How Engineering leaders can create a culture of Psychological safety
Have you ever felt psychologically unsafe at work? I hope you say no, but I know I might be wrong here.
But first, let's understand what Psychological safety is and learn some strategies to build Psychological safety in your team and organization.
What is Psychological safety? 🤔
It is a belief that people are allowed to make mistakes, and it's okay to make them, and they won't be punished for it.
What is not Psychological safety? 🪴
Story time: 📙
When I was starting as an entry-level developer, my manager asked me only to ask good questions, not bad ones. Before that, I believed every question was a good question as it showcases where you lack understanding and how we can bridge it. But that wasn't the case here.
Throughout my work term, I held off from asking questions as I didn't know what a good question meant to him. It made the next month or so very unsafe for me. I would spend hours contemplating whether it was a good question or not which was unhealthy for me and the org.
I always look back to this incident as it shaped me into the leader I am today.
I encourage others to ask questions and think every question is good. If folks ask something they weren't sure of, I know it would save them minutes or hours of work trying to find the answer to that question. But, on the other hand, this would make them less productive.
In addition, instead of giving them direct answers, I ask them questions to help them think, creating a good learning environment.
Characteristics of a Psychologically-safe team 💜
A Psychologically safe team would empower others and build great products.
Here are some signs your team is not feeling safe:
- They don't speak up and aren't allowed to make mistakes
- They get defensive when you make a statement or ask questions
Psychological safety in practice 👇
It's easier to talk about this topic with examples and how it would work in practice. Let's take a look,
Here is an ideal team:
- You don't feel afraid to make mistakes
- You feel comfortable taking risks and picking up complex tasks
- Your opinions are accounted for, and you feel a valued member of the team
- You are appreciated for being your authentic self
Always keep this checklist ✅ in your mind and review consistently if this is how you feel.
Ask Questions and get curious ❓
We need to ask questions instead of making statements. Get curious about what's going on without jumping to conclusions. When you ask questions to your team, you should bring everyone in, and they will start feeling comfortable participating in the discussion.
Create open space for making mistakes 👐
The best way to make it okay for anyone to make mistakes is when you admit, you also make mistakes or better when you do make mistakes make it a learning experience and share what you can do.
May you have heard of a post-mortem? Create a learning experience post-mortem where you share what happened, what you did to fix it, and what you can do next. Again, don't mention names but involve the entire team in the meeting. The goal with documentation is not to call out people but figure out what you can do next as a team.
When something like this happens, it's clear there is a gap in our processes, and we can from it, so let's focus on learning ✍️. We don't point fingers as part of our culture.
For example, a person on one of my teams was on-call and wasn't receiving any pages. However, they had been on-call before, where they got paged successfully. So, what could go wrong, right? Since they never got paged, their manager (reporting to me) got paged. Luckily, he got on-call and resolved it. Hence having primary and secondary on-call shifts help a ton.
Post-mortem learning hour 🕰
I asked their engineering lead (reporting into me) to book a post-mortem learning hour, and we only discussed how to make sure team members were well set up, what the problem was, if the alert was too sensitive, how we fixed it and documented it all.
Allow room to present ideas without facing the fear of being rejected or failure 💡
Does your team(s) feel open to sharing ideas with you or in any of the meetings? What does their behaviour tell you? When you kick off a meeting, ask discussion-provoking questions. Your job after the questions is to sit back and relax and let the team chime in. They should feel open about sharing their ideas.
Commend good ideas but also not-so-good ideas. Don't shut it down 🙅🏽♀️ even if the idea isn't good. Instead, listen and ask questions to dig deeper into areas.
Ask their opinion before presenting yours 🎁
If it's okay with your team, you can ask specific folks for more context and their opinion. For example, ask someone entry-level in your team or who lacks confidence. This will also help encourage others to share without having any fear.
Avoid passive-aggressive comments 💬
Whether you know it or not, your Psychological safety skill is to test when shit hits the fan. You have time to think when things are good, but when they are not, you don't. This is when you need to be careful and avoid any passive-aggressive comments. Emotions would run high during this time, not just for you but for your entire team, so make sure to keep your emotions in check. ✔️
I tend to write down how I'm feeling and journal my thoughts 📓, so when I presented myself in front of the team or others in the org, I was calm and collected. It doesn't need to be a fancy bullet journal but could be as simple as
I'm not feeling good right now. I committed to this timeline, and it's time to discuss this with others
'I don't know' is a complete sentence ✅
'I don't know' are a powerful set of words. You can share what you don't know when you don't know something. The senior you get, you won't know all the details in your team, so get comfortable in saying, 'i don't know. You can say,
I believe it's __, but I don't know at this moment the thing, but I'll get back to you towards the end of the day.
Only commit to a timeline if you think you can get back to me, but communication is critical here.
If you don't know something, admit it 🙌. We all have been there where we don't have the full context of the scenario or are leading through others, so it's normal not to know it all.
Be kind and transparent 💕
We need to be kind to everyone around us as these are our co-workers, and we care about them. But they are humans, and their feelings can get hurt.
Be transparent about what's happening, so your team or stakeholders know the situation. But on the other hand, you can shield the team by being transparent and only sharing what they need to know. I know it's a tricky balance, but with practice, you will get there, I promise.
✔️ For example,
Going through headcount reduction was one of the most challenging things I went through. My teams could see that we stopped hiring and are not interviewing anymore, so there was nothing is hidden about this.
What would you do in this case? How would you handle it? If you share, everything is fine, and to not worry about it. You are giving them more reasons to worry.
Here is what I did instead, which I found was received well,
We are shifting our focus internally and are pausing hiring temporarily to ensure we are sustaining the growth of the org. We have grown a lot, and it's time to pause and reflect. Do y'all have any ideas for how we can focus on our internal growth? are there any improvements we can make? You are shifting their perspective to what's important but also sharing what's going on. Transparency builds trust, which builds Psychological safety.
This allowed them to chime in, share their thoughts and have forward-thinking approach. I wrote more on how to lead during uncertain times here you can check it out here.
Foster a culture of collaboration and curiosity during code reviews 👩🏽💻
Code reviews add to the stress of an engineer's day to day 👩🏽💻. Think about it, when you write code, you want to make sure you can ask questions to your team and share your ideas on architecture decisions, refactoring significant changes etc.
It will be stressful for engineers 😅 if they don't feel like they can make mistakes. So be mindful of your tone and over-communicate your thoughts on how you think you should approach this.
In addition to this, I wrote a blog post on The Art of Humanizing Code Reviews so check that out to learn more.
Provide feedback in a constructive way 💪
Providing feedback as a leader or a developer is your #1 asset to any team or org you join. If you can give constructively, your team will grow, but if you don't, it will create fear and uncertainty. You want your engineers to grow, and providing feedback effectively is key to their growth.
This helps a ton with building psychological safety as the engineers on the team will feel good working on their growth with feedback. 💯
Remote teams: Run inclusive meetings 🚀
Make sure everyone knows the meeting agenda beforehand. Often, it's all about learning how to run meetings, who should be involved, what they should know beforehand and if they are required to be active.
Let them know if they will be presenting or if questions will be asked to them, set expectations, ask if they feel comfortable sharing, and be inclusive first.
Don't exclude people unless they know why. Always make it known that anyone can join any meetings they like, but you are doing your best to protect their time so if you miss someone, as after all, you are a human. Just apologize and course correct.
✔️ Meet them after the meeting, share context and ask for their thoughts and bring them in moving forward.
Lead by example 🧐
Believe it or not, you are dictating behaviours as a lead. For example, if you take an hour-long break at the park, your team will also think it's okay to do the same. So, learn to walk the talk. Model behaviour that you would like others to follow.
If you want to take a break for mental-health reasons, do it 🚶🏽♀️ and let the team know if you are comfortable. They will also think it's okay to do so.
Set vision and direction for your team 👁
Nothing is more frustrating than heading in a direction where we don't know where we are going. You need to know your organization's vision and need to set the vision for your team. This also helps build Psychological safety as your team knows you got this 💪 and they will follow you where you go.
Without this, it's hard to know, and there is uncertainty which creates chaos and slowly, individuals will lack focus and drive to deliver.
Here are a few resources to check out:
Great questions to ask that are open-ended for creating an inclusive culture