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How a Safe-to-Fail Approach Can Enable Psychological Safety in Teams

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Companies can establish a culture of psychological safety among their employees, a culture in which failing is not frowned upon but rather is accepted as something that can happen to anyone. According to Adil Addiya, safe-to-fail should be part of the corporate culture. A shift in the way we envision success can lead to a better understanding of where failure lies and provide courage to overcome our fears.

Adil Addiya, a software developer, spoke about safe-to-fail and psychological safety in teams at A Day of Organisational Psychological Safety by Aginext.

Psychological safety is about creating a climate in which people believe they can speak their mind, ask questions, raise concerns, or propose crazy ideas, without being afraid of the fallout from making a mistake or being wrong, Addiya said. This permission for candor is a key component of fostering innovation and learning, two of the most important aspects of a high performing team, he mentioned.

Establishing a culture of psychological safety is an invitation for your team members to start doing things that they have never done before. For this invitation to be valid, we must think about its repercussions, as Addiya explained:

We cannot expect our colleagues to start doing new things and succeed from day one. A safe-to-fail approach is a cornerstone of any psychological safety implementation.

Addiya gave some suggestions for moving towards a safe-to-fail culture:

Encourage our people to think about failure as something that can happen to anyone. We remind them that everyone has failed in something in their life, even famous successful people like Steve Jobs, Oprah Winfrey, Walt Disney, and others.

Talking about failure will not diminish their value in the eyes of others. Actually, sharing what happened on the occasion can be the opportunity for a great learning experience.

InfoQ interviewed Adil Addiya about the relationship between psychological safety and team performance, and creating a safe-to-fail culture.

InfoQ: How are psychological safety and team performance related?

Adil Addiya: The strong correlation between failing safe and high performance was front and center in much research done on the subject.

Take for example project Aristotle, a four-year study contracted by Google, to find out which factor has the biggest impact on team innovation. This study showed that team members who feel safe to take risks and be vulnerable in front of each other is a better predictor of team performance, more than the impact or the meaning of the work itself.

InfoQ: How do companies think about failure?

Addiya: Often, management in companies look at failure as the opposite of success, something that should be avoided like the plague. While I am happy to see that in today’s corporate world a lot of companies are moving away from perceiving failure this way, sadly, it does not seem that they have moved enough.

Failure in management today is perceived as a necessary evil that we must go through to achieve success, while the truth is that failure is a part of innovation, and any success anyone has ever achieved came because of some failure along the way.

InfoQ: What can companies do to promote a safe-to-fail culture?

Addiya: Accomplishing a paradigm shift in the way we see failure seems to have done a lot to encourage a safe-to-fail approach, but the tactics we use in practice do not seem to be suited to achieve that goal.

While talking about failure can help in overcoming the shame that comes from failing, for most people this happens too late in the process, and it promotes safety in reporting failure more than the feeling of being safe to fail.

So, dealing with past failure might be a breeze, but when faced with a new risky situation, it is all mental gymnastics to get to the point where you know that you can take on a risk, and if you fail, it is OK.

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