How to Create Psychological Safety on Engineering Teams

Psychological safety is the number one factor for the success of highly effective teams at work, based on research by Dr. Amy Edmondson.

“Psychological safety is a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.” - Dr. Amy Edmondson

Teams with high psychological safety are better at problem-solving, creativity, and innovation. To do our best work, how do we create a psychologically safe environment for our teams?

The intent of this article is to leverage the framework to create psychological safety and translate it into actionable ways in our daily engineering work life.

Psychological safety is definitely not about agreeing with each other 100% of the time or avoiding accountability. Instead, it’s about creating a healthy team culture where we can normalize talking about failure, disagree at times without being disagreeable, and express our ideas freely. With that in mind, here are some observations, learnings, and actionable guidance from experts to practice and promote psychological safety.

  1. Speak up and make space for others

First, the tactical things that could prevent us from speaking up.

a. Speaking up in meetings

Psychological safety — to speak or not to speak. (Image source: Liz Fosslien — https://www.fosslien.com/liz-fosslien-psychological-safety)

This seems simple but speaking up during team meetings in front of a group does not come easy to all of us. There could be several factors — shyness, being new on a team, past negative experiences from speaking in a group, self-doubt, language fluency, speech difficulties and more.

If self-doubt is holding you back, then consider asking a question or sharing an idea as your contribution to the team. There have been multiple times when someone hesitant to share their idea, starts with “This is probably a silly idea …” or “This may be a dumb question …” and ends up saying something really profound. At other times, someone else adds a dimension and builds on the original idea to make it even more valuable. Give your ideas a chance, you won’t regret it.

To help here’s advice from HBR to overcome the fear of speaking up in meetings.

b. Make space for others

Have you been in some meetings where participation feels like jumping rope? The ones where you just can’t seem to jump into the conversation and get your word in. You wait for that pause to interject; wait too long and the topic moves on, speak too soon and trip — cutting people off. The raise hand option in virtual meetings is such a blessing!

  • For brainstorming sessions, to encourage individual participation and avoid group thinking, use the Diverge Before You Converge technique.
  • Replace judgment with curiosity. Ask open-ended questions to learn more. To express a different perspective use “what-if” questions.
  • Appreciate others for sharing an honest opinion, especially if it was different from the popular one and it strengthened the conversation. It encourages participation and shows that we value diversity in thought.
  • When you do pause for questions and ideas, embrace the silence. Based on personalities (introvert — extravert spectrum), gathering our thoughts and chiming in takes longer for some of us compared to others. Also, one very practical problem in the virtual set up — some of us need a couple of seconds to shush our kids, spouse, parents, pets before we can unmute and say our part.
  • Make your meetings more inclusive by providing multiple channels to communicate — chat/react with emojis/polls. Enable transcripts and accessibility options, and ensure your presentation slides use the right colors.

At PayPal, we see the concept of making space for others in practice from the Global Innovation Team. They host a weekly ideation session where all employees can join in to pitch their product ideas, share interesting insights from technology and the industry, or even highlight a pressing customer problem. The meeting is bursting with ideas and discussions that spark more curious questions. It’s a good opportunity to collaborate and bring an idea to fruition. The agenda of the meeting is very informal and follows the simple IDEO rules for brainstorming. Employees can choose to express their ideas in a medium they are most comfortable with: orally, writing in the meeting chat, responding with emojis, or simply listening in. We can turn our camera on or leave it turned off, stay on as long as we like to. It’s a safe space for participants to collaborate and receive feedback on their ideas from fellow innovators.

IDEO Rules of Brainstorming. (Image Source: Ideou.com)

2. Listen patiently — the expediency trade-off

During an inclusion training, one of the managers asked that sometimes when brainstorming, they sense where the team member is heading with their long-winded idea. Knowing this idea may not work, to save time, they would interrupt the other person and wanted to know if it was okay to do so.

I still remember the trainer’s response. She explained that this may save us a few meeting minutes, but we have instantly done two things:

  1. Being interrupted/cut off discourages the other person from sharing their ideas next time.
  2. It sends signals to others on the team to first perfect their idea before sharing. Over the long run, it hurts team morale, and participation suffers.

Interrupt people often and soon there will be only silence when you pause for questions or ideas. If time is your concern, consider separating ideation sessions from decision-making meetings.

Note: Usually, we are our worst critics and often confess we have rambled quite a bit in the excitement to share our half-baked ideas. As a manager/senior, use this opportunity to coach individuals on how they could concisely share their thoughts with their target audience. They will thank you for it.

Also, if you ever wondered why those long-detailed emails never got a response. Try this. Express your conclusion and what you need from your audience in the first two sentences because we lose their attention after that. Then go on and add all the details you need to. Learned this from a LinkedIn learning course on communication fundamentals.

3. ​​​​​​​Pre-mortem and postmortem reviews

Consider conducting a pre-mortem of your software design. It is an exercise where at the start of a project your team imagines the project has failed. Then explores all the reasons it could fail. This exercise normalizes talking about failure. It boosts psychological safety as team members are encouraged to point out mistakes in the design with the intent to prevent potential problems.

When there are failures, and there will be, teams with high psychological safety will review what went wrong to learn from it. This is critical so we do not repeat our mistakes. Sprint retrospectives and postmortems provide an opportunity to think about what we can do differently next time. Create a feedback loop of learning from postmortem meetings to pre-mortem so key insights are not lost.

Ensure your team has a regular cadence and an open channel to voice their concerns.

4. Code reviews — make for better products and engineers

(Image Source: Photo by Christina Morillo on Unsplash.)

Code reviews are a valuable tool to catch mistakes and bugs in code earlier. They are also a learning opportunity for engineers. Engineers must feel safe to ask questions and give and receive feedback. The main intention of code review is to improve the quality of our product before we ship it to our customers. As a reviewer, be mindful of the language of your review comments to reflect this intention. For example: Instead of “You have not handled this exception…”, try, “This exception needs to be handled here…”

5. Performance reviews — Reward risk-taking and learning from mistakes

Mistakes are an integral part of the learning process. For employees to feel safe and take intelligent risks, here’s advice from General Stanley McChrystal from an author series talk at PayPal. In an organizational culture that embraces learning from failure, leaders need to match the talk with behavior by promoting people who’ve taken risks and failed.

(Image Source: Seema Thapar)

6. Software engineering interviews — no brain teasers, please

As an engineer, conducting interviews for hiring is a key responsibility. Ask challenging questions and be open-minded in your conversation. An interview is also an opportunity for your potential teammate to get a sense of our values and culture. Let them feel safe and comfortable sharing their solutions.

One key tip, stop asking brainteasers during interviews. Based on a study, they do not tell us much about the applicant’s problem-solving skills but reveal the sadistic traits of the interviewer.

7. Connecting with new remote team members

Working through the pandemic remotely, we are missing those hallway conversations that helped us connect personally with each other. Those random casual chats helped build rapport. New team members who haven’t had these interactions will likely be more cautious in speaking up. Make the time to connect and know them better one on one. Something as simple as checking in advance if a meeting time works best for their unique work-from-home situation shows consideration on your part.

Sarah Stein Greenberg, executive director of Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford suggests designing purposeful interactions in small breakouts groups to get to know each other during meetings before we jump into the task at hand.

8. Practice being psychologically courageous when it comes to disagreeable givers.

According to organizational psychologist Adam Grant, disagreeable givers are rough and tough on the outside but act with your/organization’s best interest at heart. Think about a coach/professional mentor/ teacher whom you dread but who helped you become a better version of yourself with their genuine feedback and guidance. There is a lot to learn from them so be courageous and ready to be schooled a little when you work with them.

9. Language matters

Sometimes even our well-meaning feedback/suggestions can go awry if not worded correctly. Here’s guidance from Dr. Amy Edmondson on how to say it: Mini-scripts for #psychologicalsafety,

  1. How to say it when you’re not the boss
  2. How to say it when you are the boss

Conclusion

As engineers, we get to solve customer problems every day. Solving them with a team that has your back, where no question is too dumb to ask, and learning from failure is embraced not judged is a great work environment. Leadership sets the tone of psychological safety in an organization, and we all have a key role to play, every single day.

References

TEDx talk — Building a psychologically safe workplace by Amy Edmondson- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LhoLuui9gX8

The New York Times: What Google Learned From Its Quest to Build the Perfect Team - https://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/28/magazine/what-google-learned-from-its-quest-to-build-the-perfect-team.html?smid=pl-share

Harvard Business Review: How to Overcome Your Fear of Speaking Up in Meetings
https://hbr.org/2021/06/how-to-overcome-your-fear-of-speaking-up-in-meetings

Worklife with Adam Grant podcast: “Is it Safe to Speak Up at Work?https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/is-it-safe-to-speak-up-at-work/id1346314086?i=1000529425087

Harvard Business Review: High-Performing Teams Need Psychological Safety. Here’s How to Create It
https://hbr.org/2017/08/high-performing-teams-need-psychological-safety-heres-how-to-create-it

Study: Brain teasers in job interviews mainly reveal the sadistic traits of the interviewer
https://bigthink.com/mind-brain/study-brain-teasers-in-job-interviews-mainly-reveal-the-sadistic-traits-of-the-interviewer/

CNBC.com: These are the most undervalued employees at your company, according to psychologist Adam Grant — based on his book Give and Take https://www.cnbc.com/2017/01/12/the-most-undervalued-employees-according-to-psychologist-adam-grant.html

--

--

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store