Create Psychological Safety

Psychological safety describes a work environment where team members, regardless of status, are able to share ideas, theories, and proposals free from fear of criticism or reprisal. A two-year study at Google1

found that psychological safety was a critical component for team success. You can’t create it overnight, but you can start heading in that direction today.

Pain Points

  • Lack of innovation
  • Everyone continues to run into common problems
  • Team members are unengaged
  • Folks are afraid to speak up, and do not offer ideas
  • Developers feel they should “just do what you’re told”
  • There’s no reporting of problems or issues
  • Fear of admitting to mistakes or errors
  • Team members don’t trust each other and don’t trust management
  • Team’s often find themselves “stuck” and wait for management direction

Benefits

Psychological safety is a critical ingredient of high-performing software development organizations. It enables teams to grow, to think, innovate and adapt to changing circumstances and business climates. It moves decision making from away from the view of a single individual and toward one of a more diverse and nuanced perspective. Benefits include:

  • Greatly reduces the risk of failure
  • Supports creation of a learning culture leading to teams being able to learn from mistakes (one of our best teachers)
  • Fosters an enhanced sense of value for employees as they feel their input is always welcomed and valued
  • Empowers teams to think and adapt to differing conditions or changes and fosters innovative thinking

Assessment

  • Individuals feel free to offer opinions and ask questions without fear of embarrassment or reprisal (20pts)
  • Individuals can report errors, omissions, mistakes without any fear of embarrassment, reprisal, loss of face (20pts)
  • Individuals can safely say “I don’t know” instead of remaining quiet or feeling pressured to reply (20pts)
  • Individuals will not speak up or offer opinions (-50pts)
  • Individuals bully others (-150pts)

Application

✓ Critical ❑ Helpful ❑ Experimental

Adoption Experiment

Do the following steps to get started.

Setup

  1. Leaders must remove perceived threats and potential sources of embarrassment
  2. Leaders must explicitly demonstrate and reinforce focus on goals, not individual blame/reward
  3. Leaders must reevaluate reward systems (raises, bonuses, employee evaluation)
  4. Leaders must demonstrate openness to new ideas, engage in active listening, and reinforce learning and progress

Trial

  1. Model and adopt the attitudes listed below. Explicitly point out when co-workers slip from these ideals
  2. Use After Action Reviews daily, on delivery, and after an incident to reinforce accountability and psychological safety

Evaluate Feedback

  1. Use anonymous surveys to ask if the following conditions are being met:
    • It’s easy to speak up on any topic
    • Differences in opinion are welcome and openly and candidly discussed
    • People value new ideas
    • There is time in the schedule for personal and group reflection via ContinuousReview
    • Management invites feedback and new ideas2

What Does it Look like?

Accountability vs. Psychological Safety

This idea was first introduced in a TedX talk by Amy Edmondson.3

identifies four zones of behavior based on the level of accountability and motivation vs. the amount of perceived psychological safety:

ComfortZones.png

The shift from an Anxiety ridden organization to a Learning can happen by cultivating psychological safety. Moving from Apathy or Comfort requires ramping up accountability and motivation. The following sections discuss what you need to do.

Leadership Attitudes

Team leaders and managers, all the way up to senior management, need to adopt and model the following behaviors.

  • Do not tolerate bullying, intimidation, or efforts to shut down people
  • Embrace “I don’t know” as an answer. You do not have all the answers; no one does. Be upfront and admit that yourself, and accept it from others
  • Encourage experiments. Reinforce that no experiments fail, all provide data. Allow and accept risk for the sake of discovery
  • Actively encourage input from all team members. Remember, there are no stupid ideas. Someone made millions off the idea of a tornado filled with sharks
  • Ask questions, especially “How”, “what” and “why”
  • Practice full transparency. Don’t brush aside problems or swoop in to help
  • Trust in the team to organize itself, make decisions, and deliver
  • Keep your eye on the prize: the ultimate goal of the organization is to delight its customers.4
  • Be vigilant and self aware regarding your own attribution and confirmation biases while working with others

Team Attitudes

Team members need to adopt and model the following behavior.

  • Embrace “I don’t know” as an answer. You do not have all the answers; no one does. Be upfront and admit that yourself, and accept it from others
  • Don’t interrupt another speaker
  • Don’t denigrate ideas that seem “bad.” What would have to be true for it to be a good idea?
  • Vigorously debate ideas, not people5
  • Understand the goals of the team and the organization. If not clear, ask and keep asking
  • Focus on the ultimate goals of the team, not individual blame or reward
  • Learn from each other. Teach and share what you know and what you’ve discovered
  • Be vigilant and self aware regarding your own attribution and confirmation biases while working with others

Failure is a integral element of work. It’s critical to learning and progress. If team experiments never fail, you aren’t learning. An experiment is only a failure if you don’t to learn from it.

Embrace Accountability for All

Both managers and team members agree on transparent, two-way accountability. Do not tolerate sub-standard, poor working practices:

  • Do not tolerate bullying, intimidation, or efforts to shut down people
  • Ensure goals are clear. What are the goals for this team (not just deliverables, but purpose. What is the team’s reputation? What are their strengths?)
  • “I don’t know” is welcomed, and must be said. But the team will use experiments to discover possible answers
  • No Broken Windows. Fix known problems quickly to limit collateral damage6
  • No short cuts. Don’t skimp on basic engineering principles: unit tests, encapsulation, release procedures, etc.
  • Ask for Help. Establish a maximum time someone can be stuck on a problem before they are required to ask for help. This principle is not just for developers, but for everyone including managers, sales, QA, designers, marketing, etc.

Use Positive Feedback

Not just a pat in the back, but be specific: here’s what you did well, and why. Let’s do more of that. For more on this topic, look into Triple-loop learning.7

Failure Boards

A failure board is a technique that helps you analyze a failed event and “fail forward fast.” You learn from mistakes, take corrective action and apply those learnings quickly. Teams can recover from past mistakes and begin to build confidence that they are taking meaningful steps to avoid similar incidences in the future. This process can be formal or informal as appropriate for your organization, but the critical factor is that it’s taken seriously and is supported fully at all levels of the organization.

The nursing community provides a great example of how to setup a failure board that will have a much better chance of success.8

Punishing individuals that make mistakes promotes a system where the only mistakes reported are those that couldn’t be hidden—large-scale disasters. Obviously, this is not the goal of an organization desiring to build a culture of psychological safety.

A failure board can also be used to recognize and accept and celebrate the learning that comes from failure. Studies show that performance gains from failure boards is remarkable, as problems are brought to light and actively mitigated.

Warning Signs

  • Knowledge is held “close to the chest”
  • Information gets hoarded and used for leverage
  • Teams try to figure out what leaders want to hear before speaking out
  • No feedback from each other, from the customers, from management
  • Going around in circles
  • Getting stuck, unable to make a decision

Growth Path

The full set of learning practices in The GROWS Method® will help form a virtuous, self-reinforcing cycle. Psychological Safety is one of the necessary conditions in order for any of the other practices to succeed. But once you have it, the other practices will encourage and increase safety, which will encourage and increase learning, and ultimately increase team and organizational effectiveness.9

How to Fail Spectacularly

  • Proclaim the workplace to be “Psychologically Safe” but don’t change anything
  • Insist on honesty and a focus on team goals but retain individual-based performance reviews, evaluation and compensation plans
  • Don’t allow experimentation or risk
  • Enforcing the same culture and expectations across different teams

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  1. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/28/magazine/what-google-learned-from-its-quest-to-build-the-perfect-team.html 

  2. For a more thorough survey instrument, see examples at los.hbs.edu 

  3. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LhoLuui9gX8] Her work on Psychological Safety[@Edmondson:2019 

  4. The Age of Agile (Denning, 2018) 

  5. Beware of the Fundamental Attribution Error 

  6. The Pragmatic Programmer (Thomas & Hunt, 2020) 

  7. First proposed in (Romme & Witteloostuijn, 1999)

  8. Just Culture www.nursingworld.org/~4afe07/globalassets/practiceandpolicy/health-and-safety/just_culture.pdf

  9. The Fearless Organization (Edmondson, 2019)

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