Psychological safety is critical for high-performing teams
Big launches and milestone achievements deserve to be celebrated. When organizations take time to recognize the hard work that went into the completion of a release or even a bite-sized milestone, this helps employees recharge and stay motivated. The celebration might entail a release party, ending work a few hours early on a Friday, or a handwritten thank-you note.
But what happens when a team fails? The deadline for a big release is missed. A bug causes a security vulnerability. Or a change to the production environment causes product downtime.
Are these failures discussed? Do employees feel comfortable talking about what went wrong with their manager and team? Does your team take the time to reflect upon these situations through sprint retros or post-incident reviews? Does your team explore ways to overcome these mistakes in the future with a different path forwards or approach?
If the answer is no to the questions listed above, this could be a sign that teammates or employees across the organization lack psychological safety.
What is psychological safety?
A psychologically safe work environment encourages team members to speak up with ideas, concerns, or recent failures instead of choosing to remain silent.
According to Amy Edmondson, “psychological safety in the workplace is the belief that the environment is safe for interpersonal risk-taking. It is a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes.”
When employees feel psychologically safe, they’re willing to take more risks, share ideas, and speak their truth. There is an unspoken agreement that employees will not feel punished or embarrassed when speaking up, whether it’s exposing one’s ignorance by asking questions or offering a new solution or idea to a problem. Trust is created through interpersonal connections and reinforced through an open and transparent environment.
This engagement leads to uncharted collaboration, growth, and excellence. In fact, the 2017 Gartner Culture Workforce Survey found that when employees work in a psychologically safe environment, the discretionary effort can improve up to 24%. Discretionary effort means employees put in extra effort above and beyond what is expected because they want to.
Psychological safety and high-performing teams
Company retreats with trust falls and ice breakers can seem nonsensical, but at the core of these activities, there is a desire to create a space in which employees can be vulnerable—a judgment-free zone.
By having a psychologically safe environment, employees perceive risk as a good thing, and there is an understanding that employees won’t be seen as ignorant, incompetent, or invalid. Risk in this context could mean challenging the status quo, pitching a novel idea, etc.
Teams thrive when they take risks and fail (or succeed!) fast. Instead of being stagnant, the momentum continues forward as employees learn from their mistakes. Risk-taking and learning from mistakes so the team doesn’t repeat them again are behaviors of high-performing teams.
Evaluating your organization’s psychological safety
Below are a few ways to gauge the level of psychological safety within your team or organization:
There is a tolerance for mistakes
Employees are open about the mistakes they made instead of avoiding them or, worse yet, covering mistakes up. When team members make mistakes there is a level of acceptance and it’s not held against them. Leaders treat mistakes as an opportunity to learn and often communicate their own fallibility.
Micro-moments of learning occur regularly
Leaders model curiosity by sharing their ignorance on a topic and asking questions. Employees are empowered to ask questions, poke at proposals, and when the answer is unclear, employees are encouraged to level up through on-the-job learnings.
Space is created for reflection and review
The team takes time to learn from past performances to help with future improvements. Retrospectives allow teammates to discuss what went well and what didn’t go so well. It’s an opportunity to brainstorm ways to make future improvements. The 4Ls approach helps to structure team or one-on-one conversations and uncover what was liked, learned, lacked, or longed for after a particular project or after a certain timeframe such as a year or quarter.
Risk-taking is encouraged
Employees voice radical business and technical ideas. They’re willing to take interpersonal risks by speaking up in meetings, voicing their concerns, and never settling without asking “why.” These risks lead to deep levels of participation and ownership.
There is a diversity of thought
More and more organizations will continue to focus resources on diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB) efforts, and Gartner’s research found a 1.8x increase in HR executives listing DEI as a top initiative from 2019 to 2020. Companies benefit from cognitive diversity as a result of varying levels of experience, background, gender, and age across the team. There is no “strict power structure” mentality for ideas or initiatives from the leadership team and leadership team only. Employees, regardless of their role, seniority, or tenure, have an equally valid opinion.
Creating a workplace environment that promotes psychological safety is an art, and there is no silver bullet. There are unspoken agreements, company-wide values, leadership qualities, and technology to help support this ongoing work.
This is part one of a three-part series on psychological safety. Next, we discuss how to build a psychologically safe environment through continuous learning opportunities.Tags: performance, psychological safety
What happened to the J in DEIB?
If the goal is psychological safety, adding the “j” would have the opposite effect.
so you simply ignore it then? wow
Diversity of thought, unless you disagree with them 😉
“J” for “justice”? As in JEDI?
yes please fix
yes please fix
I really liked this article. This is an important topic. Thanks for sharing and including a link to the works in that area by
Some suggestions for improving psychological safety in a coding environment:
1) Maintain a chat group that does NOT include management or senior staff so that it is safer for junior people to ask each other potentially dumb questions.
2) Periodically review what the reviewers are saying/suggesting during code reviews. Are their comments phrased as suggestions whenever possible (i.e. “Your approach here is fine. Next time you might also consider…”) or more like orders (i.e. “You should …”)?
3) In public, do senior people sometimes admit that they do not know how to solve a problem, or that something turned out to be harder than they expected, or that they made a series of dumb mistakes? Or, do they generally try to make themselves appear to be infallible?
4) The main psychological danger is the fear of earning a bad reputation and eventually being fired. This happens when senior people do not take the time to understand and empathize with why something was difficult for a junior person. Often the root cause is poor documentation, or insufficient tribal knowledge, as opposed to lack of intelligence or lack of effort.
5) Do lots of cognitive-bias awareness training.
Also, make sure you take a position in a company that actually cares about performance and upholds good values at the manageriale level (vs. muddling through work/life clinging to fixed beliefs).
In my experience, the DIE agenda has very little to do with cognitive diversity and everything to do with box-ticking and protection against legal risks. If the work environment truly embraced diversity of opinion, then people could feel free to speak up and denounce DIE policies as discriminatory and divisive. Hiring token minorities benefits nobody in the long run. In reality, DIE has all the qualities of a religious cult and anyone who dares criticise (or even ask for evidence that it’s having any positive effect) will be ushered in for a quick chat with HR. It doesn’t remotely surprise me that there’s a “1.8x increase in HR executives listing DEI as a top initiative from 2019 to 2020”. Who would dare speak out against the mob ?
(Source : as a hiring manager at several investment banks I have been regularly instructed to hire more minorities and females, “or else”. Talent or qualifications don’t seem to matter, we just have to be seen to be boosting the numbers)
Your experience is saddening but you work with Banksters so maybe it’s not that surprising? When the recruiting process is designed and run by rich white men I wonder what kind of candidates it will promote.
Would you say two heads are better than one? There lies the beginning of diversity.
Maybe you are one of those people who don’t need an editor ever but most substantial writing goes through review by a diverse set of eyes and it’s generally improved by that. Two nearly identical heads with nearly the same background are only slightly better than one. Two heads from “token minority” hires are not what the doctor ordered. However if we never try to look beyond our own cognitive biases well then we live in a cage of our own making wondering what all those weirdos standing outside the bars think they are going to accomplish.
Kenneth, please read my first sentence again. I’m not arguing that cognitive diversity, if managed well, cannot be a positive influence. But absolutely nothing that I’ve experienced in modern corporations has anything to do with selecting cognitively diverse people. It’s about increasing numbers of women and non-white people by any means possible, including quotas. I’ve seen it at the interview process, where we simply throw out the CVs of anyone with a male sounding name. I’ve also experienced it during the promo process, where we vet candidates based on their merit and then apply the “diversity overlay”, which involves moving all the women to the top of the list. Here in the UK, that sort of thing is unlawful but it happens anyway because the penalties for breaking the law are insignificant. The situation is terribly unfair to the men who get passed over without being told why, and it’s unfair to genuinely talented women who will be forever labelled as “diversity hires”.
Your comment about “rich white men” and “Banksters” betrays your biases. In my 20+ years in banking, I’ve worked with exceptional people from around the world. That number has included plenty of rich white females, rich black men, rich black females and even a few poor white men. The difference is that those people were hired for their performance and merit, rather than because of their superficial characteristics. What’s happening now is open discrimination.
This is really about management and managers are responsible for psychological safety.
It has a tangible value as a competitive advantage because it stimulates innovation, like this:
This 1998 (long but amazing) article should be a MUST read for detecting problems in teams before it’s to late to act:
I remember one Boss saying “I am not trying to place blame, I just want to know WHO DID IT”
Yeah. If the Boss is looking to go over the lead dev’s head to get a name, they are looking to place blame.
People make mistakes, Boss, if they’re honest mistakes you don’t need a name. There needs to be a discussion between the people close to the problem to make sure lessons learned are taken, documentation, policies/procedures are updated. Missing automation is created.
Personnel problems happen too… if it really is looking like a personnel problem that needs to be solved, Boss needs to trust the dev lead to bring it up on their own.
How do I subscribe to get notified when Part 2 comes out?
If a company I work for ever tries to mandate a “trust fall” situation, we will be parting ways. I have a strong aversion to physical contact outside of family/close friends and do not want to have that kind of contact with people who are merely coworkers, ever, and this has exactly 0 to do with psychological safety for speaking up about things.