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Learnings from Measuring Psychological Safety

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Asking people how they feel about taking certain types of risks can give insight into the level of psychological safety and help uncover issues. Discussing the answers can strengthen the level of safety of more mature teams and help less mature teams to understand how they could improve.

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

Measuring psychological safety levels in teams is challenging as it’s hard to judge if someone feels like they are taking an interpersonal risk. Most people don’t think about risk-taking this way, and usually take a chance based on their situation and feelings, Gosai said.

One way to do it is to use a proxy measure of how people think about taking certain types of risks and if they feel supported to do so in their team:

While this still doesn’t give you a definitive scale of psychological safety in a team, or even if people will take interpersonal risks, it can at least indicate if you have any issues that would prevent people from doing so.

Using this scale is a very simple mechanism for understanding where a team is with psychological safety, Gosai mentioned. How people interpret questions can vary and how they respond can depend on how they feel that day.

Gosai mentioned two risks that could come from trying to measure psychological safety in teams. One is that if the responses are not anonymous, an individual could be singled out for pulling down the team average. This could make them feel they are being scrutinised for speaking up, potentially making them less likely to do so in the future. Another consequence of this could be that if others see this happening, they too may hold back, Gosai said.

The other risk Gosai mentioned is if these ratings are used to compare teams and their leads, rather than used to offer help to teams. Then they become just another metric to try and game, giving an even more skewed view of the team.

Gosai mentioned that most teams, instead of trying to measure psychological safety, would benefit from just starting to build a shared understanding of what it is first:

It could seem wasteful for teams with high levels, but they still stand to benefit by strengthening what they have. In contrast, those teams with low levels have everything to gain.

InfoQ interviewed Jitesh Gosai about measuring psychological safety.

InfoQ: How do you measure psychological safety?

Jitesh Gosai: Amy Edmundson provided a set of sample questions in her book The Fearless Organisation that team members can answer using a seven-point Likert scale which can be used as a starting point to gauge where teams are with psychological safety.

Based on how they respond, leaders can see if they have low, medium or high levels of psychological safety. For instance, if they score on the low end of the scale, then that could be seen as low levels of psychological safety, and leaders should take immediate action.

InfoQ: What did you learn from measuring the level of psychological safety?

Gosai: An ideal situation would be that questions related to psychological safety are incorporated into regular team health check questionnaires so that teams can see if there is an overall trend.

If they are trending down, then the team can look to see what has happened recently to cause this, but also, if they are trending up, they can see what they improved to do so. This way, the team can see the benefit of answering the questions as accurately as possible, rather than just another tick-box exercise.

When working with leaders, I find they know how their behaviours affect teams, but they often haven’t made that link to psychological safety. So helping them make that connection could immediately impact psychological safety in teams.

In Learnings from Applying Psychological Safety Across Teams, Gosai explained how they applied ideas from psychological safety to make it safe for people to take interpersonal risks. Creating Environments High in Psychological Safety with a Combined Top-Down and Bottom-Up Approach describes how complementing leadership with team workshops in communication skills can enable people to speak up and feel safe to fail.

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