Insights

8 Steps for Creating a Psychologically Safe Workplace

Digital Enablement

Authors: Michelle Despres and Kevin Able

 

In our first article, we explained why psychological safety is important for the success of software development teams.

After all, we want developers to let us know when a release date is threatened or when a requirement has been missed. We want developers who take risks by challenging the status quo, discovering creative solutions, and innovating. We want developers to let us know when they are feeling the pressure of aggressive deadlines, scope changes, and resource challenges. While it feels like the world is opening back up, we have not returned to pre-pandemic ways of working.

Because psychological safety is necessary for developers to expose issues, take risks, and share how they’re doing, it’s important to create and nurture a team culture that prioritizes it. For this second article, we want to share some tips for creating that safety. While we focus on developers, these suggestions can be applied to all workplace teams.

 

1.  Start with why.  

Let team members know that evidence points to their being happier at work, performing better, and being more creative in a psychologically safe environment. For us, that means a greater chance of achieving business goals. This is a good time to remind each individual of the qualities and skills they bring to the team to emphasize how important it is to share.

 

2.  Define what safe looks like.  

Set expectations by establishing rules for engagement and then live by those rules. Rules should support sharing without fear of intimidation or ridicule, allow healthy conflict through respectful discussion, and encourage stepping out of comfort zone. Failures should be viewed as an opportunity to learn, rather than a setback.

 

3.  Be an enabler.  

Ask questions, facilitate communication, encourage team members to contribute, and allow everyone to participate. Listen actively and be curious. Encourage creativity and demonstrate your willingness to be open to new ideas. When possible, act on those ideas. Team members will disengage if they believe they don’t have a voice or that their opinions aren’t being heard.

 

[Read More: Don’t just go back to work. Go back better.]

 

4.  Model the behavior you wish to see.  

Be open with your concerns and admit your own mistakes. Trust is necessary for psychological safety, and you build trust through transparency and the willingness to be vulnerable. Be willing to dig in, to truly understand and appreciate the problem at hand.

 

5.  Build authentic relationships with your developers.  

This is another way to build trust. To paraphrase the Agile Manifesto: people first. Know your team and let them know you. Check in regularly with your developers. We use Sprint Retros as one way to do that, and it’s heartening to see how much our team values those meetings. Engage with team members one-on-one, sometimes to talk about nothing related to work.

 

6.  Prioritize team building.

Participating in team social events and working collaboratively foster a sense of belonging, yet another way to build trust. Consider how many of your team members have never met in person. Making an effort to create a cohesive team is especially important and challenging when team members were hired during Covid. Even for seasoned teams, additional effort is required, as remote and hybrid work appears to be here to stay.

 

7.  Coach your team.  

Psychologically safe teams still need coaching. Maybe your team would be helped by learning how to provide feedback, how to handle emotionally charged situations, or how to alleviate stress. Encouraging self-awareness aids professional growth. Calling out behavior that supports the team culture is a subtle way to remind the team about the rules of engagement.

 

8.  Appreciate feedback. 

When a developer does expose issues, take risks, and share how they’re doing, show your appreciation. Respond honestly to reinforce team culture. If you disagree, be cognizant of your language choices. Borrow from improv and use “yes, and” instead of “but”.

 

There is no one-size-fits-all method for building a psychologically safe team, especially with the challenges over the last couple of years during the pandemic. As remote work becomes the new normal, there needs to be an emphasis on enhancing employee engagement. Leadership in this new workplace means embracing this change and developing a psychologically safe environment where your teams can thrive.

 

Kevin Able is a senior software architect in RevGen’s Digital Enablement practice.  He is passionate about delivering practical solutions that drive value to his clients.

 

 

Headshot of Despres MichelleMichelle Despres is a manager in RevGen’s Customer Experience practice and specializes in CX program creation, implementation, and management.

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