Psychological safety

How to nurture psychological safety in an (agile) team?

Psychological safety is the belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes. It is a critical aspect of a high-performing Agile team, as it creates an environment of trust, collaboration and open communication, where team members feel comfortable to take risks, share ideas and be vulnerable.

This is an agile team concept that is also useful in predictive team settings. Trust and mutual respect are essential to an empowered team.

Psychological safety goes hand in hand with diversity, which is the recognition that everyone is unique and can add value in different ways. The personal uniqueness include race, gender, sexual orientation, agility, physical abilities, status, religious, political and other beliefs, and more. Diversity enables greater innovation. The more diverse our team, the better our ideas will be, the better our work will be, and the more we’ll learn from each other.

Psychological safety is a psychosocial condition, required for high-performing project teams. That means that the team members should be comfortable being themselves at work. Healthy work settings embrace diversity, are built on trust and mutual respect and ensure ethical decision-making.

There are several strategies that enable us to nurture psychological safety and diversity within a (Agile) team.

Get know yourself

Develop self-awareness.

Self-awareness is the skill of being aware of our thoughts, emotions, and values from moment to moment. Through self-awareness, we can lead ourselves with authenticity and integrity — and in turn better lead others and our organizations.
Source: Self-Awareness Can Help Leaders More Than an MBA Can

Lead by example

Leaders and managers can model the behavior they want to see in the team, such as showing vulnerability, admitting mistakes and actively listening to others.

Be respectful

Create an inclusive environment.

Everyone is different, with different experiences and different preferences. None of us is the smartest person in the room. Respect what other people know that we don’t and recognize that they have a different and important point of view. Encourage diversity and provide equal opportunities for all team members to contribute. This helps to create a sense of belonging and reduces the fear of being ostracized for speaking up.

Be humble.

Foster a growth mindset.

This is key to having a learning mindset and to being respectful. Encourage team members to take risks, experiment, and continuously learn and grow. This creates an environment where team members are comfortable with making mistakes and taking calculated risks.

Be curious.

Encourage curiosity in the team.

Practice not knowing behaviour and ask questions. Help co-workers get to know each other better so they learn more about themselves.

You can read more about curiosity and how to develop it in the article Curiosity – foster a culture of learning and growth, link can be found in the additional materials.

Be ethical and trustworthy.

People will feel safer working and interacting with us if they trust us. Trust is built over time through a series of actions and can be broken by one action. The role of the leader, who genuinely demonstrates interdependence and vulnerability and takes the risk of losing face, is important in building trust.

„TRUST is like money. Takes years to earn and minutes to loose”
~ Jurgen Appelo, Management 3.0 Workout

Be transparent

Encourage open and honest communication.

Foster an environment where team members feel comfortable to share their thoughts, opinions and experiences without fear of judgment. This can be done through common terminology: common definition of “completed” work (definition of done), visibility of processes and work and transparency of artifacts such as product and sprint backlog or increment.

Make it safe to fail.

Celebrate failures.

In the agile world we say “fail fast.” Al Shalloway’s advice, “Make it safe to fail so you can learn fast.” The idea is to not hesitate to try something, even if it may fail. But the focus should be on learning safely and quickly. “Safely” refers both to psychological safety and the safety of our work. The aim is to try out new ways of working with the expectation that they will work for us, while being prepared to learn from our experiment if it fails. Encouraging team members to share their failures and what they have learned from them helps to normalize mistakes and reduces the fear of punishment.
By building psychological safety, Agile teams can create a supportive and collaborative environment where team members feel valued and are able to do their best work.

Article based on: Promise: Create Psychological Safety and Embrace Diversity

Additional materials

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