The importance of psychological safety

There seems to be growing awareness of the importance of safe environments and John Le Drew dug deep into that topic at Agile Testing days 2017 with his talk about how the most significant obstacle in agile teams is the lack of safety. He mentioned Aristotle, Google’s research project about what makes a great team. What they eventually found out was that team effectiveness is not about who is on the team, but how they work together. Their result can be summed up in these five keys of a great team:

  1. Psychological safety. Team members must be comfortable in taking risks and speaking their minds.
  2. Dependability. Get things done on time and meet expectations in regards to quality.
  3. Structure and clarity. Clear roles, plans and goals.
  4. Meaning. The work is personally important to team members.
  5. Impact. People’swork actually benefits the company.

Humans are reluctant to do anything that could negatively influence how others view our competence. The Impostor Experience happens when people can’t get their heads out of this mentality. We need the psychological safety so we believe that we won’t be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, and mistakes. Most workplaces are not toxic, but people still don’t feel safe to speak up, be critical and ask for help.

John suggested using improvisation as an exercise to make people be more caring for others and feel safer. In improv, you need to pay attention to your fellow performers, accept them without judgment, and expand on what others have offered to encourage creativity. John got the audience to participate in fun improv exercises with him; first we paired and played mirror with each other’s hands, then audience members created a story on the spot. I’ve heard others talk about using improv to help make better agile teams and this is something I’m very excited to take further with my team back home.

Recent research show that 65% of the US workforce don’t feel engaged at work and suffer from work related stress. And how can we tackle stress at work? Well who would have known, but research also shows that when we are engaged, we are more resilient to stress.

Where there is no embarrassment, where it is safe to fail, where there is autonomy on people contributions, and anyone can contribute, that is when the magic happens, and people perform their best. A famous example of this is Menlo Innovations, a company which Rich Sheridan founded with the purpose of creating a workplace where people find joy as he talks about in his book Joy Inc. One of their values is empathy over judgment. You can read more about Rich and Menlo Innovations in my post from PNSQC.

I’ll end this with John’s words which I wholeheartedly agree with: “Safety is a very profound thing. Not being emotionally abusive in the workplace sure would make the world a better place.”

written Nov 22 2017

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