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Psychological Safety

Psychological safety is a wonderfully misunderstood term. It evokes images of hippies singing kum ba yah. It’s not that! Let’s rope in Amy Edmonson (who popularized the term) to let loose on what psychological safety isn’t:

It does not mean that people always agree with one another for the sake of being nice. It does not mean that people offer unequivocal praise of unconditional support for everything you have to say. In fact, you could say it’s the opposite. Psychological safety is about candour, about making it possible for productive disagreement and free exchange of ideas. It goes without saying that these are vital to learning and innovation. … Psychological safety enables people on different sides of a conflict to speak candidly about what’s bothering them. (The Fearless Organization)

So, what is psychological safety? It’s the belief that you won’t be punished when you make mistakes. Studies show that psychological safety allows for risk-taking, speaking your mind, creativity and sticking your neck out without fear of having it cut off — just the types of behaviour that lead to great software being created.

Why is psychological safety important? Well, if you want the best decisions, you need everyone to contribute without fear of reprisal, loss of prestige or embarrassment. Moreover, in safety-critical industries (such as aviation or medicine), a lack of psychological safety can directly contribute to loss of life (Hofling hospital experiment or Gladwell Hypothesis). Thankfully, we don’t work in a safety-critical industry! But psychological safety is still important. For example, a study showed that psychological safety was the #1 factor in high-performing teams at Google. The work in the Accelerate book further supported this evidence.

Top 5 aspects for highly performing teams

We ran a survey (yes, another one!) on psychological safety created by Prof. Amy Edmonson. It’s the standard survey on psychological safety, and this allows us to compare ourselves against industry benchmarks. We had a really strong response rate (89 people across teams in CORE / Product).

Survey results

So what do the survey results tell us about the environments in Product/CORE?

The graph above shows our survey results compared to industry benchmarks. In almost every single area we significantly outperform the industry average. The graph is shown relative to the industry benchmark. Blue indicates we’re outperforming the industry standard, and orange indicates we’re falling behind. As you can see from the graph, it’s mostly full of win! Our teams are comfortable taking risks. There’s no blame culture. When problems occur, we see them as opportunities to improve. When individuals need information they’re comfortable reaching out to customers and other teams. Teams are truly cross-functional and are comfortable sharing their expertise and learning about other domains too.

There’s one single area where we do consistently (but only slightly) fall below our peers in the industry. When participants were asked “This team frequently obtains new information that leads up to make important changes in our plans or work processes” we scored just below average. We’ll dig into this area and find out more !

Why’s this important now? Well, as we sort out our flexible-hybrid environments we’ve got to maintain these high levels of psychological safety. That’s going to be a challenge! As we come back into the office, we’ve got different dynamics at play and we’ll have to continue to make sure that everyone can get their voice heard and be comfortable contributing. Thanks to this survey, we know where we are and we know the areas to focus on.



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Jeff Foster

Jeff Foster

Head of Product Engineering at Redgate.