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Learnings from Applying Psychological Safety across Teams

Applying ideas from psychological safety can enable people to speak up in teams about what they don’t know, don’t understand, or mistakes they have made. Trust and creating safe spaces are essential, but more is needed. People need to feel that they will not be punished or embarrassed if they take interpersonal risks.

Jitesh Gosai shared his experience with psychological safety at Lean Agile Scotland 2022.

Gosai mentioned that he started noticing people being reluctant to speak up in certain situations or take interpersonal risks:

When I delved deeper into issues, I found that people seemed reluctant to speak in certain conditions, particularly in group settings, where someone might have to admit that they don’t understand or know something. People worried that revealing these things would either slow the team down or that teammates would judge them as incompetent, and therefore thought less of them. So they often opted to stay quiet or faked it till they made it, which indicates that the team was low in psychological safety.

People naturally look up in the hierarchy for what is and isn’t acceptable, Gosai said. One of the best ways to get people to take interpersonal risks and increase levels of psychological safety is for leaders to show the way by adopting specific mindsets:

The three core mindsets are curiosity in that there is always more to learn: humility as we don’t have all the answers and empathy because speaking up is hard and needs to be supported.

When leadership thinks through the lenses of these mindsets, it shapes their behaviour and interaction in ways that encourage and help others to take interpersonal risks, Gosai mentioned.

Many people believe that psychological safety is another word for trust and about creating safe spaces. While those aspects are essential, psychological safety is about helping people push themselves out of their comfort zones and take interpersonal risks with their work colleagues, as Gosai explained:

Psychological safety is more than trust and safe spaces; it’s a shared understanding that we don’t have all the answers, and we will get things wrong. We need to be able to share what we know and what we don’t, and people will not be punished or embarrassed if they take interpersonal risks.

InfoQ interviewed Jitesh Gosai about psychological safety.

InfoQ: What themes did you recognise talking to team members and those working closely with teams?

Jitesh Gosai: Over the last three years, I’ve worked with quite a few teams with different technologies and sizes about how they work and the problems they face. And they would all describe scenarios where the team could have resolved a problem if they had spoken to each other. But instead, the issues were left unresolved until the problems became big enough that no one could ignore them, and a manager had to intervene. Or, what happened more often, was the team slowing down over time with no one entirely understanding why.

I’d often hear team leads asking, "Why can’t people just talk to each other?"

InfoQ: What led you to psychological safety?

Gosai: It was around the time I worked with the teams that I became aware of Amy Edmundson’s work in her book The Fearless Organisation. In it, she describes psychological safety and how it affects groups, and I began to understand that this was what I was seeing. Amy Edmondson defines psychological safety as the belief that the work environment is safe for interpersonal risk-taking. Interpersonal risks are anything that could make you look or feel incompetent, ignorant, negative or disruptive. The work environment can be any group you work in, for example, your team.

When I would speak with team members about interpersonal risk-taking one-on-one, they would understand the benefits and recognise why it was essential for helping people speak up. But this one-on-one approach wouldn’t work across a whole department, let alone an organisation. So we began looking into ways in which we could make it scale.

InfoQ: What have you learned?

Gosai: We will not convince people that their teams are safe for interpersonal risks through one-off gestures or training courses. It needs to be happening in all our team interactions, from group discussions to one-to-one meetings and everything in between. Psychological safety needs to become a part of your organisational culture; otherwise, it becomes one of those fads that teams try but don’t get any benefits from, so they go back to business as usual.

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