On the Bare Necessity of Psychological Safety

The what, why and how of effective teams.

Timon Ruban
12
 min read

“Hey. Do you have a minute? I think I have a psychological safety topic.” I was stressed. Without a single frontend developer in our engineering team we were starting to slow down. I had finished the performance profile and sent it to my teammate two days ago. She still hadn’t published the role. Did she not know we were in a hiring crunch? I told her this is our number one priority last week. Should I tell her again? But that would be micro-managing. Should I just do it myself? That would look like I don’t trust her to do her job. I was anxious. That’s when she spoke up.

“Individuals on teams with higher psychological safety are less likely to leave Google, they’re more likely to harness the power of diverse ideas from their teammates, they bring in more revenue, and they’re rated as effective twice as often by executives.” — Google Re:Work

Before we continue, here is a quick outlook on what’s to come.

In Part I, we will define psychological safety (or PsySafety for brevity) in more detail.

In Part II, we will discuss why you should be reading an essay on PsySafety in the first place. Why? Because it is the prerequisite for your teammates’ “willingness to engage in productive conflict so as to learn from different points of view.”¹ I sometimes call this engagement in productive conflict giving feedback and it is PsySafety’s raison d’être.

In Part III, I will share the lessons I learned while trying to establish psychological safety in my own work and life. Talking about psychological safety is cheap; show me the code. What can you do to make it a reality? (Spoiler alert: you start by talking about it.)

Vámonos.

Part I: What is psychological safety?

Psychological safety is super effective against poisonous work environments.³

I was introduced to psychological safety by way of a NYT-article² summarizing the findings of a study about team effectiveness launched at Google in 2012. 2012-Google had already rushed past its search-engine-fame and was well known for repeatedly launching successful new products like Gmail, Google Maps or Android. But for every team behind these success stories, there were many more laboring away just to end up adding to what amounts to an impressive graveyard of failed products. Why do some of these teams fail? And why do others succeed? Does seniority matter? Team size? Sitting in the same room? In their study, researchers gathered data from more than 180 teams at Google and found one pithy answer: psychological safety.

Enter Amy Edmondson, professor at Harvard and the first to coin the term psychological safety. Edmondson was collecting data on measures of team effectiveness and medical error rates at different hospitals when she found an unexpected result: teams rated as more effective made more mistakes! Or did they?

“The good teams […] don’t make more mistakes; they report more.” — Amy C. Edmondson

This is surprising, because people usually try hard not to look incompetent, intrusive or negative. And doing so is easy: Don’t speak up! Don’t ask questions! Don’t admit weaknesses or mistakes! Don’t offer ideas! Don’t critique the status quo!

Think about it. The consequences of keeping quiet are certain and immediate; the consequences of speaking up are uncertain and often delayed. Add loss aversion, the tendency to prefer avoiding bad outcomes over aspiring to good outcomes, to the mix and it seems like a small miracle that anyone speaks up at all.

But in the best teams, in hospitals and elsewhere, people do speak up.

Is it a bird? Is it a plane?

It’s psychological safety!

“Psychological safety describes a belief that neither the formal nor informal consequences of interpersonal risks, like asking for help or admitting a failure, will be punitive. In psychologically safe environments, people believe that if they make a mistake or ask for help, others will not react badly. Instead, candor is both allowed and expected.” — Amy C. Edmondson

Or put a little bit more succinctly, psychological safety is “the belief that the work environment is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.”

Part II: Why do we need psychological safety?

An effective manager cares about two things: results and retention.⁴ What can managers do to achieve results while retaining their team?

“When a person is not doing [their] job, there can only be two reasons for it. The person either can’t do it or won’t do it; [they are] either not capable or not motivated.” — Andy Grove, High Output Management

From this we, as did Andy, can easily deduce that there are only two things a manager can do to improve their team’s effectiveness: train and motivate. Psychological safety helps with both.

Motivate

You know what is not a good motivator? Fear. Fear inhibits learning and collaboration.⁵ It kills creativity. It might have worked as a management technique when Learning and Collaboration, back in their intern days, were making coffee for Discipline and Authority. Todaysometimes called the information agecoffee is turned into code by knowledge workers; the merits of Learning, Collaboration and Creativity have surpassed those of their former bullies and fear no longer flies.

Fortunately, psychological safety is the best antidote to fear at the workplace. With PsySafety, it is easier to show vulnerability. It is easier to admit when you’re having a bad day. It is easier to “bring your whole self to work” and easier to celebrate and leverage diversity.⁶

When your teammates speak up, without being afraid of repercussions, they not only enjoy their work more, they automatically waste less time and energy managing their interactions within the group. No more status games and office politics. PsySafety is the foundation on which managers can build trusting relationships with and within their team.⁷

Train

Why do we care about trusting relationships? Because they enable us to give better, more candid feedback. This is the “willingness to engage in productive conflict so as to learn from different points of view” and it is the main reason why psychological safety deserves managerial attention. Good feedback leads to good behavior leads to good results.

People need to know you care

My mom used to say she is only telling me to close my mouth while eating because she loves me. It took many years for me to realize, she was right.⁸

Unfortunately, humans are bad at seeking evidence that contradicts their own beliefs.

It is easy to see the faults of others, but difficult to see one’s own. — Buddha, Dhammapada

That is why feedback is a gift. But it is a gift that needs some unwrapping. Only if I believe the person (a friend?) speaking to me has my best interests in mind, will I be inclined to listen. Otherwise (a foe?), my brain will be ready to fight back. Our intuitions tend to drive our reasoning.⁹ Thus, if you want your feedback to be heard, your teammates need to know you care about them personally.¹⁰

“Trust is knowing that when a team member does push you, they’re doing it because they care about the team.” — Patrick Lencioni, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team

Psychological safety and good feedback go hand in hand. Giving feedback is a great way to show that you care, but it works best if the other person believes you do. I have written about the other ingredients of good feedback here.

Debate

“Disagreement is feedback, and the sooner we learn to efficiently disagree with each other the sooner (and more) we’ll trust and respect each other.” — Michael Lopp, The Art of Leadership

Put the other way around, the sooner we learn to trust and respect each other, the sooner we can start to disagree efficiently.

In a psychologically safe work environment, people surface ideas and concerns. They voice their questions and point out both problems and opportunities. They admit mistakes. They aren’t afraid of failure. And they aren’t afraid of productive conflict and open debates.

HiPPOs: an extinct species thanks to PsySafety? Photo credit to Enric Durany.

Open debate is important because it helps us surface the best solution. A less obvious benefit: only when people get the chance to voice their concerns and disagreements about a decision and feel like they’ve been heard will they be ready to commit to that decision. And only if people committed to a decision can you hold them accountable for it.¹¹

Ray Dalio calls this an idea meritocracy.

“[An idea meritocracy] encourages thoughtful disagreements and explores and weighs people’s opinions in proportion to their merits.” — Ray Dalio, Principles: Work and Life

In my experience, building an idea meritocracy is much easier when you can build on a foundation of psychological safety.

Part III: How can we foster psychological safety?

“Psychological safety is not a personality difference but rather a feature of the workplace that leaders can and must help create.” — Amy C. Edmondson

The bad news: PsySafety is a group-level phenomenon and thus every manager is responsible for establishing PsySafety within their team. You cannot offload the work to company-wide policies.

The good news: the managerial leverage of psychological safety is still high. If you care about results and retention within your team, the effort of creating an environment of psychological safety will be worth it.¹²

So how can we go about creating it?

Step 1: Watercooler conversations

“Without [trust], teamwork is all but impossible.

Unfortunately, the word trust is used — and misused — so often that it has lost some of its impact. […]

In the context of building a team, trust is the confidence among team members that their peers’ intentions are good, and that there is no reason to be protective or careful around the group. In essence, teammates must get comfortable being vulnerable with one another.

This description stands in contrast to a more standard definition of trust, one that centers around the ability to predict a person’s behavior based on past experience.” — Patrick Lencioni, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team

This is from the chapter on the absence of trust, the first dysfunction of a team, that, according to Lencioni, all the others stand on. Sounds a lot like psychological safety to you? What Lencioni needed was not another definition for trust. What he needed was another word: psychological safety.¹³

In the introduction of Thinking, Fast and Slow Kahneman describes his book as an attempt to enrich the vocabulary of “watercooler conversations”. By giving people more precise language to work with, he hopes to enable more succinct and intelligent conversations. “Oh, that sounds like you’re falling prey to the availability heuristic” carries more meaning than saying “Don’t you think you might be overestimating this, because you maybe read about it in the newspapers recently?”.

Thus, to enable more intelligent conversations, the first step on our way to a psychologically safe work environment is establishing a shared understanding of what “psychologically safe work environment” means.

That means talking about it. Mention PsySafety during your recruitment process. Put it on your onboarding documentation. Explain why it is important. Remind your teammates of the uncertain and interdependent nature of your work and the corresponding need for being candid with your teammates to succeed. Reframe failure. To go from abstract to concrete: share examples of psychological safety gone right and psychological safety gone wrong from within your company.

Whenever a new co-worker joins my team, psychological safety is the first thing I speak about. I start our first 1:1 by explaining that my job is to help them succeed in their new role and in regards to succeeding, the only thing I care about in the first weeks is establishing psychological safety. Results will follow.

Step 2: Invite participation

“No one has the right to hold a critical opinion without speaking up about it.” — Ray Dalio, Principles: Life and Work

A common misconception is that psychological safety is more or less the same thing as being nice. But PsySafety is not just about being nice.¹⁴ In Kim Scott’s words: it is not just about caring personally, it is also about challenging directly.

To foster direct challenges, the asymmetric incentives favoring keeping quiet over speaking up (see Part I) need to be overcome. Speaking up needs to be the path of least resistance.

Do this by explicitly inviting participation, not just implicitly hoping for it. Ask for input. Make heavy use of RfCs.¹⁵ Ask for feedback in your 1:1s. Have retrospectives where everyone can (needs to!) contribute their thoughts.

Step 3: Walk the talk

“Admit when you’re having a bad day–and [create] a safe space for others to do the same.” — Kim Scott, Radical Candor

The best way to create an environment of psychological safety is to act as if it already exists. You need to prove that it is safe to take interpersonal risks.

How? Admit you’re wrong. Write postmortems and take responsibility for when things don’t work out as planned.

Reward your teammates when they speak up. Take time to listen. If someone raises a difficult topic, the anxiety in the room is often palpable. I like to start these conversations off by acknowledging how happy it makes me that we are having it in the first place. “Awesome! Not awesome that we have this problem, but awesome that you brought it up. That‘s how we build psychological safety and that’s how we build a successful company! 🤗

If you hear someone raising an issue connected to a person that is not in the room, your only and first response should be: “Have you already talked with them about it?” If there is one behavior that destroys PsySafety faster than you can say psychological safety out loud three times, it is gossiping. So, don’t talk behind someone’s back. If you have a problem with someone (or better: with someone’s behavior) take it up with them directly.¹⁶

If you feel like you are missing day-to-day opportunities to demonstrate psychological safety, try a more structured approach. Have everyone write a CV of failures and share and discuss it within your team. Or throw an Anxiety Party to make “structured time [to] be vulnerable and get [your] anxieties out in the open.”

Step 4: The Bell

For many of you giving feedback and hashing out issues in open debates will be standard issue. Thankfully, HiPPOs are extinct in many companies I know.

But sometimes the going gets tough. You are confronted with a situation or topic that makes you feel uncomfortable. You feel anxious and hesitant to bring it up with your teammate. That’s when you need the Bell.

If I could give just a single piece of advice to help you establish PsySafety, it would be this: If you feel hesitation towards bringing up a difficult topic with your teammate, the psychological safety bell needs to start ringing in your head.¹⁷

“Hey. Do you have a minute? I think I have a psychological safety topic.”

Remember, the hiring crunch from the introduction? Turns out my teammate (Erin) was well aware of the importance of kick-starting our recruiting efforts for the new role. But, guess what, she was also responsible for payroll and if she didn’t close it in time, no one at our company would be getting paid. That is what she was working on the last two days. She felt my anxiety. She was really stressed herself. Then she decided to speak up.

Erin and I went for a walk to clear the air. It was psychologically safety gone wrong and gone right at the same time.

Gone wrong, because I did not approach Erin right away. Had I done so right when I noticed she did not act on my sending her the performance profile, things would have been easy. Erin would have continued to work on payroll. I would have helped her out and gone ahead with publishing the role, without any fears of micro-managing or demonstrating a lack of trust. It would have saved us both two days of stress and anxiety and led to better results.

Gone right, because Erin did speak up. Had she not done so, I might have continued in the belief that she did not know how to prioritize without me telling her. A ticking time bomb that would surely have blown up in our faces eventually. Fortunately, if handled correctly, moments like these help you break down the remaining PsySafety barriers between you and your teammate. Together you can lay a strong foundation of psychological safety to build upon in the future. I learned I could trust Erin to speak up when things got difficult. She learned I would respond productively to her concerns. And it renewed my resolve to do what Erin did the next time I felt hesitation to address a problem with her.

The more often you have these conversations the easier they get. With many of my teammates I needed the Bell to ring for the first time to establish full psychological safety. It rang. We spoke. And never looked back.

Wrapping up

“Building a functional team is not a sophisticated or incredibly complex process, instead it needs an incredibly consistent and persistent adherence to very simple principles.” — Patrick Lencioni, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team

Psychological safety is the belief that the work environment is safe for interpersonal risk-taking. It will help you retain your teammates and provides fertile grounds for direct feedback and open debates, the rite of passage on your way to good results. There is not one silver bullet to establish psychological safety in your team, but it is not all that complicated either. Be nice, show vulnerability. Listen for the bell. And speak up!

_____

¹ The quote is from Amy Edmondson. We’ll be hearing more from her soon.

² Thanks to the Wayback Machine you can read it here.

³ I know! 🙀 Would have been much cooler if it were a psychic-type Pokemon fighting against a poison-type Pokemon, but this is the only image I could find.

⁴ This definition of an effective manager is taken straight from Mark Horstman’s book of the same name: The Effective Manager.

⁵ Read Managing with the Brain in Mind. (an article from strategy+business, written August 27, 2009) for an in-depth look at what managers can learn from neuroscience. A notable quote: “The threat response is both mentally taxing and deadly to the productivity of a person”.

⁶ Let’s hear, one more time, straight from the horse’s mouth (the horse, in this case, being Edmondson’s book on psychological safety: The Fearless Organization).

“The researchers surveyed […] 195 teams in a French university and found that expertise-diverse teams performed well when psychological safety was high and badly otherwise.
[A] number of studies have investigated effects of demographic diversity on team performance. Some have shown that diversity helps performance, while others have found a negative relationship between diversity and performance. When different studies show conflicting results like this, it’s usually a sign of a missing moderator.”

Maybe psychological safety is that missing moderator?

⁷ A little more esoteric in its application, but another way to look at the central role psychological safety should play in every organization is through the lense of the Theory of The Firm. It says that companies form because collaboration is more effective within the boundaries of an organization than outside. So surely, anything that can make collaboration more effective deserves a good hard look.

⁸ Did I listen? My elephant rider (see footnote 9) was usually quick to shoot: “But in other cultures, making noises is a polite way of showing you appreciate the food!”

⁹ People usually underestimate the extent to which this statement is true. To fully appreciate its implications, I can recommend Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind, which includes a memorable metaphor about our mind as a rider and an elephant.

“The mind is divided, like a rider on an elephant, and the rider’s job is to serve the elephant. The rider is our conscious reasoning. […] The elephant is the other 99 percent of mental processes — the ones that occur outside of awareness but that actually govern most of our behavior.”

¹⁰ Read the first half of Kim Scott’s Radical Candor, for a great treatise on giving feedback (she calls this challenging directly) in a way that shows you care personally.

¹¹ Fear of conflict, lack of commitment, avoidance of accountability, inattention to results. These are the eponymous dysfunctions (two through five) from Patrick Lencioni’s book The Five Dysfunctions of a Team. What is the first dysfunction, the one all the others build upon? We’ll hear about it shortly.

¹² Investing in PsySafety is a little bit like writing tests. When you want code that still works tomorrow you will soon learn that investing now saves you time down the road.

¹³ Here is what Edmondson has to say on trust versus psychological safety: “Trust is about giving others the benefit of the doubt, and psychological safety relates to whether others will give you the benefit of the doubt when, for instance, you have asked for help or admitted a mistake.” Trust is about one-to-one relationships; psychological safety is a team phenomenon.

¹⁴ Though being nice certainly helps.

¹⁵ RfC means Request for Comment. It is a common practice in open-source software projects, but works just as well outside of software engineering. You write down what, why and how you want to change something and ask whomever it may concern for written feedback. It makes asking for input the new normal, your decision-making processes becomes more transparent and it’s easier to learn from your past mistakes when you can quickly look up the reasoning that went into making past decisions. At Luminovo, we have a company-wide Notion database for RfCs. Almost every decision (be it about a new observability tool in Engineering or what kind of coffee to buy) is documented there for everyone to see.

¹⁶ Only if together you cannot find a resolution for the issue at hand is it time to escalate and speak with someone else (like your immediate supervisor).

¹⁷ One of Ray Dalio’s fundamental principles is that pain + reflection = progress. When you realize that what you wanted to be true clouded your perception of what is actually true, you feel pain. Pain’s virtue is its signalling power that you are in a situation that you can (and need to) learn from. The Bell works the same way.

Thanks to Sebastian Schaal.

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