Psychological safety: the secret weapon of awesome teams

John Cutler
Mar 13, 2017 · 4 min read

The other day I found myself fixating on the word . An engineer friend and I were chatting about what made a great software developer. We agreed that discipline (along with dedication, skills, patience, etc.) was a key ingredient.

However, I couldn’t shake a flashback from earlier in my career when an angry engineering director reamed his team for a lack of discipline (while simultaneously avoiding the fact that the team was getting peppered with distractions). Context is everything. Discipline can be something teams aspire to and take pride in. Or it can be an empty admonition.

The key differentiator is psychological safety (and by extension trust). Without safety, concepts like accountability, continuous improvement, and goals are difficult to discuss. Safety unlocks the ability for the team to reflect, take on difficult challenges, and have difficult discussions.

Below I look at words we throw around in product development through two different lenses:

  • Low Trust / Low Safety (LTLS)
  • High Trust / High Safety (HTHS)

By looking at these side by side, I hope you’ll consider how you can create more psychological safety on your teams. It truly changes the game.

Estimates

Discipline

Accountability

Improvement

Efficiency

Time Management

Coaching

Speed

Quality

Teamwork

Flexibility

Goals

The angry engineering director I mentioned in the introduction was never able to establish psychological safety on his team. This made it impossible for the team to discuss things like time management, accountability, and goal setting in a positive light. The mere mention of a word like even between team members, outside of the manager’s earshot set off the alarm bells, and the team justifiably shut down.

Meanwhile, my engineer friend I mentioned at the beginning of this story established a craftsmanship guild in his company, and the word discipline is elevated and discussed frequently.

I’ll leave you with a handy cheat-sheet that summarizes the HTHS vs. LTLS comparisons I made above. Stay safe out there.

Smells Like Team Spirit

Solving for teamwork, one story at a time.

John Cutler

Written by

Multiple hat-wearer. Prod dev nut. I love wrangling complex problems and answering the why with qual/quant data. @johncutlefish on Twitter.

Smells Like Team Spirit

Solving for teamwork, one story at a time.