Psychological Safety in Your Engineering Team

Written by Divine Odazie

September 24, 2021

Psychological safety in an engineering team is a major concern. To be productive, engineers need to feel that they can take risks and speak up about their ideas without feeling judged or pressured. The consequences of not addressing this issue can be devastating for your team. 

This article will cover:

What exactly is psychological safety, and why is it important?

Harvard organizational behavioral scientist Amy Edmondson initially introduced the concept of “team psychological safety”; she defined it as:

A belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes.”

Lack of psychological safety can be why engineers may not speak up about a problem they see or why they may not feel comfortable raising a question that bothers them. 

Engineers not feeling safe to voice their opinions can negatively affect the team and company, so fostering psychological safety is essential.

How psychologically safe is your team?

To know how psychologically safe your team is, in this journal article – Psychological Safety and Learning Behavior in Work Teams, Amy shared how to measure the level of psychological safety in a team. 

To measure your team’s level of psychological safety, Amy says that you can ask your engineers how strongly they agree or disagree with the following statements:

  • “If you make a mistake on this team, is often held against you.”
  • “Members of this team can bring up problems and tough issues.”
  • “People on this team sometimes reject others for being different.”
  • “It is safe to take a risk on this team.”
  • “It is difficult to ask other members of this team for help.”
  • “Working with members of this team, my unique skills and talents are valued and utilized.”

Listening to how strongly your engineers agree or disagree with the above questions will help you understand what areas you need to better foster psychological safety.

How to foster psychological safety in your team

Amy — in this TEDx talk, explained three simple things you can do to foster psychological safety in your team:

  • Frame the work as a learning problem: Most software projects are complex and filled with uncertainty. The uncertainty in these projects brings about the need for interdependence. Given those two things, you should encourage engineers to share ideas and opinions to learn to build the project better. Doing this “creates a rationale for speaking up.”
  • Acknowledge your fallibility: You tend as an engineering manager to make mistakes or be wrong sometimes. To acknowledge your fallibility creates more safety for your engineers to voice concerns or admit mistakes.
  • Model curiosity and ask lots of questions: Asking questions models your curiosity to the entire team and helps the engineers feel comfortable participating in the process.

Psychological safety vs accountability

In describing and teaching psychological safety, most managers would agree that it is indeed helpful and would help engineers learn. Still, they fear that creating psychological safety in their team will somehow lessen the accountability for results.

Fostering psychological safety isn’t supposed to be a trade-off. Psychological safety and accountability are two separate dimensions managers have to consider.

Suppose you only do psychological safety without accountability. In that case, you create a comfort zone that will prevent your engineers from improving. If you’re only talking about your engineers’ accountability for excellence and not making sure they are not afraid to talk to each other, to talk to you. You’re shutting the door to valuable opinions, feedback, comments, and more that will help them grow and help build a better product.

Conclusion

In summary, remember, the goal is to create a psychologically safe environment where your engineers aren’t worried about feeling rejected for speaking up. When that’s the case, not only does interpersonal risk-taking become the norm, but engineers are also adaptable in the face of change.

If you’d like to have a more innovative, engaged, and effective team, then creating an environment of psychological safety is worth cultivating.

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