Building Better Software through Psychological Safety in the Workplace

Recently, MentorMate has played host to an Agile Leaders Meetup at its Minneapolis headquarters. Experts from diverse professional backgrounds from throughout the Twin Cities and beyond shared their experiences helping professional teams navigate rapidly changing business realities.

Organizer Pete Anderson brought the topic of psychological safety in the workplace to the table, where participants explored the ways in which teams can work more effectively together. By gathering individual contributors and leaders of people that have a vested interest in successful outcomes, the group’s conversations provide practical knowledge that empowers those who help organizations embark take on Agile transformations.

At first glance, mention of psychological safety can seem out of place for business leaders looking to bring their MVP to market as fast as possible. But it’s actually one of fours pillars of Modern Agile.

Therefore, understanding what psychological safety is — and isn’t — as well as its role can help teams and their leaders to innovate faster through trust and better information sharing.

What is Psychological Safety in the Workplace?

According to Amy Edmunson of the Harvard Business School, psychological safety in the workplace creates a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking. In psychologically safe teams, “being able to show and employ one’s self without fear of negative consequences of self-image, status or career” (Kahn 1990, p. 708) helps team members to feel accepted and respected.

A common (and logical) theme of the experiences shared by the MeetUp attendees is that creating safety amongst small teams is easier than maintaining a consistent culture across a larger enterprise. The variability of managers’ leadership styles and their receptiveness to the idea in the first place make it especially difficult for psychological safety to take hold in large organizations defined by many levels of leadership.

How Does Psychological Safety in the Workplace Apply to Agile Teams?

Agile teams aim to diminish risk through the constant adaptation of strategy as new information is gained. They must carefully establish a margin of error that mitigates the worst possible outcomes, yet encourages innovative solutions to business problems.

The best teams leverage psychological safety to do just that.

“Agile teams live with constant change — whether it be learning, evolving priorities, or shifting technologies — their energies must be spent on working together in a healthy fashion. If they are living in an unhealthy and unsafe environment, it will undoubtedly slow the team down, reduce innovation, and cause unnecessary burnout within the team.”
Pete Anderson, Lead Product Owner, Target

Teams that emphasize risk mitigation more than anything can inadvertently undermine their own productivity. When leaders convey that instances of missed targets are intolerable, any ounce of psychological safety goes out the door, causing team productivity and cohesion to plummet.

Is Psychological Safety in the Workplace Scalable?

Psychological safety exists most naturally with the small, fast-moving teams that make up the foundation of large businesses. But true psychological safety can’t take root until it’s embraced from up above. Organizations must embrace a top-down and bottom-up approach to realizing a psychologically safe workplace.

Even when management extols psychological safety, this can be far cry from living it and building it amongst teams and in the organization as a whole. Without excellent ways of measuring the success of psychological safety in the workplace, teams will have to use creativity to move beyond lip-service or spotty implementation

What Do Teams That Embody Psychological Safety Look Like?

Teams that embody psychological safety…

  • Understand each other’s capabilities and interests
  • Have a shared understanding of their goals
  • Trust one another
  • Have a high sense of accountability for the overall success of the product, not just the success of a component that each person “owns”
  • Allow individuals to be their authentic selves, whether in meetings or private conversations
  • Feel empowered to make decisions, ask questions, and provide feedback

It’s not who is on the team that’s important, but how team members interact, structure work, and view the impact of their contributions that matters.

What Psychological Safety in the Workplace Isn’t

“I personally think we emphasize ‘failing fast’ way too often in our vernacular — learning is success, even if a positive business outcome isn’t immediately accomplished. Teams that are psychologically safe are more honest in the evaluation of their work because they won’t fear reprisal. They are humble enough to acknowledge that they can’t possibly know everything, so the value of continuous learning trumps the desire to be ‘right.’”
Pete Anderson, Lead Product Owner, Target

It’s undeniable that long term failure helps no one.

But failure that stems from experimenting small with a mind to innovation can be crucial to teams’ long term progress and success. Allowing room for a healthy amount of trial and error does not mean a lack of accountability. Instead, teams thrive when there’s an understanding that the best work will be accomplished together.

Psychological safety in the workplace allows for an honest discussion about results — no matter how good or bad — and what the takeaway can be. Psychological safety creates the mind space in which Agile processes can flourish.

What’s the ROI of Safety?

The lack of psychological safety can cause team members to hold back on their concerns and not bring their best ideas forward, a major contributing factor to projects failing. Psychological safety doesn’t have a price. For this reason, it can be hard to quantify the benefit of implementing new standards of trust in the workplace of managers.

Managers who are already hesitant about a new concept can become even more reluctant to embrace a new mode of thinking that doesn’t have tangible impacts on their bottom line.

Furthermore, the level of independence inherent in psychologically safe teams may leave managers feeling a lack of control over or insight into what their teams do.

While the ROI of psychological safety is hard to calculate, understanding that not establishing it in an organization can come at a great cost. But the cost of not implementing psychological safety in the workplace may be easier for managers to conceptualize.

Without psychological safety in the workplace, managers…

  • Fail to gain the value of their people’s full skill-sets
  • Settle for low-risk decisions rather than take informed chances that could have a bigger impacts on the business
  • Confront continuous morale issues amongst their most talented team members
  • Waste time and money dealing with employee turnover
  • Diminish ability to deal with change as well as organizations that are psychologically safe

How Does Psychological Safety Build Better Software?

The pace of technological evolution requires businesses and their product development teams to be technologically agnostic.

Change is the only constant — psychologically safe teams know this all too well, accepting from the get-go that the right answers to today’s questions aren’t often found individually, but through a team effort.

“The best software comes from collaboration between all team members where all get a voice in the development process. To maximize this collaboration, team members must feel safe in sharing ideas and concerns. They also must be encouraged to be creative and push the bounds of the development process in order to create software that is exponentially better than expected. This goal of developing great software is at the core of physiological safety.”
Mark Smith, Vice President Solutions Consulting, MentorMate

Is Your Team Psychologically Safe?

Just as Agile can take on different forms depending on the team, business, and project at hand, the look and feel of psychological safety in the workplace is also up to interpretation depending on the business context.

However teams and organizations choose to instill psychological safety in the workplace, its end products — trust and experimentation — are vital to innovation and business growth.

Since the best outcomes of Agile teams stem from frequent meeting that inspire course changes to achieve better results, join the next Agile Leader Meetup session on January 24th, 2018. You can answer the above question and ask some of your own alongside similarly motivated and curious representatives from the local business community.

Original post can be found here.

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Authored by
Pete Anderson and Stanislas Walden.

Stan loves to make the obscure more apparent, the complicated more human and approachable. He strives to communicate the complex themes inherent in software development trends in a way that sparks curiosity and invites exploration.When he’s not researching or publishing a new article, Stan enjoys running around a few of Minnesota’s many lakes and looking for new recipes.

Pete Anderson, A Lead Product Owner at Target, is familiar with what makes successful teams tick. He hosts the Agile Transformation Leaders MeetUp to provide a resource that helps people drive the Agile Transformation of their companies. The opinions expressed in this article are his own and do not necessarily represent those of Target.



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