It was Friday evening, and I was looking for something educational but light. ‘The Pixar Story’, a new title on Netflix, stopped my thumb. I didn’t know the whole story of Pixar but I had likened it to that of an adorable powerhouse (I mean, the lamp). The documentary delivered on that. The surprise came as I watched how Pixar became a lauded innovator. 

At the heart of this little lamp that could was trust. Safety. Collaboration. They established group norms, perhaps unknowingly, that cultivated an environment where people felt psychologically safe (read this study about group norms: Google’s Project Aristotle). Their energies could be put into creation, not self preservation. We see this for ourselves with the creators of Finding Nemo. The group is huddled in the editing room, each jittery with anticipation as their production scenes were to be evaluated, judged. The narrator comments on the intimidation felt prior to entering this room. Definitely understandable, anytime we present what we put our heart into, we feel the butterflies as our heartbeats quicken waiting for what’s to come.

But this room was different.

Initial nerves settled quickly as they soon relaxed. There was dialogue. The feedback is given genuinely, with the intention of moving closer to the vision, never delivered with a critical tone or judgment. It is received openly knowing this intent. No one leaves the editing room feeling defeated because of the exchange, people leave inspired to take risks, to push themselves. They know the scary but necessary risk comes with the support of people who believe in them. They can look forward to trying, experimenting, even innovating.

It is a pure display of how Pixar’s psychologically safe environment cultivated collaboration. Feedback and criticism are tough, both can be sensitive and painful if people are untrustworthy of their surroundings. But when group norms are in place, these perceived threats of judgment and attack are eliminated. Our guard comes down with a foundation of trust. People can contribute honestly knowing they will not be misunderstood.

When dedicated minds have the support of a crystal clear ‘why’ and are driven to figure out the ‘how’…well, hello innovation. For Pixar, this recipe sparked hit after hit, even though with each success the bar was raised higher; not an easy feat. 

How can you start cultivating your own group norms? Trust? Safety? Start with these 3 steps:

Listen: surrender the floor, stop worrying about your turn to talk. It’s ok to let other people talk first, to go second. Plus, it’s good practice. When you give what you want, in this case an ear, you receive that back. 

Mind your delivery: there are so many ways to say the same thing. Sometimes in our haste, we attach a laced tone. Being mindful here will keep your team relaxed and allow thoughts and ideas to surface.

Be Inspirational: no matter what, send them on their way feeling like they can conquer the world. One of my favorites scenes is when Pixar is producing the movie Antz. The current ability to create the image of a crowd (like a crowded ant colony) was limited to 50 characters, not exactly the look they were going for. When presented with this, John Lasseter’s reply was brilliant: “If this is what it has to be, I can live with that. But if anyone can figure this out, you guys can.” The end result? 431 characters into their impressive crowd colony.

If you put these into practice, model the behavior, people eventually will trust your consistency. Over time, this strengthens and group norms are woven into how your team operates. As people come and go, the norms still guide the behavior. They became embedded by those already there and imprinted on those new to the team.