizational behavior professors Matthew Pearsall and Aleksander Ellis asked teams of management students to self-evaluate a piece of coursework, creating the temptation to simply cheat and award themselves top marks. The teams had already been working together for months, and some had really bonded, thereby creating psychologically safe environments. Pearsall and Ellis discovered a surprising pattern: Only teams that felt psychologically safe were willing to suggest cheating and then carry it out, taking comfort in the knowledge that they wouldn’t be judged—or worse, ratted out—by the rest of the group.

The news gets worse from there. According to a 2009 paper published in Psychological Science, when one individual feels safe enough to be brazenly unethical, others who identify as part of that group are tempted to go down the same road. In other words, one bad apple can rot the whole barrel.

These findings call to mind toxic cultures like Stratton Oakmont, the brokerage that ran a microcap stock fraud through a pump-and-dump boiler room. Stratton Oakmont employees enjoyed a tight-knit, secure climate, including prostitution- and drug-fueled office parties when they weren’t getting together to merrily rip off their customers. They could be frank and take risks together, staying loyal to each other while keeping their malfeasance hidden from the outside world.

Research on the effects of psychological safety may also help us understand the massive fake accounts scandal at Wells Fargo. Years back, former employee Yesenia Guitron noticed something fishy was going on and made several unsuccessful attempts to blow the whistle internally. That kind of action is certainly aided by a sense of psychological safety. But ultimately, Guitron had to go outside of the organization and take Wells Fargo to court to address the problem. This meant that she chose, in the service of a greater good, to go against the climate of psychological safety and deliberately called out her colleagues.

None of this should make companies dismiss the value of psychological safety: It’s a working condition that’s necessary for teams to perform well, solve problems, and innovate. A lack of psychological safety can also lead to catastrophic failures. Enron, for example, was notorious for pressuring employees to engage in group-think, drink the Kool-Aid, and avoid thinking too deeply about what they were doing.

But in the wrong context—that is, in a company with bad hiring practices, perverse incentives, or toxic leadership—psychological safety can be a recipe for disaster. It’s too soon to say what’s at the heart of the Wells Fargo crisis. But it is clear that a climate that helps teams do their best work isn’t enough to cure all ethical ills.