A client of mine works as a product manager. She has two primary product leadership teams. Let’s say team A and team B. Each team is composed of a product manager, architect, and senior developer and herself. The goal of each team is to determine high-level design, user flow, and architecture. A concept called psychological safety on these two teams impacts the innovation occurring on each.
A typical team A meeting is composed of the architect, who believes he is always correct, controlling the conversation. Anytime my client, a product manager, brings up the fact that a particular decision may negatively impact the user experience, she is laughed at, told that the architecture does not support it, and users will have to ‘live with it.’ These statements are made with arrogance and a tone that is both negative and condescending. At the next meeting with team A, the same thing happens. As each meeting occurs, her resolve to meet the needs of the customer diminishes as her confidence erodes.
She also works with team B. When there is an issue that impacts the user experience, she not only brings it up, but the team members pause and listen. They then, as a group, discuss the options to lessen the impact on the user experience. Everyone’s voice is heard This team innovates on a continuous basis. They release features in much smaller chunks since they collaborate more and tend to revisit decisions. But ultimately, customers are much more receptive to their designs versus team A’s designs.
There is a term for this…psychological safety. Psychological safety is all about creating environments in which employees feel accepted and respected. If you’re in a meeting and feel like you can’t speak your mind for fear of being judged, your environment is not psychologically safe.
This term was coined by Harvard Professor Amy Edmondson. What her research found is that “ Better performing teams seemed to be making more errors than worse performing ones. It wasn’t that the best teams were making the most errors, but that the best teams were admitting to mistakes and discussing them more often than other groups did.”
In other words, what distinguished the best performing teams was psychological safety, which facilitated a “climate of openness.” On Team A, when the product manager pointed out potential concerns with the user flow, the other members took it as an error and became defensive and closed. In team B, errors are taken as learnings to innovate further.
Research shows that people who feel psychologically safe tend to be more innovative, learn from their mistakes and are motivated to improve their team or company.
What are some steps leaders can take to facilitate psychological safety or an environment of openness and psychological safety?
Make simple statements that encourage peers and subordinates to speak up, such as, “I may miss something — I need to hear from you.” Model this behavior throughout the entire organization. Leadership should acknowledge the value everyone brings to the table, in a public fashion. Reward people for taking the ideas of the group versus just one person’s idea.
“That creates a necessity for voice,” Edmondson says because team members need to generate answers. Hold teams accountable for both psychological safety but accountability.
Psychological safety and accountability interact to produce a high-performing team. Leaders that allow for curiosity yet also hold their employees accountable for excellence fall into the high-performance zone. Team B above needs to be accountable for high quality and do this by learning and asking questions.
By contrast, leaders who only hold their employees accountable for excellence without creating psychological safety fall into the “anxiety zone.” People in the anxiety zone will not perform as well. In this case, team A sits in the anxiety zone and is being driven by the ideas of one or two. Therefore, since they are closed to new ideas including the impact on the customer, the innovation will be lessened although their egos may grow in the short run.
At Google, they had a task force focused on psychological safety and teams. What they found was the leadership was key to psychological safety.
Leadership is critical to safety. Make sure to walk the cubes and say hello to people. This includes not walking by focused on your phone. But walking by and stopping to chat a bit with people on the team. When someone comes to you with a question or issue, put down what you are doing and listen. Don’t make them feel insecure by asking a question.
Encourage Communication and Collaboration
If you see two employees chatting encourage the conversation. Regardless of the topic, they are connecting and forming a relationship. When this happens, they will both be more creative and productive. When you see Scrum teams where not everyone is actively contributing, approach the team and talk about how great it is that everyone is contributing and collaborating.
Spread the Love
Do not play favorites. As in my example above with Team A and team B, the members of team A are the favorites of the VP of Product Management. So his behavior encourages other employees to put people down and play favorites with others and with ideas.
Bottom line, don’t play favorites. Encourage everyone to contribute. And please be kind to everyone. When leaders put others down, it gives their employees permission also to put others down. Although this may be good for one’s ego, it’s harmful to innovation and teamwork.