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Psychological Safety: Models and Experiences

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Key Takeaways

  • Psychological safety is central to your team and your organization because it is a key factor towards real improvements (high performance).
  • We describe and map out using the S.A.F.E.T.Y. Model and its implications; each of these elements is a source of potential pain, so the knowledge of (or better yet, a personal assessment in) these elements is central to letting you control and revert your bad feelings and behaviours. These new behaviours are a critical step towards a learning organization.
  • You can use the model elements as enablers in order to start a path of personal growth, that allows you to move from better human relationships to creative environments for teams and large communities.
  • Models can also be used to create a fearless organization.
  • Psychological safety is a prerequisite for Lean Agile adoptions.

This paper discusses psychological safety that refers to a climate in which people are comfortable being (and expressing) themselves. In particular, psychological safety is centrally tied to learning behavior, while it lowers transactions costs and reduces the need to monitor behavior.

A proposed model (called S.A.F.E.T.Y.) - composed of the main elements of the psychological safety driving factors of pain and fear - is discussed briefly, and the article proposes a path to how we can use this model in agile adoptions related to teams and organizations.

How psychological safety promotes the dissemination of knowledge and collaboration

Psychological safety is central to the dissemination of knowledge and collaboration in teams as well as organizations. The fundamental principles of psychological safety promote the behaviours needed to create a fearless organization that is crucial to achieve the Business Agility. A Google survey back in 2015 indicated that one of the most important drivers of high performing teams was psychological safety. In fact, according to a Pew Research Center survey, 89% of adults say it is essential for today's business leaders to create a safe and respectful workplace.

Going back to the origins of Agile, we can see evidence of human factors being considered fundamental to this mindset, for its values and principles.

The first value of the 2001 Agile Manifesto of Software Development says "Individuals and interactions over processes and tools" - this is valid still today in our opinion, however without a true (enacted) psychological safety, trust is not possible and interactions can be corrupted by fear, uncertainty, or worse, the entire Agile organization can live in a fake "world" of opaque relationships. So, what will remain is essential a set of process and frameworks.

Moreover, speaking about the dissemination of knowledge, the lessons learned in around two decades of Agile coaching have taught me that the necessary "ingredients" are of a psychological nature, and certainly relate to the security of not being punished if the truth is spoken, receiving feedback that C-level (or more generally managers) would not like to hear, and the possibility of feeling autonomous and self-reliant as a part of an inter-connected team.

Much work in today's organizations is accomplished collaboratively — involving sharing information and ideas, integrating perspectives, and coordinating tasks.  
Teams provide a structural mechanism through which this collaboration often occurs.

Unfortunately, the experience of people who have worked on teams suggests that working interdependently with others is not always easy.

Psychological safety is a fundamental factor in feeding collaboration and helping interdependent work. In fact, if people live in a climate in which they feel safe to show themselves and do not fear negative repercussions or judgments on the part of others, they will be able to freely express ideas, suggestions, admit their mistakes and confront others. This, of course, will quickly trigger a virtuous circle of openness and dissemination of knowledge.

Another central topic is that of "stress" and psychological pain in the working environment. Stress is an important workplace issue, affecting the health of individuals and organizations. When we experience stress or conflict at work, our brain triggers the fight-or-flight response, which shuts down our ability to think strategically and shifts our behaviour from reasonable and rational to primal and reactive.

The most common triggers of stress response at work include:

  • Lack of respect
  • Not being appreciated
  • Unfair treatment
  • Not being heard
  • Unrealistic deadlines

It’s important that team leaders be aware of these triggers. Early advocacy for Agile Software Development suggested it might help avoid stress, using practices that emphasize a sustainable pace, and self-organizing teams.

An analysis conducted in 2014 by Andreas Meier, et al. suggested that stress might still be commonplace in Agile teams, especially for those with less experience. Based on our years of experience with agile teams, our initial supposition was that lack of collaborative practices might be the cause.

Exploring more deeply the practices related to avoiding stress, we found that collaborative practices in general were only weakly related to reduced stress, while the effect of Self-Organizing Teams was stronger, especially among those with a leadership role. Lower stress was also linked to many software quality outcomes, such as low defect rate, emergent design and architecture.

What allows people to openly share ideas and contribute a part of themselves to a collaborative undertaking?

Trust, the unifying theme of this paper, is a critical input to this interpersonal climate, as is mutual respect. Respect and trust are core values of the most adopted agile frameworks like Scrum.

Models of psychological safety

One of the main models we consider here is called S.A.F.E.T.Y 1

  • SECURITY

    Our need for predictability in terms of consistency, commitment, certainty and change avoidance. This element is fundamental for the rest of the model and forms the basis of our relationship and interaction with the world.

  • AUTONOMY

    This is related to our need to feel we have to control our environment, and have choices.

  • FAIRNESS

    This element means our need to engage in and experience fair exchanges..

  • ESTEEM

    This element of the model is directly related to our need to be regarded highly, derived from how we:

    • See ourselves
    • Compare ourselves to others
    • Think others see us
  • TRUST

    This means our social need to belong to and protect our "tribe" (team, community of practice, guild … )

  • YOU

    The final and most important element is obviously you. What is unique to "you":

    • Your personality profile
    • Your biases
    • How you are influenced and how you influence others
    • Your context (past, present, future)

We can consider all these model elements in terms or real life experiences (mainly in Lean Agile or traditional environments).

Fig 1: S.A.F.E.T.Y. Model Schema

We are wired for safety; our brain’s primary focus is to detect and react to threats to our survival. It’s crucial to remember that it treats tangible physical threats and perceived psychological threats identically.

Another model we would like to consider and use is Brain Safety N.E.T.S.™

  1. NUTRITION is an important piece of the puzzle when we talk about managing the brain and keeping it firing on all cylinders.
  2. EXERCISE Another way to counteract some of the limitations of the prefrontal cortex (PFC) is with exercise.
  3. TRAINING in the NETS context refers to brain training. A growing body of research supports the practice of simple, daily, focused meditation, or mindfulness.
  4. SLEEP Finally, sleep is another factor being researched with regard to building brain resilience.

This model is central to each of us and can be used for individuals in an organization.

We can share some considerations based on our experiences with this model in the context of an Agile team. Nutrition, and more in general team member health, is considered an important factor by a  good ScrumMaster (empathy and healing are fundamental skills of a servant leader). The second element, exercise, is carried out continuously through collaboration in carrying out tasks and exploring solutions using spikes or even ‘katas’. Training happens by using mentorship, training on the job, or better yet, by using an eXtreme Programming practice called pair programming. Sleep is connected to the idea of resilience in an agile team. Much of the time a solution will naturally emerge from the system in this complex world, so we learn to wait instead of continuously pushing for an answer.

Applying the SAFETY model to increase psychological safety

So, where can we go from here using the S.A.F.E.T.Y. Model? Our goal is to find the key to happy, high-performing people and teams.

A key point is to begin considering that each person moves in the world (and in its team) according to his or her own S.A.F.E.T.Y. model, which will always aim to protect himself or herself from perceived dangers, but which can take a different form for each one of us. For example, there are those who give more weight to their autonomy, those to their sense of justice. This means that there is not a unique recipe that can be used in every context, but that it is really important to send the team the message that everyone will be respected in their individuality and in their need for security.

In our experience in the field, these are the starting factors; the enablers of every path towards high performing teams and fearless organizations.


Fig 2: Model Adoption Sequence

To summarize, the path will follow this sequence:

  1. SELF & RELATIONSHIP SAFETY: Develop your sensitivity and manage your triggers. Get on the same page & protect each other’s SAFETY.
  2. TEAM SAFETY: Understand Your Team's SAFETY. Adopt a SAFETY lens. Become sensitive to how situations, communications, activities, and behaviors may impact particular SAFETY drivers in the team.
  3. CULTURAL SAFETY: Identify psychological safety as a cultural priority. Implement psychological safety across the population (advocacy, language, expectation and accountability).

For knowledge work to flourish, the workplace must be one in which people feel they are able to share their knowledge! 2

Without psychological safety, it becomes infinitely more difficult to innovate.

How can we develop psychological safety? Here are some ways that we can create our own psychological safety at work.

  1. Change our internal dialogue about failure. There are ways of looking at failure in a positive light; look at failure as something to be embraced, rather than feared.
  2. Frame work as a learning problem. When we see the work we’re doing as a learning opportunity, instead of something that needs to be executed, we’re giving people the freedom to ask questions and search for new solutions and options.
  3. Always offer the benefit of the doubt. When you are in a psychologically safe environment, you are receiving the benefit of the doubt from the group, not only from someone you trust.
  4. Model curiosity and ask lots of questions.
  5. Acknowledge your own fallibility.
  6. Know that you can always get another job. One of the greatest fears is that of losing your job. If you get fired, you think that means you'll never get another job again. The reality is that it's just not true. A lot of times this can be a positive change for you, one that offers a better solution.

Change takes time, so it’s important to start small when creating a feeling of psychological safety.

The following image shows a sequence of steps that go from "high quality relationship" to "positive changes" and "organizational growth". Safety is seen as an enabler to the following steps and should be considered as essential in order to have real dissemination of knowledge.

The role psychological safety plays in agile adoption

One of the authors - Fabio Armani, an organizational coach - has spent more than 15 years in Lean Agile adoptions and transitions in a large spectrum of different contexts, teams and organizations. A lot of failing efforts end up resulting from being too oriented and focused on processes, approaches and tools.  These adoptions generally are top-down driven and lack real involìvement from the employees.

In the last decade there has been a proliferation of frameworks to scale Agile (SAFe, DA, LeSS…) or to manage portfolios, that often are too complicated and full of practices disconnected from the human side of the agile mindset.

Along with its well-documented benefits, Agile brings some complex challenges. We can categorize the challenges as development process conflicts, business process conflicts, and people conflicts (management attitudes, logistical issues, change management); this last one is the most challenging.

The challenges associated with psychological safety are likely to be exacerbated in implementations across workplace cultures (inherent in the company). The Agile approach depends on collaborative relationships and interdependence among team members. We are not yet aware of a study correlating psychological safety and Agile, however, there is an indirect occurence that a culture based on psychological safety has the following positive effects on Agile adoption:

  1. It supports innovation by stimulating productive exchanges.
  2. It promotes a learning from failure attitude.
  3. It increases the likelihood that employees will share their thoughts on how to improve the organization.

Another important element of psychological safety is making team performance a collective responsibility (i.e,, the team shares responsibility for the product or outcome).

There are three categories of challenges related to the role of psychological safety in Agile implementations:

  • Attitudes toward inclusiveness
  • Perceptions of and trust in collective responsibility, and
  • Openness in communication

To solve the ‘impasse’ seen earlier (related to the proliferation of processes and tools), we look at psychological safety as one of the key elements to anchor all the successful adoptions to the values and principles of the Agile Manifesto, in accordance with the idea of Modern Agile (by Joshua Kerievsky) and Heart of Agile (by Alistair Cockburn).

In Modern Agile, safety is considered a prerequisite to basic human needs and is a key to unlocking high performance. There is an emphasis on protecting people’s time, information, reputation, money, health and relationships. ‘Make safety a prerequisite’ is an inseparable part of the Modern Agile wheel. The four guiding principles strengthen each other.

Speaking about this value in Modern Agile, we would like to share a recent experience with a large Italian bank. A few months after a wide-ranging agile adoption started, we were called on to solve problems within and between a series of agile and non-agile teams.

A strong lack of psychological safety that prevented communication and collaboration was evident to us. We therefore proposed some workshops aimed at achieving awareness of this first, starting a path towards safety growth. This was successful and was therefore extended to other areas of the organization.

Conclusions

Leaders must change their mindsets and adopt this new cultural safety. Only by creating a fearless organization can Agile flourish and became a path towards continuous improvement, for you and your organization.

As a result, we want to encourage leaders and anyone who wants to benefit from the adoption of an Agile mindset to explore their environment and culture in a transparent way with a psychological safety perspective, taking the steps proposed in this paper 3 with courage and determination.

Footnotes

1 model created by Dan Radeckiand explained in the book "Psychological Safety: The key to happy, high-performing people and teams.", Radecki, Dan. - The Academy of Brain-based Leadership.

2 Edmondson, Amy C. "The Fearless Organization".  - Wiley.

3This article has been presented during the following conferences:

  • Agile Business Day 2019
  • Agile Venture Firenze 2019

About the Authors

Fabio Armani, CEO of Openware ,is an independent professional with close to thirty years of experience in the field of information technology and management.  He helps companies in Lean Agile adoptions, transitions and rollouts, with organizational and executive coaching, and his consulting services range from teams to scaling and organizational challenges. He is able to follow the evolution of organizations and to suggest solutions adapted to their Lean Agile maturity level.

Giulia Armani is a psychologist - psychotherapist in training - graduated in cognitive neuroscience and psychological rehabilitation. She works in clinical psychology while she is finishes her education as a cognitive-behavioral psychotherapist for adults. She is active as a Lean Agile coach and public speaker, interested in stress and psychological well-being issues in the workplace.

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