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Improving outcomes through psychological safety

Nate Walkingshaw

If you’re asking yourself more and more often, “Why are we not shipping? Why are we not communicating? Why have we slowed way down?,” then you’re experiencing misalignment. And while it can be caused by a variety of factors, you should also know that misalignment is a strong indicator of an unhealthy team. 

It’s likely you’ll want to start rooting around for individual solutions to your team’s misalignment so you can get back to a healthy dynamic. But without first creating psychological safety, you’re unlikely to see results. 

Psychological safety is the key to creating an environment where people can grow and learn new skills. 

Whether by your company culture, experiences on previous teams or just plain human nature, your team has been conditioned to hide the parts of themselves that may put their employment or social status at risk. This is evidenced by the lack of team members speaking up, taking chances, asking questions and leaving room for the input and opinions of others.

Healthy teams are stacked with people who behave in ways that reflect and encourage psychological safety—a phenomenon first described by Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson in the ’90s, but now more critical than ever to the survival of modern organizations. 

Amy wrote in her book, Teaming, “In psychologically safe environments, people believe that if they make a mistake, others will not penalize or think less of them for it. They also believe that others will not resent or humiliate them when they ask for help or information.” 

She also says, “Psychological safety does not imply a cozy situation in which people are necessarily close friends. Nor does it suggest an absence of pressure or problems.”

This dichotomy poses a challenge. Many leaders struggle with striking a balance between caring for employees on a personal level and upholding disciplines and standards. If you lean too far in either direction, the result is the same: You slow down.

To avoid the common pitfalls on the way back to a healthy, productive team and to create psychological safety, take these three steps:

1. Really learn who you’re working with

On healthy teams, every dimension of every person shows up to work with you every day. Yes, even in remote work environments. It just takes some groundwork. Learn how your teammates individually process feedback, solve problems and communicate. And be sensitive to what may be going on outside of work. For some, work may actually be their safe space, making them sensitive to changes to that environment. For others, prior experiences or situations playing outside of work will understandably impact how they show up. Be approachable. Know who you are and how you’re experienced by others, and encourage others to follow suit. Ask questions to identify their unique working style, and celebrate authenticity.

2. Encourage curiosity in your communications

It’s your job as a leader to “set the stage” for psychological safety in your workplace. That means modeling the behavior you expect to see and being thoughtful about the ways your words either encourage curiosity or stifle opportunities for collaboration.

There are certain questions you can ask at every stand-up, or even during remote meetings, that will draw your team’s natural curiosity. Say, “What am I missing?” or “What else should we consider?” to invite input. Recognize your own fallibility in your quest to see every angle of every problem. Someone on the team will be able to spot the gaps in your thinking, which will move the whole team forward together faster.

Once you’ve created space for everyone to contribute, follow up on your team members’ input with both acknowledgement and action.

Pro tip: Good communication requires more listening than speaking. Make it clear that even if someone already knows the answer to a problem, they listen to other people’s ideas with a learner’s mindset and stay open to alternative perspectives. 

3. Take risks, then reap the rewards

Psychological safety is an indicator of team performance—the thing we’re all after. Get everyone on your team into the practice of being bold, speaking up, asking questions and admitting mistakes. A signal of reaching psychological safety in your team dynamic will be that people are empowered to say, “I don’t know” or “I messed up” more often. This is a good thing! Only when people flag mistakes or identify gaps can they be addressed. By taking the risk out of these behaviors, the whole of your team becomes stronger than the parts.

The main goal here is to remove the fear of failure from your organization. Tech leaders are the authors of what’s to come. We need every voice to share knowledge, share stories, listen and include each other in order to really honor a learner’s mindset. This creates psychologically safe environments where people can get the business of admitting they’re human out of the way and move on quickly to creating powerful outcomes. 

Most widely known for his keen product development methodologies, Nate Walkingshaw is obsessed with how products are built and the teamwork it takes to build them. As CXO of Pluralsight, Nate has crafted an organization that is centered on user experience, and also created collaborative teams including: product managers, UX designers, analysts, and persona researchers.