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Task Design, Team Context, and Psychological Safety: An Empirical Analysis of R&D Projects in High Technology Organizations



High technology organizations need to develop new products or processes that address the dual goals of exploration and exploitation. The competing viewpoints and the asymmetric nature of market returns associated with these goals in R&D projects can heighten stress levels among project team members and reduce their psychological safety. While current research calls for greater focus on task design for improving psychological safety, we know little about how team contextual factors affect this relationship. This study develops and tests a conceptual framework that examines the moderating role of R&D team contextual factors, namely, relative exploration and project-organization metric alignment on the relationship between a key task design variable, namely, team autonomy, and psychological safety. Relative exploration captures the extent to which exploration goals are emphasized over exploitation goals in an R&D project, while project-organization metric alignment measures the extent to which project metrics are aligned with broader organizational metrics. Furthermore, we examine the performance consequences of psychological safety in R&D projects. The empirical analysis is conducted using primary data collected from multiple informants across 110 R&D projects in 34 high technology business units. Our results indicate that relative exploration and project-organization metric alignment have contrasting moderating effects. Furthermore, the effect of psychological safety on project performance is found to be indirect and mediated through team turnover. Implications of the study findings, limitations, and directions for future research are discussed.