On different points in my career, I felt “safe” in my product team. because my environment was supportive and collaborative. If I made a mistake, I would learn from the experience rather than being blamed or reprimanded. This was a workplace where I learned quickly and thrived. Let’s backtrack and see what makes a safer place for team members.
Why should we care about creating psychological safety for the team?
There are a few scenarios to ponder. For instance, have you ever encountered a time :
- when your environment consisted of problems? Then, how did that impact your ability to focus?
- when you weren’t heard or your ideas were dismissed without being fully examined? Them, how did that make you feel?
- when you “messed up” or simply made a mistake? Then, how negative was the experience?
Considering any of the scenarios given above, people inevitably feel less valued, trusted or empowered. When that happens, people won’t immediately have the energy to focus, be productive or happy.
Trust is one of the core ingredients you need to create the psychological safety in your team. When a team trusts each other, teams are more readily open to sharing ideas and as well as supporting each other when they need it. They collaborate as a unit instead of a group of individuals.
A Real Life Example: Consider a time when there were issues in production. After a failed DB migration, the team rallied together to assist each other, identifying and resolving issues quickly and testing fixes. They knew they had each other’s back and would do the same for each other. In these scenarios, a group of skills is employed together to resolve issues, instead of working in silos and increasing the time to resolve issues in a high-pressure situation.
(2) Open Communication & Respect
When someone has an idea, when they are dismissed or not heard after a few tries to communicate it, they won’t feel valued for their opinions and will no longer contribute to discussions. It translates into missed opportunities for good solutions, and a lack of diversity in people’s thinking and opinions. Not all ideas are good, but some are, and it is at the expanse of the whole team when we miss out on developing these ideas.
Ideas that are deemed “not good” are often an opportunity to grow people’s thinking. By listening to them, we can uncover a lack of “shared understanding” and fill the gaps on the fly. It can benefit everyone.
The situation where the loudest voice wins is undesirable. The boss’s idea may not be the best at all, and the team might spend effort and time working on bad ideas. There is a synergy when the team members are open and respectful of each other when they feel that they are valued amongst their partners.
Real Life Example: Consider a time when there was a production issue. We noticed a load increase on a few microservices, which caused problems surfacing in our web application. The team rallied together to determine the causes, but it was clear it would take some time to find the root cause. A meeting was scheduled to replay the scenario, the symptoms and possible avenues to tackle. Someone piped up with turning off the refresh rate in the web frontend, normally set to trigger every 30 seconds. Therefore the frontend would poll less often the API and the load could be decreased and mitigate the performance issues. Mostly, it would be a quick fix that could be deployed to buy the team time to find the root cause. No-one seemed to hear or they silently dismissed the idea. This person piped up again with the suggestion. He would try one more time then decided to give up if no-one heard his suggestion. Luckily someone did hear the second time. They exclaimed it was an excellent idea and noted this on the board. The operations team was thankful for the solution.
(3) Feedback & Encouragement
Are you proud of your team? Do they know if you’re proud of them? When was the last time you let them know and encouraged them? When people don’t feel their efforts are contributing to a greater goal, they tend to be less engaged. It’s a shame not encouraging your colleagues, or subordinates. You would never be wrong to do it. And encouraging people is only the easy part. In comparison, giving feedback properly is more difficult. Why? Because you know that not everyone responds to feedback the same way. Depending on the individual they may expect a different balance between good and bad feedback. Some others only want to hear about the “improvements”.
Real Life Example: Consider the case of a developer who had low self-confidence and would walk into his 360 reviews hoping to receive feedback that he “didn’t suck”. He didn’t, objectively, he was new to development and extremely quiet, but worked hard and was keen to learn. Over time, he mastered more concepts, became more productive and the qualities he brought to the team emerged. This developer had a good eye for detail, cared about the overall user experience, about quality and took ownership of initiatives he was in charge to get them over the line the best he could. How did he get there? Well, it’s likely a combination of different career development factors such as guidance, growth projects, encouragement and recognition for good work.
(4) Growth Opportunities
Providing growth opportunities signifies that you believe in someone’s abilities and invest in developing them further. When someone feels you believe in them, they get more engaged and will learn new skills from the opportunities you give them. If they “fail”, it’s not a failure at all, they were given the chance to try and learn from the experience.
Real Life Example: Personally, in my own experience, every project I’ve been trusted to own and be accountable for, I’ve grown by the experience, developing skills in product management, planning, communicating to stakeholders, deepening my understanding on why a project was important for the business and growing my technical ability in executing the projects. I felt empowered and I appreciated the faith others had in me. It felt great.
(5) Connect the Team with the Greater Purpose
When people understand the purpose of the initiatives they are working on, they connect better to the mission. They become “missionaries”. Doing so, you give them space to contribute in their unique way of solving the solution more elegantly. It’s often about answering to “problem-domain” questions such as :
- Is it a customer problem that is being solved?
- Why was this a problem?
- Does this have an impact on revenue?
Real Life Example: Consider the situation where a product designer observed that it was difficult to get user feedback. He felt not exposed enough to the major challenges faced by users, which impeded his ability to deliver the best solutions to their problems. It’s the same frustration as trying to improve a feature only to find out that users use it in unexpected ways. If this information was collected upfront, a lot of efforts would have to be spared. The designer proactively organized fortnightly viewings of real users by replaying recorded sessions and the team observed how users use the platform. They felt they could do their work better when being involved in discussions on problems to be solved. Eventually, everyone wanted to help users and have them succeed in using the platform.
Do’s and Dont’s for Encouraging Psychological Safety at Work
Below is a list of things to do to create a safe space for your team.
Don’t Blame. Learn Together
People should be accountable for their mistakes, but we are also human. If someone makes a mistake and there is a blame culture, people will feel disengaged and will be unwilling to try anything. Also, they will ask others to think/act for them because they are afraid of making mistakes.
Instead, when a mistake was done, you better make the session productive rather than a blame game.
For example, if there was an incident on production, simply hold an incident meeting and use the questions below to reflect and determine resolutions and fixes:
- So tell me what happened?
- How did this happen?
- What were the blockers/issues?
- What do you think you can do differently next time?
- What do you need help with? Where can I assist? Some resolutions may be to add extra monitoring or tests.
As a team member or a lead, it is in your best interest that everyone has had a chance to share their ideas. Always observe the room, check who has not spoken, who looks like they have something to say, and prompt them to speak so it’s not always the same few ones speaking.
Prepare for discussions by giving the team time to think and explore ideas before the session. You can describe WHAT and WHEN, but let people determine the HOW. Follow up after meetings to see if there are other thoughts.
Meetings 1–1 are also a great opportunity to ask people what are their thoughts on different things. They will feel their opinions are valued. 1-1s are also easier for those who may not feel open to sharing their thoughts in a group environment.
Consider how “inclusively” the team decisions can be made. Not everything must be agreed upon by consensus or top-down, but you can always gather some feedback before making a final decision.
Co-create Team Rules & Processes
Getting the team together to determine how they prefer to collaborate will encourage better teamwork. The discussion can include any topic, such as “sprint cadences”, “golden hours” during which no meeting should be scheduled, or how reviews are made and so on. This creates a shared understanding and expectation from each other on how the team collaborates and keeps people accountable.
Make Time For Each Other
Providing space for the team to build relationships with each other is important. It encourages the feeling of trust and camaraderie which will be called upon every single day. Whether you have lunch together, coffee runs, share backs or other avenues, this is for the team to decide. Bonding time is important. You are going to meet so many amazing people throughout your career and hopefully, and many of them you will befriend with.
Give Praise Where it’s Due
Don’t miss any occasion to call out the examples the team should be following, for example, great documentation or great test coverage. Retrospective meetings are a good opportunity for that. Congratulate the team on their hard work on a project and appreciate the time they’ve invested in making it possible. This is a simple gesture that makes everyone feel good and can go a long way to ensure people know their hard work is recognized.
Coach and Mentor Everyone
As a team leader, you are expected to grow the competency and productivity of the team. It’s up to you to guide, direct and seek opportunities for people to grow. As each person masters a new skill, you give them more responsibility and point them to the next challenge. You may find that your tact must change from a person to another because some people need high direction while others need space to think things through.
Communicate The Mission (The “Why”)
People should often be reminded of the context of “why” the team exists and how everyone’s work contributes to the company’s mission. The team needs to understand the big picture and they will often wonder things such as “how will this happen?” and “what is the plan to do that?” or “why are we not doing this instead of that?”.
A few different ways this can be communicated:
- All team huddle
- Ask me anything
- Written email/slides to refer to
- Smaller team FAQ
- Visual representation
- Team coffee
- Ask for ideas, run sessions on gathering solutions to problems
- Communicate often. People won’t remember after the first explanation, so you will need to repeat the message.
Lead by Example
As the team leader, you must set the example for your team in terms of work ethic and personal behavior. Let’s say there is an outage on production. If you act with calmness, swiftness, and productiveness, the team will see how they need to act in this situation. If you take the time to care about each member of your team, they will feel encouraged to do the same for their colleagues.
Wrapping Things Together
If you care about your team, purposefully create the space for them to thrive and feel valued. When I reflect on the workplaces where I felt happy, it was about having a good leaders who championed and believed in me. It was about a climate of trust and the feeling that my work was being valued. It gave me energy and confidence and motivated me to strive for challenges.