AoAD2 Practice: Safety

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Safety

Audience
Whole Team

XXX with Gitte Klitgaard

We share conflicting viewpoints without fear.

In 2012, Google launched Project Aristotle, an internal research effort intended to identify why some teams excelled and others did not. They looked at a number of factors: team composition, socialization outside of work, educational background, extroversion vs. introversion, colocation vs. remote, seniority, team size, individual performance, and more. None of them made a significant difference to effectiveness. Not even seniority or individual performance.

What mattered? Psychological safety.

Of the five key dynamics of effective teams that the researchers identified, psychological safety was by far the most important. The Google researchers found that 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 Rework]

Understanding Team Effectiveness

Understanding Psychological Safety

Although Google’s findings have brought psychological safety into the limelight, it’s not a new idea. It was originally introduced in 1965 by Edgar Schein and Warren Bennis, in the context of making personal and organizational changes. “In order for [discomfort] to lead to an increased desire to learn rather than heightened anxiety... An environment must be created with maximum psychological safety.” [Schein and Bennis 1965] (p. 44)

So, what is it?

Psychological safety—often abbreviated to just “safety,” because modern offices have physical safety covered—is the ability to be yourself without fear of negative consequences, whether to your career, status, or self-image. It’s the ability to propose ideas, ask questions, raise concerns, and even make mistakes without being punished or humiliated.1

1The first half of this definition of psychological safety (“ability to be yourself”) is based on [Kahn 1990]. The second half (“ability to propose ideas”) is based on [Edmonson 2014].

Safety means team members are safe to disagree.

Safety doesn’t mean your team has no conflicts. It means the exact opposite. It means that everyone on your team is able to express their opinion without fear of retribution or belittlement. They are safe to disagree with each other. And they do. It may be uncomfortable, yet it is still safe.

Through that creative tension, they consider ideas that might have been forgotten. They take into account objections that could have been swept under the rug. In the end, everyone’s voice is heard, and that creates better results.

How to Create Safety

Safety is very individual. It’s context-based and intangible. An exchange that seems safe to you, and even is safe for some participants, can still feel unsafe to others. For example, you might start a conversation with a bit of small talk: “What did you do this weekend?” One man speaks up confidently: “I went to the mountains with my wife.” Another is reluctant to speak. He spent the weekend with his boyfriend, and he worries that bringing it up will lead to uncomfortable conversations about his sexual orientation.

Past experiences are a factor, too. I (Gitte) worked with a 60-year-old who always avoided mentioning the gender of his husband. He said “my partner,” rather than “my husband,” and never used pronouns. Intellectually, he knew that I was comfortable with his relationship and would never treat him badly, but he grew up in a time when being gay was punished, and instinctively protected himself.

Other important factors to take into account are people’s personalities, the neurodiversity in the team, and in general the way people think. This means that you need to address internal factors as well as external ones.

Does that mean safety is impossible? Not at all! But it does mean there’s no magic answer. You can do everything right, and people can still feel unsafe. You can’t force safety on anyone. You can only create a situation where safety is possible, and you can have discussions to figure out what safety means to your team.

The following techniques will help create safety.

Enable all voices

One of the big benefits of safety is that it creates space for everyone's voices. By feeling safe, team members speak up, disagree, suggest new ideas, bring up problems and in general bring in options. It does not mean all ideas are implemented; it means that your team has considered more options before making a decision—options you might not otherwise see.

Even if people feel safe enough to speak up, some people are naturally shy, have social anxiety, or are just uncomfortable speaking up in group settings. You can make it easier for them to participate by taking these differences into account.

One way is to start each meeting with a brief check-in. It can be small, such as “Say one word about your mood today,” or “Tell us what the weather outside your window looks like right now.” When a person has spoken once in a meeting, it’s safer for them to speak again later. Be sure to give the option to pass, too. It shows that it’s also safe to not speak up.

Another option is to split large discussions into small groups of 2-4 people each. One person from each group shares the group’s conclusions with everyone else. This allows people who are uncomfortable speaking up in large settings have a voice, without requiring them to speak to the larger group.

Be open about mistakes

When we make a mistake, it’s easy to want to defend ourselves, especially if we’ve just committed a social faux pas. Resist the urge to ignore or cover up your mistakes. Instead, admit them. You’ll make it safe for others to admit their mistakes too.

Matt Smith has a technique called “the failure bow.” [Smith 2012] It works best when it’s a shared team norm. When you make a mistake, stand up and stretch your hands high in the air. “I failed!” Say it with a big smile. Everyone else will smile, too, and maybe even applaud. Make failures fun. It takes the sting out of it.

Some people will have trouble admitting mistakes. A person may blame themselves for a mistake, then assume that the team will hate them for it, and they will get fired; I’ve done this myself as a recovering perfectionist.

In other words, although you can create an environment where it’s perfectly safe to speak up about mistakes, some people may still feel unsafe making mistakes. Although you can lead by example, and be open about your own mistakes, allow others to share their mistakes, or not, in the way that works best for them.

Be curious

Show genuine interest in other people’s opinions. If someone is quiet or reluctant to speak, ask them what they think. It lets them know their voice has value. But keep in mind that they may not feel safe to be called upon in a group setting. If you’re in doubt, take the discussion to a smaller setting; perhaps one with just the two of you.

Listen to understand, not to respond.

Listen to understand, not to respond. It’s all too easy to focus on what you want to say next, rather than listen to what the other person is saying. If you already have your next question or statement lined up, you’re listening to respond. Instead, focus on what they’re saying and what they’re trying to convey.

Learn how to give and receive feedback

In an effective team, disagreements and conflicting opinions are not only normal, they’re expected. They’re how the best ideas emerge. Make disagreements safe by focusing on things and ideas, not the people suggesting them. Use an old improv trick: say “yes, and...” to build on each others’ ideas.

For example, if someone is proposing a change to the code, but didn’t consider error handling, don’t say “You forgot to include error handling.” That puts the focus on them, and what they forgot to do. Instead, focus on the idea, and build on it. “I like this part of the idea, and we can improve it by adding error handling here.”

Some disagreements will be personal. For example, someone might make an insensitive joke. Diana Larsen provides the following process for giving interpersonal feedback:

  1. Create an opening. Ask permission to provide feedback. Don’t blindside them. “Georgetta, can I give you feedback about something you said in today’s standup meeting?”

  2. Describe the behavior. Be specific about what happened. “Today in the stand-up meeting, you made a joke about short people not getting dates. That was your third short joke this week.”

  3. State the impact. Describe how it affected you. “I’m sensitive about my height, and although I laughed it off, I felt down all morning.”

  4. Make the request. Explain what you would like to change, encourage, or discourage. “I’d like you to stop making short jokes.”

  5. Listen to the response. The other person will respond. Listen to understand and let them finish their thoughts.

  6. Negotiate next steps. Focus on what you can both do going forward, with an eye towards building the relationship. “I love your sense of humor, and I hope you’ll keep making jokes about other things. I’m working on being less sensitive, but it’s not easy. I appreciate you agreeing to make this change for me.”

Be sure to give feedback to encourage behavior you want to see as well as to behavior you want to change.

Receiving interpersonal feedback can be uncomfortable, especially if you’ve done something that hurt someone’s feelings. When that happens, avoid being defensive or minimizing the other person’s concerns. Don’t make a non-apology, such as “I’m sorry if you felt offended.” Instead, acknowledge your error and make amends. “I didn’t intend to upset you with my jokes, but I did. I apologize. I’ll avoid those sorts of jokes in the future. Please don’t hesitate to remind me if I slip up.”

Consider establishing working agreements around giving and receiving interpersonal feedback. “Right-Size Conflicts with Feedback” on p.XX has suggestions.

Use empathy

People are prone to the Fundamental Attribution Error: we tend to assume people do things because of their underlying personality, not the situation they’re in. For example, if we cut someone off on the highway, it’s because we almost missed our exit and are running late to an important meeting. If someone else cuts us off, it’s because they’re a bad driver with no respect for others.

When you disagree with someone, assume positive intent.

When you disagree with someone, put yourself in their shoes. Rather than assuming malice or incompetence, assume positive intent: the other person is just as smart and well-meaning as you are, but coming to a different conclusion. Try to understand their position and why their conclusion is different from yours.

You can develop your empathy by roleplaying disagreements after the fact. Ask someone to listen as you explain the disagreement. Explain it from your point of view, then from the other person’s point of view. Make the best, most reasonable argument you can for their position.

Agile Conversations [Squirrel and Fredrick 2020] is an excellent resource for understanding the impact of your conversations and how to be more effective.

Allow yourself to be vulnerable

Share personal details and allow people to see your vulnerabilities. This can start small: a hobby, favorite toy as a kid, or pet. This creates relationships and trust. Over time, as you grow to trust your teammates, you can open up further.

Whole humans go to work.

Whole humans go to work. In other words, things that happen at home affect us at work, too, as do all the other things that make us who we are. Sharing a good day, or bad day, helps people understand your mood, which creates safety. For example, if you didn’t get enough sleep, you might be grumpy. Sharing that information will help people understand that you’re not upset with them... you’re just grumpy.

In 2007, I (Gitte) was under examination for uterine cancer. I panicked and cried, and told my team. It was very uncomfortable, but it was safe. When it was time to go to the doctor for the examination, three people on the team called me at home to make sure I had someone to take me there. They knew I lived alone, and they supported me. This was a wonderful feeling. (Eventually, the diagnosis came back. There was no cancer.)

Leaders’ Role

People in a position of power have an outsized effect on safety. That includes traditional sources of power, such as a team lead or manager, but it also includes informal power, such as when a senior developer speaks to a junior developer.

If you’re in a position of power, your words and actions have more weight. Take this seriously. It means that you can’t speak as casually as you might like, at least not at first. Learn to read the room: pay attention to how your words and actions affect others.

The following techniques will help you create safety in your teams.

Model the behaviors you want to see

Demonstrate all the behaviors you want to see from the rest of the team. Enable everyone’s voice, be open about your mistakes, be curious, give feedback, show empathy, and allow yourself to be vulnerable. It’s not enough to tell people to be safe, or to assume that they’re safe. Show it.

When discussing mistakes, be careful not to place or take blame. Don’t say things like, “Oh, I made a mistake, I’m so stupid.” That sends the message that mistakes are stupid. Instead, frame the work as a vehicle for learning, where mistakes are expected, and learning is part of the result. “I made a mistake, and this is what I learned.” (For more about the Agile approach to mistakes, see “Key Idea: Embrace Failure” on p.XX.)

Be explicit about expectations

Agile teams are self-organizing and own their work, but that doesn’t mean they have no expectations or direction. Be clear about what you expect from your fellow team members, and what you can do to help. During meetings and activities, such as a retrospective, start by clearly stating your expectations for the session.

Don’t shy away from conflict
Safety doesn’t mean people always get what they want.

Safety doesn’t mean people always get what they want. It means everyone’s opinion has been taken into consideration.

In an effort to create a sense of safety, some teams will engage in false harmony instead. They’ll avoid conflict and suppress dissenting opinions. This may feel safe, but the conflict doesn’t go away. It just bubbles and grows under the surface.

Some leaders make the mistake of emphasizing positivity on their teams. They say things like, “don’t be so negative,” or “be a team player”—by which they mean, “go along with the rest of the group.” This tells people they aren’t safe to express disagreement.

Instead, if you notice people suppressing their opinions, ask them to share. If people seem to be indulging in false harmony, ask them about the downsides of an idea. If you see a problem that no one else mentions, bring it up, in a kind way.

At the same time, be prepared to be fallible. Don’t focus on being right; focus on getting every opinion out in the open, where they can be discussed, debated, and improved.

Ally
Team Dynamics

False harmony and groupthink are a common challenge for teams in the “Norming” stage of development. See “Norming” on p.XX for more ideas.

Questions

No matter what I do, one of our other team members doesn’t like to speak up. How can I help them?

As with many team issues, listening is a good first step. Talk to them about why they don’t like to speak up. Be sure to emphasize that this isn’t a problem they need to solve, but a challenge for the team. You want to make it easier for them to contribute their voice.

As you discuss options, keep in mind that, while you want to ensure their voice is heard, it doesn’t have to be their literal voice. You can also provide ways for people to share their thoughts in writing. For some people, carefully organizing their thoughts in writing is more comfortable than sharing in the spur of the moment.

Another option is for them to talk their ideas through with a buddy on the team. This can be a way to practice what they want to say in advance, or they can ask their buddy to represent their point of view.

Isn’t our time better spent getting work done, not talking about our feelings?

Simple, repetitive tasks may not need safety, but software development requires creativity, learning, and thinking. Your team needs all brains and voices to create the best possible results. Without safety, you could miss out on ideas, people could be reluctant to point out mistakes, and opportunities could be ignored due to perceived risk.

Remember the Project Aristotle findings. Safety was the number one predictor of team performance at Google. And even if that wasn’t true, work is an enormous part of your life. Don’t you want it to be an environment where you and your teammates can express yourselves without fear?

Prerequisites

Almost any team can establish psychological safety. Some organizations have a culture of suppressing disagreement or placing blame, and they can make safety difficult, but you can still establish a pocket of safety within your team.

If your team is remote, be careful about recording conversations. If the team has safety and people express themselves freely, you don’t want the broader organization to use that against team members in the future. If you can, set your chat room to delete old conversations, and default to not recording video calls, unless there’s a specific reason to do so.

Indicators

When your team has psychological safety:

  • Team members speak up about mistakes and what they’ve learned.

  • Team members disagree constructively.

  • Team members bring up ideas and problems.

  • The team creates better products that incorporate more ideas.

  • It’s easier to hire and retain people with diverse backgrounds.

Alternatives and Experiments

Psychological safety is a way for people to learn, share their learning, disagree, and speak up. This practice has focused on ways to change your environment to make that easier.

An alternative is to try to change the people, rather than the environment. In theory, you can work on developing their courage, so they’re comfortable speaking up even when they don’t feel safe. But I don’t recommend this approach. People can only change themselves; you can’t do it for them. Even if they do have the courage to speak up when they’re feeling unsafe, that fear will reduce their creativity.

Another alternative is to not care about safety. I don't recommend this either. Software development is a creative endeavor, and without safety, you’ll miss out on so much from people's brains and voices.

Experiments, on the other hand, are a great way to improve safety. Be explicit about the experiments you try: even framing something as an experiment, with a follow-up date, can create more safety, because people know the change can be reverted if it doesn’t work. Create a culture of trying new ideas, both regarding safety and within your team in general.

Ally
Retrospectives

One way to get started is to conduct a retrospective with “safety” as a theme. Discuss what you’ve noticed regarding safety, on this team and others, and choose some experiments to try.

Further Reading

Google’s re:Work guide, “Understanding Team Effectiveness” [Google 2021] is a good introduction to psychological safety and Project Aristotle’s other findings about team effectiveness. It includes several checklists and links to further information.

Time to Think: Listening to Ignite the Human Mind [Kline 2015] is about creating space and time to think at work. Something we tend to forget when we’re busy. The book includes practical advice that I (Gitte) personally include in most of my meetings.

The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth [Edmonson 2018] is the latest book from Amy Edmonson, Professor at Harvard Business School. It’s a good book about the many aspects of psychological safety she has researched.

“Building a Psychologically Safe Workplace,” [Edmonson 2014] Amy Edmonson’s TEDx talk, is a nice and quick introduction to the topic.

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