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Create Psychological Safety

Create an environment where everyone in the organization can share their ideas, theories, and proposals without feeling insecure or embarrassed, and without fear of reprisal. Developers can experiment to increase context-sensitive learning as an on-going process.

Pain Points

  • Lack of innovation
  • Continue to run into common problems
  • Employees unengaged
  • Folks are afraid to speak up, do not offer ideas
  • Developers feel they should “Just do what you’re told”
  • No reporting of problems or issues
  • Fear of admitting to mistakes or errors
  • Team members don’t trust each other, don’t trust management.


Psychological safety is a critical ingredient to all the other learning practices. Without it, your organization will not be successful.


  • Individuals feel free to offer opinions and ask questions without fear of embarrassment or reprisal, as reported by anonymous survey (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)


✓ Critical ❑ Helpful ❑ Experimental

Adoption Experiment

Overview of steps to first adopt this practice. Please read detailed explanation below for important information.


  1. Remove perceived threats and potential sources of embarrassment
  2. Explicitly demonstrate and reinforce focus on goal, not individual blame/hero
  3. Reevaluate reward systems (raises, bonuses, employee evaluation)
  4. Leaders must demonstrate openness to new ideas, active listening, reinforce learning and progress


  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 follow up on these topics:
    1. It’s easy to speak up on any topic
    2. Differences in opinion are welcome and openly and candidly discussed
    3. People value new ideas
    4. There is time in the schedule for personal and group reflection and AARs
    5. Management invites feedback and new ideas (For a more thorough survey instrument, see e.g.

What Does it Look like?

Accountability vs. Psychological Safety

  Low High
     Accountability       Accountability   
High Psychological Safety Comfort Zone Learning Zone
Low Psychological Safety Apathy Zone Anxiety Zone

Edmondson’s work on Psychological Safety identifies these four zones of behavior based on the level of accountability and motivation vs. the amount of perceived psychological safety. 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 behavior.

  • Do not tolerate bullying, intimidation, efforts to shut down people.
  • “I don’t know.” You do not have all the answers. Be upfront in admitting that.
  • Encourage experiments. Reinforce that no experiments fail, all provide data. Allow for risk in the service of discovery.
  • Actively encourage input from all team members. There are no stupid ideas. Remember, someone made millions off the idea of a tornado filled with sharks.
  • Ask questions, especially “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.
  • Eye on the prize: the ultimate goal of the organization is to delight its customers. (CITE: Stephen Denning)

Team Attitudes

Team members need to adopt and model the following behavior.

  • “I don’t know.” You do not have all the answers. Be upfront in admitting that.
  • Don’t interrupt another speaker
  • Don’t denigrate ideas that seem “bad”
  • Vigorously debate ideas, not people
  • Understand the goals of the team. If not clear, ask and keep asking.
  • Focus on the ultimate goals of the team, not individual blame/heroes
  • Learn from each other. Teach and share what you know and what you’ve discovered.

Failure is a desired element of working; it’s critical to learning and progress. If your experiments never fail, you aren’t learning. An experiment is only a failure if you fail to learn from it.

Embrace Accountability

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

  • Do not tolerate bullying, intimidation, efforts to shut down people.
  • Ensure goals are clear. What are the goals for this team (not just deliverables, but 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 damage (CITE: The Pragmatic Programmer)
  • 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 specific: here’s what you did well, and why. Let’s do more of that. c.f. Triple-loop learning.

Failure Boards

Can be used to recognize and accept and celebrate the learning that comes from failure was remarkable.

TODO: expand failure boards discussion

Anxiety Party

This is a group activity to help everyone understand the group’s perception of their work. As developers, we inordinately suffer from issues such as Impostor Syndrome. Perhaps we worry we’re letting down our colleagues, or that we talk too much. Or not enough. This is a challenging exercise that can help clear the air for the better by sharing what other people think of your personal anxieties. The results may be surprising, but ultimately should provide some relief by making these issues explicit.

  1. Write down biggest personal anxieties on your own paper (~10m)
  2. Rank them (2m)
  3. Share them. Each team member scores your concern on a scale of 0..5 (Never thought this was an issue…Strongly believe you need to improve on this)

Repeat quarterly, or as needed.

(suggested by Google Ventures)

Warning Signs

  • Knowledge held “close to the chest”
  • Team trying 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 (CITE: Edmondson, Psychological Safety and Learning Behavior in Work Teams).

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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