Psychological Safety In Teams

In a team building activity I once participated in, I had an experience that relates to psychological safety.

Divided in groups, we were asked to solve a riddle. The group that had the right answer would win a small symbolic price, so everybody got a little competitive. What we didn’t know, was that in each group there was one person who (secretly) knew the correct answer. 

In my group, everybody started to discuss lively and quite loud. Nobody listened to the person who, without our knowledge, had the right answer. This person, who was a little bit quieter, was not so comfortable with loud discussions but did his best to be heard. When the answer was revealed, I was ashamed. I was one of the loudest ones, not listening to the person with the right answer, although I’ve been working with him for years… 

What is psychological safety? 

Do you dare to ask about anything in your team? Or, are you afraid of being perceived as stupid? Can you make your voice heard, or are your teammates mainly focusing on their own ideas, not listening to others? 

In a psychologically safe team, there is no offence for asking any question, and mistakes are something that we all do and overcome together. Studies have shown that successful teams actually make more mistakes. Why? Because in teams where you are allowed to take risks and sometimes fail, there is also a higher level of innovation and engagement. 

“Psychological safety is a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes” – Amy Edmondson, Harvard Business School Professor 

What are the specific benefits? 

When I manage to implement improved psychological safety in a team, I soon experience a significant difference: 

Increased engagement in meetings and discussions which will make these more meaningful to everybody. 

The team members take ownership of the tasks and how to increase business impact. Higher motivation to achieve goals. 

The productivity and quality increase accordingly, and we experience a lot of joy! 

Psychological Safety is a proven key to success! 

At the developer conference Øredev a few years ago I listened to High Performance via Psychological Safety by Joshua Kerievsky. This became an eye opener for me and inspired me to work with teams in a different way. I realised that psychological safety is very important to make a team as productive as possible. 

In 2015 Google investigated what their most successful teams had in common. They found that the absolute most important key to success was how the team members interacted with each other. In teams where the team members felt safe, they performed far better. Google has documented these findings in a report, The five keys to a successful Google team.

Who is on a team matters less than how the team members interact, structure their work, and view their contributions.” – The five keys to a successful Google team

Three ways to increase psychological safety 

According to my experience, it’s very common that a few members of a team dominate meetings and discussions. This increases the risk that good ideas are ignored, and that the quieter team members lose attention and engagement. The best for a company is if everybody performs on top of their capacity. How could we reach that? 

Let everybody speak

At meetings, let everybody speak. Listen to the others and ask questions to understand what they mean. Try to be humble and review your own opinion. Discuss different perspectives and let everybody have one night’s sleep before making important decisions. This will also give your arguments time to sink in. Make sure everybody feels comfortable and build trust. 

Encourage questions 

Encourage questions and the will to understand. Don’t make team members feel stupid over a question even when the answer should be obvious to them. To avoid a lot of interruptions while working you might work in pairs or small groups. This doesn’t have to mean pair programming, it is more of sharing a set of tasks in the same area of the system, or the same change request. If working in the same area, questions come more natural and don’t interrupt as much as if you’re doing something completely different. 

Admit mistakes 

Have you felt the relief when a person you admire admit they’ve made mistakes?If they have made mistakes and seem quite unaffected by that, then your own mistakes might not be as serious as you thought. 

I’ve worked in teams where developers didn’t show each other the code that they’ve written. Because they were scared someone would find out that they’ve done mistakes. This is clearly not good for performance. 

Start with yourself 

As a tech lead, I encourage psychological safety by showing myself vulnerable. If I make a mistake, I admit it openly in front of everybody. If there is something I don’t understand, then I ask a question, and if it turned out to be a “stupid” question I pay my stupidness no attention. Pretty soon there is a 

change in the team to a more open attitude. There is no need to prove or hide anything. We’re just trying to solve problems together and do it the best way we can. 

“We learn together” – Anonymous architect

I recently heard a tech lead and architect say: We learn together! I think that’s a very good way of making team members feel safer. Not accusing each other for mistakes, not feel that we know too 

little. Just learning and succeeding together. 

Conclusion 

My experience is that psychological safety is key to build a high-perming team. When members feel safe and cooperate, then the team as a whole becomes so much more effective. Maybe it is time to give psychological safety the attention it deserves?

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