The work of a software developer can be stressful: working from vague requirements, updating already completed code because of changing requirements, meeting the demands of competing stakeholders, navigating technology glitches, and working long days when resources are tight. According to Stack Overflow’s 2021 Developer Survey, over 23% of respondents reported an anxiety, mood, or other emotional disorder — up 8% from their 2020 survey.
Developers aren’t immune to social demands either. Contrary to popular belief, a developer doesn’t code in isolation. They work on teams that require more interaction than one might expect, such as discussing how to meet business requirements, eliminating technical barriers, and finding solutions when issues arise. And, like everyone else, software developers also interact with their managers.
Those managers are vital to helping developers manage the stress and demands of the job. One way to do that is to create and ensure a psychologically safe environment.
A psychologically safe environment allows developers to raise concerns, share ideas, and expose defects without reprisal, no punitive or humiliating responses. They feel safe being vulnerable and taking risks because they trust the manager and their team members.
It’s fair to say that any agile software team should be working in such an environment. The first principle of the Agile Manifesto is, “Individuals and interactions, over process and tools.” The success of a software project is dependent on how teams interact, and providing psychological safety is a way of maximizing that success.
When individuals are comfortable expressing their ideas without fear of being ignored, mocked, or marginalized, ideas flourish and innovation happens. The most popular email platform in the world, Gmail, is the result of Google providing an environment—and time—that gave employees the freedom to innovate. Facebook encouraged developers to expose weaknesses by hosting hackathons. Companies realize the benefit of empowering their employees to challenge the status quo by providing a psychologically safe environment.
Making mistakes is integral to learning. We become better informed from our mistakes. Developers need to work in an environment that not only accepts mistakes but also encourages them. When people are afraid of failing, they hold back. They don’t take risks. Risks can lead to powerful ideas that would have been stifled if team members didn’t trust the group and feel safe. To encourage risk-taking, managers should ensure that they protect psychological safety on their teams.
The current challenges of work are evident, and some of those challenges impact the mental health of team members. As leaders, we want them to feel safe coming to us to help them address those issues, even when they are inseparable from personal issues.
At RevGen, we believe in empowering people and supporting the aspirations of our employees as well as our clients and community members. We value thinking beyond ourselves and thoughtfully challenging each other. We also aim to be stewards at work and in our communities. Psychological safety both echoes and supports our mission and our values.
Next month we will look at some ideas to help promote a psychologically safe environment for software teams.
Kevin Able is a principal architect in RevGen’s Digital Enablement practice. He is passionate about delivering practical solutions that drive value to his clients.
Michelle Despres is a manager in RevGen’s Customer Experience practice who specializes in CX program creation, implementation, and management.
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