Teams: How to Develop Feelings of Safety and Social Ties

HEC Paris News: Teams: How to Develop Feelings of Safety and Social Ties

A research paper on leadership and management written by Professor Mathis Schulte

In a team, where does the feeling of safety come from, and how do social ties between team members form? According to Mathis Schulte, Andrew Cohen, and Katherine Klein,relationships within social structures and the psychological state of a teamare tightly linked. Members’ perceptions affect the evolution of the social structure of the team, which in turn affect the team members’ perceptions. 

In recent decades, as the importance of collaboration in business has grown, numerous researchers have taken an interest in the way in which teams’ general state of mind and the social ties formed within them can influence their results. But while many studies have sought to understand the consequences of these two factors in collective performance, until now few have looked into how they emerge. In this study, Schulte, Cohen, and Klein try to understand the mechanisms through which collective perceptions and social networks mutually influence each other. To do so, they concentrate on psychological safety and the ways in which it can impact or be impacted by affective and professional bonds. 


The psychological safety of a team is a shared perception of the climate reigning within the group. Members feel safe if they expect to be treated with respect and goodwill, and in particular if they think that they will not be punished or put into difficulty by their peers if they express their opinion or show their weaknesses. Psychological safety thus encourages expression and promotes personal engagement. It improves both members’ learning and overall team efficiency. But individual perceptions of psychological safety also influence interactions  between team members. The basic building blocks of team-internal social networks thus rest on the bonds between individuals and these individuals’ perceptions of psychological safety. But how can the emergence of these bonds and perceptions be explained? 


To evaluate how psychological safety influences social ties, the researchers looked at three mechanisms:

• Prospective action: an individual’s perception of the team can influence the bonds he wishes to form with other team members. The more positive the perception, the higher the probability that one adopt a constructive attitude (offers of friendship ties, or advice offered in anticipation of a favorable response). 
• Attraction: an individual with a positive perception of the team will more easily attract requests for friendship, advice, help...
• Homophilia: individuals with similar perceptions of the team are more inclined to form bonds together. But an opposite phenomenon can also be observed: the social ties within a team can in turn shape perceptions.

In this case, the researchers speak of retrospective sense-making, which is marked by:

• Reactions: the social ties that an individual receives influence her perception of the team. The more sought-after one is, the more positive a representation he has of his environment.
• Assimilation: the individuals in a team tend to adopt a perception similar to that of individuals who they trust and with whom they have privileged and positive ties. 

The more positive individual perceptions are, the more ties, advice, and mutual aid develops between team members.


The conclusions of the study suggest that prospective action is a major lever for the psychological safety of the team (the more positive individual perceptions are, the more ties, advice, mutual aid, etc., develops between team members). The assimilation effect is important too, as individuals do seem to adopt the positive and negative perceptions of members of their network. On the other hand, the study shows that there is no attraction effect: individual perceptions do not seem to set off reactions in the individual’s social environment. Finally, the researchers show that retrospective sense-making has an effect on the perception of difficulties: the ties formed by an individual with other team members who express difficulties tend to modify their own perceptions of difficulties, even if he has not directly experienced them. 

Based on an interview with Mathis Schulte and the article “The Co-Evolution of Network Ties and Perceptions of Team Psychological Safety” (to be published in Organization Science ), co-written with Andrew Cohen and Katherine Klein.