Introduction by Example
Let’s talk about psychological safety.
So you’re working as a software engineer. You pick up an important task and start working on it. Within the first fifteen minutes you realize that you have no clue what it’s about, you contemplate reaching out for help to one of your team members, but remember that the last time you did so - the person was patronizing and told you that you required too much hand-holding. So you don’t ask for help and instead try to figure it out yourself. You finish the task eventually, but instead of an estimated day of work it takes you, say, three days. Your team members start questioning your abilities.
Or an example from Amy Edmondson’s talk, which is, perhaps, more relatable. Imagine a hospital, it’s late evening and there’s a nurse doing rounds. The nurse looks at a patient, checks the charts and to her it seems that the drug dosage is too high. She considers calling the doctor. The doctor is home with their family, quite likely having dinner. The nurse remembers that the last time she brought something up - the doctor called her incompetent. She decides that it’s probably nothing and moves on to the next patient.
So yes, let’s talk about psychological safety.
What’s Psychological Safety?
Psychological safety is a belief that you won’t be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes.
It might be tempting to try and brush it off. Like, man, why is it so important? Well, consider if you want to go to work and feel incompetent, ignorant, intrusive or negative. Imagine a situation where you feel like all your work and opinions you express are futile. Also remember that, at the very least, you’re spending 8 hours a day, five days a week at work. So yeah, forty hours a week of that.
But let’s backtrack a bit. What are the implications of feeling all of those things at work. Like, even if we pretend that your feelings, as an end result, don’t matter (which of course they do). You feeling incompetent, ignorant, intrusive, negative or futile has a negative business impact too. Let’s go through the implications one by one.
Incompetency. You make a mistake. It doesn’t particularly matter why - maybe you didn’t sleep well the night before, maybe you didn’t read the documentation, maybe there was no documentation and you’ve made assumptions, maybe you’ve felt rushed to deliver a change to production as quickly as possible. Regardless of the reason - you’ve made a mistake. The mistake was big enough to make an impact. When figuring out what exactly has happened, one of the team members called you incompetent, unprofessional or lazy. To avoid getting called incompetent, unprofessional or lazy you’ve stopped admitting mistakes or weaknesses. You don’t perceive making a mistake as an opportunity to learn and share your learnings with the team.
Ignorance. You’ve been developing front-end solutions for the biggest part of your software engineering career. Then, for one reason or another, you change jobs and at this new place you’re required to do backend development with languages you don’t know much about. It takes a while to get up to speed and you poke people for information about: the system, the programming language, the architecture. Impostor syndrome is a real thing and you don’t feel particularly happy about not knowing things, but, to make matters worse, someone starts to have opinions on your lack of knowledge on this particular subject. It’s one of those loud people who go something like: “Whaaat? How can you possibly not know about X?!”. Bonus points if they ask if you’ve considered moving to a different team or company. You feel embarrassed. To avoid feeling embarrassed you stop asking questions and start making assumptions.
Intrusion. I think every good team needs to demonstrate approachability. A team where everyone wears headphones for most of the day, taking them off begrudgingly when you have a question; a team where everyone kinda disperses in their own unique direction for lunch; where virtual interaction is valued over physical, since it’s less disruptive; a team like that is not approachable. You start feeling intrusive in no time and, suddenly, you’re keeping conversations to a bare minimum. You’re not offering ideas through your questions, thoughts or friendly banter, the team is clearly not interested.
Negativity. Being a new joiner in a company is an amazing experience. You get to see the workings of the team with fresh eyes. Some of them make sense, some don’t. Part of the ones that don’t make sense - don’t make sense for a reason, someone ten years ago decided it would be a good idea and now everyone is doing it out of habit. You make one suggestion, another, a third one and someone tells you that you’re being too negative. After a while, because no one likes a negative person, you learn to keep it to yourself. And if everyone’s doing the same - the status quo in your team never really gets challenged.
Futility. You love working with your team, they’re great! But there are a few things that can be improved. Little or big things. From switching off monitors when leaving work to changing the way sprints are done, or maybe the way the code it tested. You bring it up to your manager or at team retrospectives, multiple times. People nod and kind of appreciate that it needs to be changed, but nothing ever changes, months go by - your team is still environmentally unfriendly, your sprints suck and the test coverage percentage has dropped by 3%. You feel like your attempts at changing something for the better are futile and eventually you stop caring. Fucks to give are a limited commodity, so you might as well spend them on something that will actually yield results.
I feel like in some places there’s this idea of perfect business behavior, where you’re not really supposed to complain, you suck it up and suffer through. But how about no. Nobody wants to come to work (that takes up the majority of your time) and feel like this. We can do better than that. And it’s not just about the individuals themselves.
Every time you don’t ask a question because you assume that you’re supposed to know that, or are worried about seeming incompetent, or too negative - you miss an opportunity to innovate, come up with new ideas. Better working teams are better at discussing problems and admitting them. The more you talk about problems the more likely you are to find better ways of resolving them.
We are humans after all, the things we persistently feel - bubble up into the world around us. Joshua Kerievsky mentions something he calls a cycle of mistrust. The gist of it is:
Someone at work makes a negative assumption about you and somehow you become aware of it. It can be through direct critique or maybe they noticeably change their attitude towards you. The reaction of pretty much any human being will default to a self-protective behaviour, since your identity or professionalism are being challenged. That’s probably why there’s an overwhelming amount of training courses on giving feedback, it’s hard. So anyway, that person who made the negative assumption - they observe your aggressive reaction and make a new negative assumption. To which you react as well. And so it goes on until the heat death of the universe.
There are several ways of breaking out of cycles. You can try to be more mindful and analyse your reactions, try to stop and think about what is happening, talk to the other person. Having a third party who can look at the situation they don’t have any emotional investment in can also be really helpful. They have a great opportunity to intervene - hopefully in a subtle, respectful way - and break the cycle.
But also it’s just important to know your team. Criticism, defensiveness, stonewalling and contempt are things that make it difficult to break the cycle of mistrust. So knowing your go-to reaction, and, actually, other team members’ reactions can help notice the cycle starting early on and pause for a second. And maybe that’ll be enough.
How to Build Psychological Safety?
Psychological safety exists when people are not afraid to be themselves, or take risks, or make mistakes. It exists when people don’t worry about raising problems, feel comfortable asking questions and disagreeing.
But how do you make an environment psychologically safe? How do you build psychological safety? There are several things that can be done.
Framing the work as a learning problem, not an execution problem is one. It’s important to make it clear that there is a lot of uncertainty ahead, that the work requires interdependence - a richness of views and experiences. Everyone needs to be in the game. That should create the rationale for speaking up.
Nobody knows everything and accepting that neither do you and admitting it to the people you work with is important. Acknowledge your own fallibility. Something like: “Please speak up if you think I’m wrong” or “I may miss something I need to hear from you” creates more safety for speaking up.
And also, model curiosity. Make sure to ask questions, inspire inquisitiveness. This will not only create the necessity for speaking up, but also help avoid being stuck in a rigid framework of old ideas and solutions that have been around since the beginning of time just because it’s how it’s always been.
There is a good diagram that demonstrates how psychological safety and accountability can affect the work environment:
The key takeaway is that an environment with a low level of psychological safety and high accountability breeds anxiety. Everyone is pressured to deliver, but there’s little to no trust in fellow colleagues helping out - so everyone only relies on themselves, work occasionally gets duplicated, there’s micromanagement.
In an environment with both low levels of psychological safety and accountability - no one really is motivated to do anything. Everyone comes to work, does the bare minimum, watches a few cat videos and goes home. No one really cares about anything.
Low accountability and high psychological safety is when you end up in a comfort zone, everyone’s happy to work together, but there’s no challenge that can make the team really shine. It just kind of happily exists.
And high accountability together with high psychological safety is what creates a great, efficient team. There are challenges ahead and the team is held accountable for addressing the challenges, achieving the end goal, but everyone in the team knows that they can trust the people they work with. That they can admit not knowing something and have it explained to them, they can express concerns and have them addressed, they can ask for help and get it. It’s a team that learns together, that grows together.
Psychologically Safe Meetings
So okay, so far I’ve mostly addressed the subject on a conceptual level. How would, say, a meeting look like, if it was psychologically safe?
Well, it would be a meeting where everyone is encouraged to contribute. Depending on the number of people in the meeting, contributions can be done individually, in pairs or in groups.
Lean Coffee is a good way of handling meetings, if you’re a bit fuzzy on what that means: it’s a structured meeting where the participants build an agenda in the beginning and start talking. Because the agenda was created democratically - conversations are productive and directed.
Set-Based design is a great go-to for psychologically safe meetings. To quickly recap, an almost direct quote from a Set-Based Design webpage: “it’s a practice of keeping requirements and design options flexible for as long as possible during the development process. Exploring multiple options helps eliminate poorer choices over time and enhances flexibility in the design process by only committing to technical solutions after validating assumptions have been made”.
Idea brainstorming can be done through sticky notes, again, it provides more flexibility, higher chance of exposure of everyone’s ideas to everyone else.
But also it’s a meeting where everyone listens to one another. To help with that, reviewing or repeating other people’s points is a pretty good idea. It doesn’t just help make sure that the previous point was correctly understood, it demonstrates respect towards other people’s views.
It is a meeting where people avoid interrupting or dominating a conversation. Having a facilitator who structures the conversation helps tremendously. But in addition to that - providing feedback to the interrupting or dominating person in private is a good way to improve the situation. It doesn’t put them on the spot and, chances are, they’re not doing it intentionally.
Generally the best approach to encountering an opinion that is different from yours is to be caring, curious and non-judgemental. Expressing that verbally in a phrase like: “I’m curious, why do you think that?” is way better than saying: “Ugh, that’s a terrible idea”.
Amy Edmondson mentions that, of course, psychological safety might not always be important. If the work to be done is clear and will continue being clear for millennia to come and everyone works on their own without much contact with each other - it’s less important. But if there is a lot of uncertainty and interdependence in the work that needs to be done - it is vital.
“But, like, okay Aleks, an example of a real company putting resources into investigating stuff in this general direction would be nice”. Sure thing, reader.
You probably have heard of Google’s “Project Aristotle”, where their People Analytics team researched team effectiveness. They picked the name “Aristotle” because of his famous quote: “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts”. An apt name. The researchers discovered that who was on the team mattered less than how the team worked together. And in working together these are things that mattered, in order of importance (directly copied from their page, link below):
Psychological safety: Psychological safety refers to an individual’s perception of the consequences of taking an interpersonal risk or a belief that a team is safe for risk taking in the face of being seen as ignorant, incompetent, negative, or disruptive. In a team with high psychological safety, teammates feel safe to take risks around their team members. They feel confident that no one on the team will embarrass or punish anyone else for admitting a mistake, asking a question, or offering a new idea.
Dependability: On dependable teams, members reliably complete quality work on time (vs the opposite - shirking responsibilities).
Structure and clarity: An individual’s understanding of job expectations, the process for fulfilling these expectations, and the consequences of one’s performance are important for team effectiveness. Goals can be set at the individual or group level, and must be specific, challenging, and attainable. Google often uses Objectives and Key Results (OKRs) to help set and communicate short and long term goals.
Meaning: Finding a sense of purpose in either the work itself or the output is important for team effectiveness. The meaning of work is personal and can vary: financial security, supporting family, helping the team succeed, or self-expression for each individual, for example.
Impact: The results of one’s work, the subjective judgement that your work is making a difference, is important for teams. Seeing that one’s work is contributing to the organization’s goals can help reveal impact.
If you’d like it more visual, here:
An example that I came across that I really liked is as follows. There’s two teams. Team A and Team B.
Team A consists of people who are very smart and successful. If you watch them work - you’ll see a group of professionals who wait for their topic of expertise to arise and start talking about it at length, providing explanations on what the group has to do. If someone makes an irrelevant comment - the speaker reminds everyone of the agenda and gets back on track. Team A is efficient, long debates are rarely, if ever, a thing, there’s no idle talk. The meeting ends at the scheduled time and everyone leaves to work at their desks.
Team B is evenly divided between successful executives and middle managers with few professional accomplishments. Teammates jump in and out of discussions, people interject and complete each other’s thoughts; when a team member suddenly changes the topic - the rest of the group follows them off the agenda. The meeting doesn’t actually end at the scheduled time - everyone sits around, talks about their lives, gossips.
Team A might be optimized for peak individual efficiency, but the way it functions discourages equal speaking and there are few exchanges of the kind of personal information that lets teammates pick up on what people are feeling or leaving unsaid. The members of Team A are likely to act like individuals when they come together and there’s little to suggest that they will become more collectively intelligent as a group. In Team B, on the other hand, people might go on tangents, speak over one another, socialize instead of focusing on the agenda. It might seem inefficient, but everyone gets to speak as much as they need to. Team B is sensitive to the moods within the team and shares each others emotions. So, while it doesn’t contain individual stars, its sum is greater than its parts.
No one wants to put on a “work face” when they get to the office. No one wants to leave part of their personality and inner life at home. To be fully present at work, to feel psychologically safe, we must know that we can be free enough to share the things that scare us without fear of recriminations. We must be able to talk about what is messy or sad, to have hard conversations with colleagues who are driving us crazy. We can’t be just focused on efficiency.
A takeaway exercise
I would like to challenge you to an exercise. Sit down at your desk and, before starting to check your emails, or coding, or doing something else - look around. Look at the people you work with. Appreciate the fact that they are not just colleagues who magically appear at the office every morning and disappear in the evening. Today they will finish their work, put on their coat or jacket and leave the building. They will get on a train, bus, bike or into their car and go home. They might live alone or with someone they love. They’ll have dinner, maybe watch a film. They have hobbies that they are passionate about. They have their own unique sense of humour, and, occasionally, there’s a stupid joke that they like so much - they can’t help but laugh. Sometimes emotions get a tiny bit overwhelming and they cry. They have experienced love. They might’ve had their heart broken, a long time ago or recently. They are a rich combination of fascinating experiences that make them unique and special. How big of a fucking shame would it be to expect them to leave all of that at the door to the office?
The text above references and contains of quotes from these sources:
- Amy Edmondson - “Building a psychologically safe workplace”
- Charles Duhigg - “What Google learned from its quest to build the perfect team”
- Re:Work. Guide: Understand team effectiveness
- Joshua Kerievsky - “High performance via Psychological Safety”
- Mark Manson - “The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck”
- John Cutler - “Of Course Psychological Safety, but How?”
- Lean Coffee
- Set-based design