Psychological safety: why it matters to your product team and what you can do to help
As a Product Manager, how can you ensure that your team feels able to take risks, voice opinions and put forward ideas without fear of judgement?
It’s been 4 years since Google published the results of Project Aristotle, their quest to define the formula for the most effective teams. And you guessed it, they found that psychological safety was the most important factor.
Since then, much has been published about psychological safety in the workplace and I have spent plenty of time trying to ensure that the teams that I work with always feel able to express themselves in a safe space.
What do we mean by psychological safety?
Project Aristotle defined psychological safety as an environment where “team members feel safe to take risks and be vulnerable in front of each other”. In practice what this really means is that your team members feel able to ask questions, voice opinions and put forward ideas without fear of judgement.
Why it matters on a product team
Imagine trying to build an awesome product where your team only comes up with “safe” ideas (you know, the kind that don’t move the dial), nobody speaks up if they realise they’ve made a mistake (or spotted someone else’s) and nobody asks clarifying questions for fear of being labelled as someone who doesn’t know their stuff. Not ideal!
Ensuring that your team has the space to come up with the very best ideas means that you have the best chance possible to create the most impactful products and services.
Equally, risks can be more effectively managed if team members aren’t afraid to speak up when they see something that needs fixing and people’s best work can be done when they are armed with the information they need to succeed.
Nobody wants to come to work feeling like they can’t put their best foot forward.
How you can help your team to feel psychologically safe
Here are 4 simple, practical things you can do to foster a safe space for your product team:
Remind people: No question is a bad question
One thing that I always do when I’m sharing information or running a workshop is to ask if there are any questions — followed by saying “no question is too big or small” or “no question is a bad question”. It sounds very simple but the effect can be tremendous as it gives the team permission to ask anything they like — no matter how trivial they might feel it is. Following up with “that’s a great question” or “thank you for asking that question” further validates that asking it was a good idea.
Make space for less vocal team members
So often I have sat in meetings and watched as the people with the loudest voices put across their opinions while others either struggle to get a word in or sit in silence, feeling that there just isn’t room for their voice and that it’s better to keep quiet.
As a Product Manager, you can help by keeping watch for these people. Try and spot them next time you’re in a meeting and if you see you can make space for them to speak by saying “Mark, it looks like you have something to add” or by calling out the names of those who haven’t spoken and asking if they have any thoughts to add (while letting them know that it’s fine if they don’t and following up after the meeting). This can help ensure that everyone’s voice gets heard and important thoughts aren’t missed.
Always capture ideas — and try silent voting
Helping your team to feel like their ideas are valued is a great way to foster psychological safety.
During workshops I always set up a “Parking Lot” — this is a place on a whiteboard or wall where you can keep ideas that come up during the session. Every time you hear an idea, capture it on a Post-It on put it in the Parking Lot, that way the person who had the idea feels heard and you end up with a board of ideas to test out.
You can also keep discussion and opinion-giving to a minimum and use dot or other kinds of silent voting on ideas to help level the playing field for those who are less vocal.
Also, reminding people that until ideas have been validated, any opinions on them are just that.
Avoid a blame culture
Sometimes things go wrong and that’s OK — these things happen. As a Product Manager the best thing you can do when things go haywire is to accept what has happened and encourage your team to work together to find a solution and move on.
We’re only human, after all.