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InfoQ Homepage Articles How Psychological Safety at Work Creates Effective Software Tech Teams That Learn and Grow

How Psychological Safety at Work Creates Effective Software Tech Teams That Learn and Grow

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Key Takeaways

  • Psychological safety is defined as a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking. It increases personal engagement and makes it easier for people to speak up at work.
  • When there’s psychological safety in a team, the members feel safe to take risks, admit mistakes, share ideas, experiment, discuss conflicts, and ask for feedback.
  • Psychological safety fosters learning from failure—people see failures as opportunities for learning and share ideas on how to improve. 
  • People can only feel safe challenging the status quo when they feel included, safe to learn, and safe to contribute. We should focus on the incident—not the persons—to prevent blame games.
  • Leaders can actively nurture a culture of safety by being vulnerable, reducing human debt, creating incentives and rewarding safe behavior, and establishing inclusive environments.

Psychological safety goes back to research that started in the previous century. It’s becoming more and more important for tech teams, given the need for faster delivery, innovation, learning from failures, and experimentation.

Many articles have been published about psychological safety—we have collected them and put them into perspective for establishing high-performing tech teams.

This article provides the foundations of psychological safety and shows how it has been applied for team effectiveness. It explores how psychological safety supports learning and improvement and how we can foster a psychologically safe culture in tech teams.

Foundations of psychological safety

The 1990 article Psychological conditions of personal engagement and disengagement at work by William A. Khan describes three psychological conditions whose presence influenced people to personally engage and whose absence influenced them to personally disengage: meaningfulness, safety, and availability. Khan defines safety as a “sense of being able to show and employ self without fear of negative consequences to self-image, status, or career” where people “feel situations are trustworthy, secure, predictable, and clear in terms of behavioral consequences.” When people perceive situations as psychologically safe, personal engagement increases. Trust and supportive interpersonal behavior promoted psychological safety which in turn allowed people to try and perhaps fail without fearing the consequences, Khan discovered. 

In the 1992 article, How can organizations learn faster? Edgar Schein mentioned that mistakes will occur as we practice to learn new skills. Coaching in a psychologically safe environment can help to speed up learning, he argued. For change to happen, people have to feel psychologically safe:

Essential elements of a psychologically safe environment are 1) opportunities for training and practices, 2) coaching and rewards for efforts in the right direction, 3) norms that legitimize the making of errors, and 4) norms that reward innovative thinking and experimentation.

The needs for psychological safety during the learning process are likely to be universal and cannot be ignored, Schein concludes.

In the 1999 article, Psychological Safety and Learning Behavior in Work Teams, Amy Edmondson introduces the construct of team psychological safety as “a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.” She concluded from her study that team psychological safety affects learning behavior, which in turn affects team performance. Both structural factors, such as context support and team leader coaching, and interpersonal characteristics, influence learning and performance in teams. 

Edmondson stated that team psychological safety is something beyond interpersonal trust:

There was evidence of a coherent interpersonal climate within each group characterized by the absence or presence of a blend of trust, respect for each other’s competence, and caring about each other as people.

The 2007 article Psychological safety and social support in groupware adoption: A multi-level assessment in education by Jeroen Schepers, Ad de Jong, Martin Wetzels, and Ko de Ruyter describes a study of technology adoption in an educational setting. One of their findings is that psychological safety has a direct effect on groupware usage: “students who feel more safe and comfortable in their environment have less anxiety to use groupware.” The report states that “both tutor support and peer support influence feelings of psychological safety at the individual level” which combined with a group-level effect leads to teams becoming more innovative and adaptive with increased learning.

In the 2018 HBR article If Your Employees Aren’t Speaking Up, Blame Company Culture, Hemant Kakkar and Subra Tangirala state that “employees might fail to speak up because they feel their work environment is not conducive for it.” According to their research, “strong environmental norms could override the influence of personality on employees’ willingness to speak up at work.” People tend to speak up when they think it is strongly expected of them. Encouraging and rewarding them for speaking up matters. 

The ISO 45003 standard provides guidance on the management of psychosocial risks and promoting well-being at work. A draft of this standard was published in June 2021, which includes:

  • Information on how to recognize the psychosocial hazards that can affect workers, such as those that arise from working from home
  • Offers examples of effective—often simple—actions that can be taken to manage these and improve employee wellbeing

Psychological safety applied for team effectiveness

When there’s psychological safety in a team, the members feel safe to take risks, admit mistakes, share ideas, experiment, discuss conflicts, and ask for feedback.

Project Aristotle at Google explored the secrets of effective teams. The re:Work guide Understand team effectiveness provides the result of this research; five common factors that determine team effectiveness, in order of importance:

  1. Psychological safety
  2. Dependability
  3. Structure and clarity
  4. Meaning
  5. Impact

This is what the Google guide on team effectiveness says about 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.

The blog post The five keys to a successful Google team explains why psychological safety was by far the most important of the five dynamics that the research team found:

The safer team members feel with one another, the more likely they are to admit mistakes, to partner, and to take on new roles. And it affects pretty much every important dimension we look at for employees. Individuals on teams with higher psychological safety are less likely to leave Google, they’re more likely to harness the power of diverse ideas from their teammates, they bring in more revenue, and they’re rated as effective twice as often by executives.

Matt Sakaguchi spoke about Creating Effective Teams at Google at QCon San Francisco 2016. In the podcast The Key to High Performing Teams at Google he explored attributes that separated effective teams from the rest. One of them is psychological safety which he defines as:

People feel comfortable taking a risk or asking a question and know they will be supported by their teammates, they feel safe to share personal and “crazy” ideas.

According to Sakaguchi, safe teams beat targets by 17%, unsafe teams missed their targets by 19%.

The 2017 HBR article High-Performing Teams Need Psychological Safety by Laura Delizonna provides six steps to increase psychological safety that Paul Santagata derived from the study on team performance at Google:

  1. Approach conflict as a collaborator, not an adversary.
  2. Speak human to human.
  3. Anticipate reactions and plan countermoves.
  4. Replace blame with curiosity.
  5. Ask for feedback on delivery.
  6. Measure psychological safety.

In an HR magazine article on the importance of psychological safety, Amy Edmondson states that psychological safety and high performance go together:

Managers who appreciate the appeal of error-reporting, help-seeking, and other learning behaviors may be concerned that fostering psychological safety means relaxing performance standards. In fact, the opposite is true. Because psychological safety replaces silence and fear with candour and openness it is conducive to setting ambitious goals. 

When performance standards and psychological safety are both high, people speak up to question, voice concerns, report mistakes, and suggest new ideas, Edmondson argued. She stated that “Only by collaborating and learning from each other can we get the complex innovative work done that is necessary today.”

How psychological safety supports learning and improving

Psychological safety fosters a learning-from-failure attitude where people see failures as opportunities for learning and share ideas on how to improve. People can only feel safe challenging the status quo when they feel included, safe to learn, and safe to contribute. Post-mortem should focus on the incident, not the persons, to prevent becoming a blame game.

In the InfoQ article Psychological Safety: Models and Experiences, Fabio and Giulia Armani link psychological safety to the manifesto for agile software development:

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 essentially a set of processes and frameworks.

According to the authors, a culture based on psychological safety has positive effects on agile adoption by supporting innovation, promoting a learning-from-failure attitude, and increasing the likelihood that employees will share their thoughts on how to improve the organization.

InfoQ did a Q&A with Timothy Clark on his book The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety. In the interview, he stated that “psychological safety means you can interact with the members of a social unit without being embarrassed, ridiculed, or punished in some way.”

Psychological safety follows a natural progression based on the sequence of human needs, Clark argued. The four stages that build on one another are:

  1. To feel included.
  2. To feel safe to learn.
  3. To feel safe to contribute.
  4. To feel safe to challenge the status quo.

According to Clark, it’s nearly impossible to achieve a higher level of safety without first achieving the lower levels.

In his article Psychological Safety At Work, Harri Kaloudis explored what psychologically safe work teams look like. Errors, everyday problems, and failures are viewed as opportunities for learning:

The team takes the time and effort to engage in “second-order” problem solving […] identifying the root causes of problems and taking action to address these rather than their signs and symptoms. 

According to Kaloudis, psychologically safe teams proactively seek to identify errors and problems they may have missed. Team members do not shy away from constructive task conflict by raising difficult and challenging issues openly.

Teams have to create safety in order to talk about things that involve everyone. In an InfoQ write-up about building high-performing teams, Patrick Kua suggested using the “prime directive” from Norm Kerth to create a safe environment:

Teams can experiment with change; if it goes wrong then they can go back to how they did things before.

Kua suggested taking small steps and focusing on improving the interactions between team members.

Psychological safety in blameless post-mortems is essential for learning from incidents to happen. In an interview about Psychological Safety in Post-Mortems, Matt Saunders explains what can be done to make everyone involved feel safe throughout the post mortem:

The key point is that we’re doing a post-mortem on the incident, not on the person who made a mistake (if indeed there was a single mistake that caused the incident). The session should thus be run with this front and center. It’s key to clarify right at the start that this is a learning process for the team or organization, and not a blame game.

A “solution-focused” approach can help for feedback to be received as relevant, appreciative, and helpful. In the article Facilitating Feedback That’s Psychologically Safe, Roy Marriot describes the ACE process which stands for Aims, Confidence, and Even more confidence:

To help make the feedback valuable for the recipient, we start by understanding their Aims. This means our feedback is more likely to be helpful—and they’re more likely to trust us.

Then we can listen to and understand their plans/designs, etc., in light of their Aims. To generate our feedback, we can ask ourselves two questions:

  1. What gives me Confidence that this design will achieve that Aim?
  2. What would give me Even more confidence that this design will achieve that Aim?

According to Marriot, if people are well-intentioned, this ACE model and meeting format will help them to communicate feedback in a way that builds trust and psychological safety. 

Fostering a psychologically safe culture

In an InfoQ Q&A on Sooner, Safer, Happier, Smart describes the anti-pattern of psychologically unsafe:

There is a culture of fear. People are afraid to speak up and bad news is buried. Often cost and schedule take precedence over safety, sometimes with tragic consequences. People will not innovate, for fear of retribution. There is no experimentation and there is learned helplessness.

Smart explained that it can take years for a new culture to take hold and be sticky:

Going from a traditional organization to more of a Teal organization requires leaders to actively nurture culture, to recognize and reward the desired behaviors, to create the right incentives, to create psychological safety, to invite participation, to communicate, and to create social proof in context.

Duena Blomstrom explored how we can increase psychological safety by reducing human debt. In the InfoQ article How to Recognise and Reduce HumanDebt, she provides a list of practical things to increase psychological safety, which includes ideas like creating and holding the space for self-care and introspection, making room for human work, and finding ways to constantly measure so you can show the smallest of early wins.

When leaders are under pressure they can fall into “dark side” behaviors like bullying, aggressiveness, and dominance, that cause deep and lasting harm to the organizational culture and psychological safety. It can be challenging to maintain psychological safety under pressure—a possible solution is to deliberately and mindfully regulate responses and prevent behaving in a toxic way.

The foundation of a learning culture is psychological safety is what Adam Grant stated in building a culture of learning at work. He describes an experiment where they asked managers to share their past experiences with receiving feedback and their future development goals:

We advised them to tell their teams about a time when they benefited from constructive criticism and to identify the areas that they were working to improve now.

By having the managers demonstrate taking feedback and showing that they were open to it, they normalized vulnerability:

Their employees gave more useful feedback because they knew where their managers were working to grow.

Ideas can come from any employee at Facebook, regardless of seniority or position in the company. Facebook has empowered employees to take initiative and make an impact as Mehmet Baha explained in Creating Psychological Safety in Your Teams. He argued that we cannot have high-performing teams without psychological safety. 

Baha suggested two approaches for increasing psychological safety in remote teams:

  1. Inclusion is a cornerstone of psychological safety. To ensure that everyone is included, for instance, in online brainstorming sessions, I request that the teams I work with write their ideas in a given amount of time and without talking to one another. Normally, in brainstorming sessions, one or a few people dominate the discussion. Without talking, everyone can write their ideas and everyone is included.

  2. Once team members get to know each other, they are more likely to trust one another. That can positively influence psychological safety in a team. At the beginning of online meetings, I ask short personal questions to team members such as: “What was the best concert you have ever been to? And what made that concert so special to you?” Everyone responds to that question. It is fun to talk about music, it creates a positive atmosphere in the team and allows team members to get to know one another.

Fostering effective teams that learn and improve

When tech teams feel safe for interpersonal risk-taking, there’s more personal engagement and people will speak up when there’s something that bothers them or if they have an idea. Team members are more likely to take risks, admit mistakes, share ideas, experiment, discuss conflicts, and ask for feedback. This has a direct impact on the performance of the team.

We should focus on the incident—not the persons—to prevent blaming. Psychological safety fosters learning from failure—failures are seen as opportunities for learning and improvement. But people can only feel safe to challenge the status quo when feeling included, safe to learn, and safe to contribute. 

Under pressure leaders can fall into “dark side” behaviors, causing deep and lasting harm. By being vulnerable, reducing human debt, creating incentives and rewarding safe behavior, and establishing inclusive environments, leaders can actively nurture a culture of safety. We cannot have high-performing teams without psychological safety. 

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