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Cultivating Psychological Safety

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When we’re feeling stressed, threatened, or unsafe, it becomes harder to think creatively, work collaboratively, and solve problems. You can cultivate a culture of safety by letting folks know that it’s safe to make mistakes, by listening for real understanding, and by practicing mindfulness.

Alex Harms, coach at Maitria, will speak about cultivating psychological safety at the Agile Games conference 2018. The conference will be held April 9-11 in Burlington, MA, USA.

This conference will explore ways to use serious games to significantly improve team performance by increasing psychological safety and other key attributes.It will focus on using games, collaborative activities and interactive exercises to support the values, principles, and practices of lean and agile.

InfoQ will cover this event with Q&As and articles.

InfoQ spoke with Harms about what makes psychological safety so important for agile teams, what we can do to cultivate it, and how empathetic technical leadership looks in practice.

InfoQ: How would you describe psychological safety?

Alex Harms: To have psychological safety, you need to feel like on your team it’s safe to take risks. You can speak up, and you’re not going to be ridiculed or outcast as a result. You can make mistakes or ask questions without risking negative interpersonal consequences, without fear of judgment.

InfoQ: What makes it so important for agile teams?

Harms: When we’re feeling stressed, threatened, or unsafe, our bodies help us do a lot of things better. We’re able to run faster, hit harder, yell louder. We are able to notice the slightest movement out of the corner of our eye. Things we do not do better: think creatively, work collaboratively, solve problems. Adrenaline just isn’t helpful. These are very human activities, and they work best in a very human environment.

InfoQ: What can we do to cultivate psychological safety in teams?

Harms: As leaders or as peers, we help to set a tone, even without meaning to. It’s important that your message — spoken and unspoken — be one of safety.

You can help cultivate a culture of safety by letting folks know that it’s safe to make mistakes. Enjoy your own mistakes, laugh, and learn from them. Acknowledge the inherent uncertainty in the work we do, and model fallibility. "I’m not sure I have this right. Can you help?"

Another skill that can help you contribute to safety is listening for real understanding (rather than just nodding and staying quiet). Learning what’s happening with someone naturally leads to curiosity, and curiosity disempowers judgment. It can also help to practice mindfulness, to help you put some space between what happens and your reaction to it. In that space, you can begin to replace judgment with curiosity, and start to listen and empathize, even when it’s hard.

InfoQ: You wrote the book The Little Guide to Empathetic Technical Leadership. How does empathetic technical leadership look in practice?

Harms: When there’s conflict, an empathetic leader helps focus the discussion toward an outcome that works for everybody. When there are hard things to hear, the empathetic leader gets to hear them, because people aren’t afraid of speaking up.

Empathetic leadership starts with paying attention. In meetings, notice who is speaking up and who isn’t. Notice body language. Think about people’s needs, and notice whether they’re being met. Ask, and listen.

Whole-self listening — listening for understanding — is an important skill for empathetic leaders, and it’s not something that comes naturally. But it can be learned.

InfoQ: If InfoQ readers want to learn more about psychological safety, where can they go?

Harms: Well, I’ll start by recommending my book about empathetic technical leadership, because I happen to like it. :) Carl Rogers, who contributed a lot to our understanding of psychological safety before it was called that, wrote a little book called Active Listening which I also recommend. Marshall Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication provides an eye-opening look at empathy.

There are a couple of people currently researching these topics. Here’s a talk on Building a Psychologically Safe Workplace by Amy Edmondson, a professor at Harvard who’s done a lot of work around psychological safety. And you might enjoy this TED talk, The Power of Vulnerability, by Brene Brown, a researcher at the university of Houston.

Maitria has a fledgling Slack community where you can ask questions and meet other folks who are interested in mindfulness, compassion, and empathy at work. To join, email

Beyond that, I’d say the key is to keep working on yourself. Cultivate a learning circle of folks around you who care about safety, and work together to get better at the skills that lead to it. Take some quiet moments to get to know yourself, and how you respond to things. Focus on having compassion for yourself, and use what you learn to help you be present in the world the way you’d like to be.

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