Managers rarely have a cut and dry list of responsibilities. When rising through the ranks of software engineering, developers make the transition from software problem solving to people problem solving. On top of that, when working in a field that requires knowledge intensive work (like software development), successful performance depends on coalescing different ideas and experiences. That rarely happens naturally. Managers need to facilitate it.
The term 'psychological safety' feels like a buzzword that floats around leadership conferences. The corporate-speak that's been dominating About Us pages for years is getting another vocabulary word added to its seemingly endless list.
For some, psychological safety sounds like a made up term that feeds into the dwindling mental fortitude of today's workforce. For others, psychological safety is topping 'Must Have' lists when vetting potential employers. In academia, it's "a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking.” However, whether recognized by managers or not, psychological safety is a top indicator of team success in the workplace.
Creating a psychologically safe work culture isn't a stroke of luck or the product of a flashy benefits package. It's a human-oriented architecture built by managers to foster openness in the workplace.
As is the nature of the job, software developers work within a team. Studies show that collaborative group work results in faster innovation, happier employees, and increased profitability. Dated operational beliefs lean solely on team structure for success, in part because of a cognitive bias that favors current routines over new alternatives.
These architectures are used because of believed advantages for efficiency and productivity. While proven true, what if managers could take team effectiveness a step further? Structural architecture plays a role in productivity, yes, but that structure is nothing without the humans that fill the roles. Psychological safety is what people need to excel at team work.
How does Psychological Safety work?
Team psychological safety is a construct coined by Amy Edmundson, Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at Harvard Business School, that examines the importance of openness and trust for improving team learning — and performance.
Like stated earlier, psychological safety is when the entire team believes that their teammates can be trusted with interpersonal risks without fear of judgement, rejection, or other socially negative consequences. This isn't a get out of jail free card for being an a**hole. It's a framework that encourages humans to be humans, to lean into errors, and share information freely for the benefit of the whole.
Psychological safety is effective because it plays directly into team learning behaviors, and team learning behaviors are a benchmark for how successful a team will be. Team learning behavior isn't a new idea in software development. Comparatively, it's extremely similar to the open source ethos that drives technological advancement. Team learning behaviors include practices like:
seeking candid feedback
asking for help
sharing information freely
comfortability admitting error
openly discussing new ideas
All of the above are integral parts of open source ideology and public learning.
Amy Edmundson conducted a study to better understand how psychological safety affects team performance, amongst other things. She asserted that: "Learning behavior in teams is positively associated with team performance" and psychological safety influences positive learning behaviors.
How? When people sense an interpersonal threat, they're less likely to speak up in a group. Their desire to save face is greater than their desire to take a risk. This threat rigidity "reduces cognitive behavior" in ways related to flexibility and responsiveness, resulting in a lack of willingness to engage in team activities like problem solving, ultimately hindering the team's collective learning.
Google's Project Aristotle
Google conducted Project Aristotle, a study to determine what exactly goes into building an effective team. The aptly named study analyzed everything from employees' lunch time behaviors to the best managerial traits. Prior to the study, Google's People Division held on to cognitive biases like 'grouping the best people makes for the best teams', 'introverts match well with other introverts', 'if they're friends outside of work, they'll mesh great in a team'. With this study, they wanted to nail down maps of what kinds of people work well together and what their common behaviors are.
After Google's top researchers, analysts, and engineers analyzed countless academic studies, compared them to group diagrams, and data collected from 180+ teams at Google, Project Aristotle was unable to come to any conclusion. A manager in Google People Division, Abeer Dubey, said, "At Google, we're good at finding patterns. There weren't strong patterns here."
This prompted a change in framing. Instead of hyper-focusing on behaviors and individual traits, they shifted focus to identifying "group norms". Group norms, "informal rules that groups adopt to regulate and regularize group members' behavior", essentially overrides an individual's personal behavior in order to mesh within a group.
In doing so, Google stumbled upon magic.
Using 35 different statistical models with group norms in mind, Google identified five indicators for team effectiveness. The most influential, by far, was psychological safety, followed by dependability, structure and clarity, meaning, and impact. The teams that performed the highest all had something striking in common: they felt comfortable exchanging ideas and weren't preoccupied with the threat of rejection or conflict. Their environments encouraged psychological safety.
Psychological Safety Dismantles Groupthink
Psychological safety does not equate to cohesiveness within teams. Actually, it encourages something of the opposite. When groups of people value cohesion above all else, they prioritize maintaining a positive social environment instead of expressing differences. Often, this manifests as 'groupthink'. Groupthink is a common phenomenon that affects wide ranging groups — from governments to social circles. It stems from a need for unity at all costs because of an underlining fear of group rejection or a "damaging team consensus".
Psychological safety, on the other hand, encourages mutual respect and trust within team members to voice differencing opinions, ideas, and beliefs without consequences. Without the dynamic of psychological safety, teams run a higher risk of participating in group think...and group think is where innovation goes to die.
Introducing Psychological Safety to your team
Psychological safety is tacit knowledge, inherently assumed but often overlooked. In theory, most companies set out to create a psychologically safe environment. However, the execution can often look like sitting a cat and dog together and saying, "if you get along, you get a treat." Way easier said than done, right?
"Creating psychological safety — the confidence that candor and vulnerability are welcome — in a workplace is truly challenging and takes an unusual degree of commitment and skill," says Edmundson and Hugander. "The reason for this is simple: It’s natural for people to hold back ideas, be reluctant to ask questions, and shy away from disagreeing with the boss."
While difficult, incorporating psychological safety to your teams is possible. Four implementation strategies to use with your team are:
1. Focus on performance
When introducing this concept, underscore the benefits psychological safety has on performance. It shouldn't be framed as "helping people feel safe" or "becoming better listeners", because that isn't the end goal. Those are just parts of the process. With this, encourage them to share stories of when vulnerability positively contributed to an outcome.
2. Train both individuals and teams
Like other team activities, individual members need to practice individual skills. As management, it's important you practice the skills to it takes to facilitate psychology safety within your team. Giving guidelines for team members to practice psychological safety, then periodically discuss as a group to help train.
3. Incorporate visualization
Ask team members to visualize examples of when they have practiced psychological safety behaviors like perspective sharing, candid speaking, and creating an engaging environment. Then, prompt them with a future example, and ask how they would act in said situation.
4. Normalize vulnerability related to work
A hurdle for many to overcome is associating vulnerability with harm or discomfort. Being vulnerable with others reduces anxiety. This is true in the workplace, too. Sharing vulnerabilities lessens anxiety, increases trust, and fosters open communication.
Share Amy Edmundson's TedTalk
Sharing Edmundson's TedTalk on Psychological Safety is a great way to introduce the concept to your team. Afterwards, meet to discuss ideas of how psychological safety could work within your team.
Google's Psychological Safety Toolkit
Google's psychological safety tool kit is aimed at managers and executives to help create trusting and respectful teams. Download the PDF and try with your team.
At the end of the day, a manager's job is to manage people, and people are more complicated than software. This goes beyond being a task leader. It also includes being a socio-emotional leader. One of the best way to make sure your team is optimally performing and practicing positive learning behavior is by incorporating psychological safety. A lot of buzzwords are more glib than effective, but this psychological safety isn't one of them.