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Project Aristotle: A Case Study in Psychological Safety


Google's Project Aristotle was a study conducted to identify the key factors that make a successful team. While researchers originally thought that diversity or a team’s demographics would have the biggest impact, they were surprised by the results of their findings. After analyzing vast amounts of data, the researchers discovered that psychological safety was the most important factor for team success. In this article, we will explore Project Aristotle's findings and how they relate to Timothy R. Clark's The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety framework. We will discuss the four stages and how leaders can implement them to create psychologically safe teams.

What is Psychological Safety?

Psychological safety is the belief that one can express themselves freely without fear of negative consequences. It’s also referred to as a culture of rewarded vulnerability. In a psychologically safe environment, team members feel safe to take risks, be vulnerable, and share their ideas without fear of ridicule or rejection. In essence, psychological safety is the foundation for a successful team. Teams that lack psychological safety are more prone to fail due to issues such as mistrust, lack of collaboration, and low morale. They’re operating out of fear, and are usually in survival mode. No team can innovate or create competitive advantage in that kind of culture.

The Four Stages of Psychological Safety

Timothy R. Clark's The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety framework offers a roadmap for creating psychologically safe teams. This framework is based on human needs in social settings and follows a basic progression from belongingness needs to candor. Everyone, regardless of demographics, psychographics, upbringing, or beliefs, experiences these needs. 

The four stages are inclusion safety, learner safety, contributor safety, and challenger safety. Inclusion safety involves ensuring that all team members feel included and valued. Learner safety encourages team members to seek out new information and ask questions without fear of judgment. Contributor safety is about empowering team members to make valuable contributions and recognizing their efforts. Challenger safety involves embracing healthy conflict and encouraging team members to challenge assumptions and share their opinions.

As teams progress through psychological safety’s four stages, they create an increasingly safe environment where they intentionally model and reward bigger acts of vulnerability. Once teams reach the fourth stage, challenger safety, they’re empowered with the skills to innovate and make things better without fear of failure or punishment.

Implementing the Four Stages of Psychological Safety

Implementing the four stages of psychological safety requires intentional effort from team leaders. Leaders must actively cultivate a culture of psychological safety by demonstrating empathy, active listening, and vulnerability. As a leader, when it comes to psychological safety, you either show the way or get in the way. Additionally, leaders must encourage open communication, provide constructive feedback, and recognize team members' efforts. Team members must also be empowered to share their ideas, take risks, and challenge assumptions. Leaders can facilitate this by providing opportunities for growth and development, celebrating successes, and creating a safe space for healthy conflict.

The Impact of Psychological Safety on Team Performance

Project Aristotle's findings demonstrate the significant impact of psychological safety on team performance. Teams that exhibit high levels of psychological safety experience increased innovation, better decision-making, and higher employee engagement. Conversely, teams that lack psychological safety suffer from low morale, decreased collaboration, and higher rates of employee turnover. By prioritizing psychological safety, leaders can create an environment that fosters trust, collaboration, and creativity, leading to improved team performance.

What Did Project Aristotle Uncover About Psychological Safety?

Google's Project Aristotle study sought to understand what makes a successful team. After conducting extensive research, they concluded that the most critical factor was psychological safety. In other words, the teams that felt safe to take risks and be vulnerable with each other were the most successful. Project Aristotle discovered that the most successful teams had members who were comfortable being themselves and voicing their opinions. When individuals feel psychologically safe, they are more likely to take calculated risks and offer new and innovative ideas.

The study found that teams with psychological safety were more likely to admit to making mistakes and to learn from them. They were also more willing to collaborate and help one another, leading to increased productivity and job satisfaction. It's worth noting that psychological safety isn't just about feeling comfortable in a team. Instead, it's about being able to speak your mind without fear of judgment or retaliation. It's about feeling safe to take risks and make mistakes, knowing that your colleagues have your back and support your growth.

Project Aristotle's findings align with Timothy R. Clark's The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety model, particularly the contributor safety stage. This stage occurs when individuals feel that they are a valued member of the team and that their contributions are recognized and appreciated. In contributor safety, team members feel comfortable sharing their opinions, ideas, and feedback without fear of retribution or rejection.

Psychological safety is critical in the workplace, particularly for innovative teams. The Project Aristotle study has demonstrated that creating a safe environment where team members can take risks, make mistakes, and learn from each other is crucial for success.


Psychological safety is the foundation for a successful team. The Project Aristotle study highlighted the critical importance of psychological safety and how it can be cultivated through intentional effort and leadership. Timothy R. Clark's The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety framework provides a roadmap for creating psychologically safe teams. By prioritizing inclusion, learning, contribution, and healthy conflict, leaders can foster a culture of psychological safety, leading to improved team performance and overall organizational success.

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