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Imagine two teams.
The first team runs retrospectives every two weeks. There is limited engagement. People look around the room blankly or turn off their cameras to avoid participating. No one feels safe enough to talk about how they really feel.
The second team also runs retrospectives every two weeks. There is active participation. The facilitator must manage the conversation to allow everyone the space to share. Everyone is entirely honest and open.
Which team do you think learns more? Grows together? Becomes more productive over time? Clearly, the latter.
And that's largely because the second team has a high degree of psychological safety.
But what is psychological safety, and how do we build it with our teams?
In her 1999 paper, Psychological Safety and Learning Behavior in Work Teams, Harvard Business School professor and organizational behavioral scientist Amy Edmondson defined how Psychological Safety impacts organizational productivity and change. Here is her definition:
"Psychological safety is a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes."
Harvard Business School Professor
Her findings were expanded in 2008 by Abraham Carmeli, Daphna Brueller, and Jane E Dutton with the release of their research, Learning behaviours in the workplace: The role of high‐quality interpersonal relationships and psychological safety. Their team observed 212 part-time students with full-time jobs in a variety of industries and found that those working in environments with high psychological safety demonstrated more learning behaviors. From the book:
"These findings shed light on the importance of quality relationships in the workplace for cultivating and developing perceptions of psychological safety and ultimately learning behaviours in organizations "
But there's more.
In 2016, Google published the results of Project Aristotle, a two-year study to discover what makes a great team. Based on the research from180 teams, psychological safety was the most important factor in creating high-performing teams (followed, in order, by dependability, structure and clarity, meaning, and, finally, impact).
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OK. We’ve established that research regularly underscores the importance of psychological safety in creating a working environment that fosters collaboration and productivity. But what does psychological safety actually look like?
Psychological safety is the shared belief and commitment between team members to prioritize overcoming feelings of interpersonal risk to foster a safe team environment for open feedback.
Esther Derby, co-author of Agile Retrospectives: Making Good Teams Great, explains that “psychological safety does not mean that you feel comfortable all the time. Psychological safety means you feel comfortable talking about what makes you uncomfortable.”
Professor Edmondson cites four reasons that people do not speak up. Specifically, they do not want to be seen as ignorant, incompetent, negative, or disruptive. To overcome these issues, teams must establish an organizational context based on mutual respect and promoting psychological safety. When the team climate shifts, employee engagement rises, and people feel more comfortable challenging the status quo, identifying problems or opportunities for improvement, and offering ideas to improve their team or organization’s well-being.
Teams with high psychological safety are more apt to share novel ideas, respectfully disagree with their team, exchange information that facilitates learning, and develop shared mental models. (Edmondson et al., 2007)
In agile retrospectives, team members should be able to openly discuss problems and potential weaknesses on the team to identify opportunities for improvement.
But will team members with low psychological safety feel comfortable bringing up the real issues that need to be discussed? Will junior engineers challenge senior engineers on their proposed solution? Will new teammates feel comfortable sharing the mistakes they made?
The answer, of course, to all of these questions is no. In fact, truly effective retrospectives rely on psychological safety.
Let me restate that in a different way, because it’s important.
Many times people will ask me: “how do I create psychological safety in my retrospective?” To which I say: “You can’t. If you’ve waited to create psychological safety in your retrospective, you’ve waited too long. You must create psychological safety before the retrospective even begins.”
This chapter of the Ultimate Guide is a bit different from the others, because it actually doesn’t talk about retrospectives at all. Instead, it’s focused on how to create psychological safety on your team before you run your retrospective, such that you and your team can have the challenging, difficult, and sometimes uncomfortable conversations you need to truly improve.
Let’s start at the beginning.
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It’s important to note that psychological safety is not binary. In other words, it’s not that some teams “have it” while other teams “don’t have it.” Rather, psychological safety exists on a sliding scale and can change over time. Some teams have more of it, while others have less of it at any moment. Significant events can have an impact on an otherwise stable measure of safety.
Richard McLean outlines a useful approach to better understand the degree of psychological safety your team currently has. As Senior Director at Elsevier, McLean took the seven statements that Professor Edmondson used in her original study on psychological safety and asked his team to rate how strongly they agreed or disagreed with each one:
Richard then gave a numerical rating to each response (for example, 1=strongly disagree and 5=strongly agree) and averaged the results. The output looked like this:
The data coming out of these questions was used to spur narrow, focused conversations on how his team could improve their psychological safety going forward.
(As an aside, this is a great Gather Data technique in your retro!)
But it’s one thing to collect data on the level of psychological safety on your team. It’s another to try to actually improve it!
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Thankfully, we can again turn to Professor Edmondson, who described three ways leaders can enable Psychological Safety in their organizations:
By nature, agile and scrum are well suited to help you frame the work as a learning problem. If you treat each sprint as an experiment, e.g., “we hypothesize that by building feature X, our customers will receive value Y,” then the intent of each sprint becomes “to learn.” In other words, even if the feature you developed doesn’t provide the value you expected, your team didn’t fail! It simply learned something that helped them get closer to the feature that will provide the value you’re after.
At this point, you may be asking yourself, “what other practical and tangible things can I do to help build interpersonal trust and psychological safety on my team?”
Each team is different and therefore requires different strategies to improve team culture. Here are some of my favorites ways you can coach your team on psychological safety.
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Once upon a time, a manager never made a mistake, and the employees saw this, and they never made a mistake either. The company was perfect, and all in the land were happy. 👸🤴
Sounds fantastic, doesn’t it?
Unfortunately, this isn’t anyone’s reality.
And yet, in so many organizations, admitting mistakes feels next to impossible. Managers act like they know how to do everything, so employees act like their work is perfect, too.
Part of creating a psychologically safe environment is remaining transparent, and that includes remaining open about events that went wrong. In Chapter Four, I talked about how Oops Walls create a space where your team can share mistakes and the lessons learned from them.
You may also consider a “Today I Learned” channel or board to share lessons and concepts that team members learn each day.
At Retrium, we have a Slack channel called #imadeamistake, in which people freely and openly share the mistakes they made at work, and others join in supportive laughter and commentary. This includes me, the CEO!
Another alternative is to create an information center on common mistakes and how to fix them. This is helpful if you notice that specific mechanical or user experience issues outside of your control consistently occur.
Accidents and mistakes happen; it is how we learn and get better, and it’s part of being human. It is essential for your team to show greater acceptance for a wide range of emotions and to acknowledge and validate those feelings continuously. Creating spaces that encourage openness around mistakes can help teams establish a culture of psychological safety.
Is there such a thing as a dumb question? Possibly! 😬
But should it matter in a psychologically safe environment? Absolutely not.
A healthy team environment allows members to feel safe enough to take interpersonal risks and ask questions others may call “dumb.”
All companies have their quirks: their own language, acronyms, systems, and cultures. When new team members join or new projects begin, there is always a learning curve before assimilating to the new environment. But often, the fear of looking underqualified or, well, dumb keeps many team members from asking what they perceive as information they should already know.
One of the key ways to fix this problem is to ask dumb questions yourself intentionally. Even if you already know the answer!
For example, you might take a moment to ask how a familiar process works. Or you could confirm the definition of terms you already know. Behaving in this way will encourage new team members to ask questions instead of trying to hunt down the answers when no one is watching.
One great example of this comes from Lesli Paige Holmes, Scrum Master at Newport News Shipbuilding (edited for clarity and length)
“I'll ask the super "dumb questions" out loud in front of everyone. The newer, quieter team members see that the responses I am getting from the team are consistently safe. The more I do this, the more they begin to open up. Over time, if I have someone relying heavily on me to get technical answers from the team on their behalf, I start to ask them if I can actually ask their question out loud. The team generally responds to me by wanting to help me learn and understand. Eventually, the shy ones start to feel safe relying on their teammates...and I slowly fade out of the picture.”
Seeing people is not the same as spending quality time with people. Keeping a hyper-focus on team progress without investing in team relationships often leads to burnout, a lack of trust, and miscommunication. Never undervalue the benefit of building relationships with your teammates!
There are tons of ways you can do this.
One of my favorites is to play collaborative games together. Whether it is a board game or a video game, games tend to loosen people up and enable them to be their true selves. In particular, I’ve found collaborative games, like Pandemic and Sherlock, to be very helpful. Collaborative games are games in which everyone is on the same team. Either everyone wins, or everyone loses! Your goal is to work with each other rather than to compete against each other.
This environment closely models the working world, where everyone is on the same team. The big difference, of course, is that games -- unlike the working world -- are low-stakes and therefore encourage risk-taking and experimentation. If you lose, it’s okay! If you make a mistake, who cares! You can try to improve next time. Practicing this behavior with your team using games can help your team act similarly at work.
Another way to strengthen relationships with the people you work with is to “take it outside.”
Grab a coffee, get ice-cream, or have lunch together! I strongly believe that activities like these should not be considered things you do “after work” or in your “free time.” Instead, they are a necessary part of building effective relationships with your teammates and are, therefore, an effective use of time during the working day.
You might wonder how this works if you are on a remote or distributed team. The answer is that with just a bit of creativity and intention, almost every activity you might do with your colleagues in person can also be used with remote teams! For example, just like you can “grab a coffee” with your colleagues in person, you can do the same thing with your remote colleagues simply by firing up a Zoom or a Google Meet and bringing your coffee to the call.
The point is to make time and create a space dedicated to building and strengthening relationships with your teammates. It will pay dividends down the line.
Remaining transparent about mistakes and lessons learned is the first step to creating a psychologically safe environment. The second step is not to let information distract the team from more significant issues.
Let's take an example. Say "hi" to Pete. Let's say Pete is late completing a task. He shares that he was trying a new scheduling tool, which did not work as anticipated. Pete explains how he discovered what went wrong and the steps he's now included in his processes to prevent it from happening again. He puts it on the team's Oops Wall and returns to work.
Unfortunately, the entire project is now behind on a deadline because everyone was waiting for Pete.
In the retrospective, the team discusses how Pete's mistake made the whole project late. Does this encourage Pete to be open about his mistake or try new things if he is blamed when things don't go as planned? No.
Focusing on individual mistakes fosters a culture of blame. Instead, try to reframe mistakes as opportunities to learn and improve. In Pete's case, would better process documentation have helped the team work asynchronously instead of being stalled? Is there a way to prevent this bottleneck occurrence from happening again?
When teams focus on a growth mindset and how they can learn and improve from experiences instead of blaming others, it cultivates a learning environment that encourages exploring new ideas and candidly sharing those experiences with the team.
When a decision impacts you, you like to be consulted, right? Your team is no different.
In the Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision-Making, Sam Kaner and his co-authors argue the importance of unanimous agreement in coming to a decision as a team. (Unanimous, after all, means “one spirit.”) By working toward unanimous agreement, teams are committed to engaging in a meaningful, productive conversation that takes all perspectives from the team into account.
What a fantastic team that must be!
In reality, though, teams rarely share the same level of enthusiasm on issues. Much like psychological safety, agreement exists on a sliding scale.
By asking where people sit on the scale above, discussion can focus on potential issues, concerns, and questions to align the team around a shared decision. The goal is to hear everyone, encourage concerns to be openly shared, and discuss ways to overcome potential issues together.
For example, a team member can not agree with a decision at the onset of the discussion and give it a 7. They increased their understanding of their teammates' decisions by expressing their opinions and asking questions safely throughout the conversation.
In a psychologically safe team, these conversations often lead to unanimous decisions where the team's spread across the scale shifts to the left. It is unnecessary to continue the discussion until everyone enthusiastically agrees with the decision. Instead, the key is to reach a point where each team member says they understand the conclusion and actively support its implementation, even if they did not think it was the best decision (6 or less on our scale above).
This type of inclusive decision-making is very similar to consent-based decision-making. You might believe a better option is available, but you agree enough to move forward.
Let’s get this out of the way: you don’t need to wait for a quarterly check-in, a one-on-one, or an annual performance review to ask for feedback. In fact, if you’re waiting for some previously scheduled event to request feedback from your team, you’ve waited too long. Instead, think of every conversation you have as a chance to keep an open dialogue about how you communicate and can improve.
Laura Delizona of the Harvard Business Review explains, “Asking for feedback on how you delivered your message disarms your opponent, illuminates blind spots in communication skills, and models fallibility, which increases trust in leaders.”
If you’re wondering how to start these conversations, you can ask questions like:
Asking questions following conversations makes space for the open and honest dialogue required to create a psychologically safe environment.
But asking for feedback isn’t enough unless you are personally committed to being open to what you hear. In The 15 Commitments of Conscious Leadership, authors Jim Dethmer, Diana Chapman, and Kaley Warner Klemp discuss the importance of committing “to being a person to whom others can express themselves with candor.”
And how do you do that? One way is to listen without filters. A listening filter is “an internal lens that influences what we hear and how we respond.” For example, some people listen mainly to diagnose and fix. When they hear about a problem, they immediately jump to finding solutions. But by listening simply to find solutions, are you truly open to understanding what’s being said? Or are you listening for your own purposes?
To enable others to be truly candid in their feedback, it’s important to listen simply to understand what’s being said and nothing more.
Other listening filters you should be aware of include:
The next time someone gives you feedback, try to be aware of what listening filters you are using. You might even tell the other person, “I know I normally defend myself when you give me feedback, and I’m going to try hard not to do that. I simply want to understand what you’re saying.” Just this simple step can have a transformative effect.
This one may sound easy, but it can be extremely uncomfortable if you don’t like feeling vulnerable! Admit when you don’t know something or when you are wrong.
Businesses change, industries evolve, and markets fluctuate. No matter what industry you are in, continuous learning is necessary to remain successful. This means that there is a pretty good chance you may not know the answer to an issue or your team doesn’t know the answer to a problem. And just as likely, you will make some wrong decisions along the way. No one is perfect. If you don’t know something or you make a mistake, ask for help. Ask a dumb question. Post to the Oops Wall. By increasing your vulnerability, you’re building empathy and understanding in your team.
“Conversely, employees who trust their colleagues and leadership are more likely to be open, honest, empathetic, collaborative, and constructive. All of which boosts innovation and productivity.”
12 practical ways to build trust at work - Jostle Blog
Admitting you’re wrong or that you don’t know something can be difficult, no matter the circumstances. So how does admitting your faults and failures protect psychological safety? Part of promoting psychological safety involves encouraging others to remain their authentic selves. Revealing that you don’t know every answer is more honest than pretending to know everything. Staying honest with yourself and your coworkers builds the trust necessary to create a direct working relationship.
And most importantly, admitting you don’t know something models the type of behavior you’d expect from others on your team. It gives everyone permission to act in the same way.
As you work to create new and better ideas, teams will inevitably experience conflict. In fact, conflict is often necessary to generate these ideas. The goal is to encourage healthy conflict.
We often see two extremes of communication on teams - brutally honest or overly polite. The healthy blend of honesty and compassion allows for better communication and helps team members feel comfortable expressing their opinions without feeling personally attacked.
The book Radical Candor, describes this balanced form of communication as Caring Personally and Challenging Directly. More specifically, the book defines this dynamic as:
“Care Personally means that you care about the other person, not about whether you are winning a popularity contest. Challenge Directly means that you share your perspective and invite the other person to do the same.”
So, what does this look like in practice? Again, let's imagine two teams.
One team spends their days focused wholly on the work they need to get done on their computers. Each team member is individually accountable for their assigned tasks, and collaboration is not encouraged. Their workspace is quiet. Meetings are often "efficient" with minimal participation, and the team usually eats at their desk while working.
The other team, however, encourages collaboration, and their workspace is often filled with laughter and, maybe, an errant nerf dart. Feedback is open, honest, and is met with encouragement and appreciation as the team marches toward its goals. Lunch, coffee, birthdays, and Fridays are great reasons to get out of the office together.
Which team do you think can better balance honesty and politeness during a conflict? Which team is showcasing a higher level of caring personally and challenging directly?
Through transparency, openness, and an investment in each individual on the team, the second team is demonstrating a balance between caring and challenging that helps teams share their ideas openly and safely.
It is your moment. You stand in front of your colleagues and tell them the great news. Your KPI has grown over 30000%! Wow! 🤩🤩 That is a fantastic amount of growth. But before we pop that champagne, what does that number mean? How does that change impact your team? The company? Did you cut corners to get there?
In his article, Success Theater, John Cutler describes the danger of vanity metrics. According to Tableau, vanity metrics are “metrics that make you look good to others but do not help you understand your own performance in a way that informs future strategies.” While these types of metrics might feel good, in actuality, they are hiding something more substantial. And that can cost your team in the long run.
When the team feels they must show improvement and progress at all times, honesty and a focus on quality often fly out the window. When team members feel that pressure to “grin and bear it,” there is no encouragement to provide feedback, openly discuss issues, or even remain creative.
Instead of staying in the success theater, be honest about where you are, how far you have come, and how far you still have to go. Celebrate mistakes on your Oops Wall. Remain transparent about team goals and how they are measured. Document how the mistakes helped the team succeed and the lessons learned along the way. All of these are ways you can help build buy-in and a feeling of safety toward speaking honestly about the progress they’re making in their work.
Making it a part of your routine to ask, “why is this a win?” keeps your team focused on the ultimate goals and allows them to celebrate and enjoy genuine successes. Not just the type created by smoke and mirrors.
“If optics matter to the external world — they usually do — have frank discussions on why that is the case, and how external messaging cannot dictate the internal dialogue”
Defined by Norm Kerth, in the book Project Retrospectives: A Handbook for Team Reviews, the retrospective prime directive states:
“Regardless of what we discover, we understand and truly believe that everyone did the best job they could, given what they knew at the time, their skills and abilities, the resources available, and the situation at hand.”
Before each meeting, read the Prime Directive to remind yourself and the team to walk in with the mindset that everyone truly did try their best in the previous sprint. We may not know what is happening in a team member’s life that could be impacting their work for better or worse. If there is an individual issue, a team meeting is not the time to solve it.
Posting and reminding others that team meetings should focus on the systems and goals impacting the entire team reminds everyone of their shared mission and the importance of working together on team outcomes instead or engaging in combative conversations.
Before I run a retrospective, I often run a safety check. The purpose of the safety check is to see how safe people feel sharing their opinions or problems in the room. Based on Dr. Mark Balbes’ approach, a safety check is a different way to examine how psychologically safe a team feels before any given meeting based on a rating from 1 to 5.
Similar to Richard McLean’s sliding scale measuring psychological safety, asking each person to share how safe they feel gives you a chance to examine your team’s feelings at that moment.
There are many ways to do a safety check with your team. One is to ask the team to hold up the number of fingers representing where they are on the above scale.
Another option is to begin your retrospective with a Team Radar. Retrium allows you to customize the spokes of the radar to ask your team to answer questions about how safe they feel can quickly give your team a sense of any issues that need to be discussed as part of the retrospective.
Congrats! You’ve worked hard to build psychological safety on your team. Your relationships with your teammates are strong. You’ve created a culture of learning instead of a culture of blaming. Everyone is comfortable sharing their mistakes and asking “the dumb questions.”
And yet, when you run your retrospective, you notice that the conversation dries up! Here are the top 2 reasons why:
Psychological safety is a complex topic and one that you can spend days, months, even years researching and practicing. If you’d like to continue learning about Psychological Safety, here are some of my favorite resources:
Now you have some practical ways to build psychological safety for your team! 🎉 Creating an environment that fosters psychological safety doesn’t happen overnight, but the ideas in this chapter should help you start your journey.
how teams can work together to maintain unity and encourage participation across all team members regardless of their physical location.