5 Ways to Build Psychological Safety at Fast-Moving Startups
Over the last several years, tech companies have begun to understand the importance of psychological safety to building more productive and innovative teams. Research has shown that diversity of thought can help companies make better decisions — but it’s important to make people feel psychologically safe enough to share their diverse thoughts.
So, what is psychological safety, exactly? Harvard Business School’s Amy Edmondson, who created the term “psychological safety” in 1999, defines it as “the confidence that candor and vulnerability are welcome.”
When I think about psychological safety in the engineering world and the workplace as a whole, I think about the welcoming and safe environment that we’re trying to create for people. To me, the importance of psychological safety in the workplace — especially with my teams — is that they can show up as they are, unedited. They feel like they’re part of a bigger community and that it’s a safe community for them.
Feeling like we’re part of a safe community sets us up for success, not only because we’re not afraid to throw out innovative ideas, but also because it makes us want to perform to the best of our ability to support our community. In fact, psychological safety has been shown to improve business success.
An internal Google study found that Google sales teams with the highest levels of psychological safety outperformed revenue targets by 17% on average. Meanwhile, the company’s sales teams that had the lowest psychological safety underperformed by 19% on average.
With the Great Resignation in full swing, it’s more important than ever for employers to build psychological safety by making their employees feel welcome and unafraid to speak their minds or to just be themselves. To that end, here are five tips that I’ve found to be especially helpful in implementing psychological safety in my workplace, especially with high-performance teams like mine.
1. Treat Others the Way THEY Want to Be Treated
The foundation of psychological safety is making people feel welcome. What’s our default when we think of how to treat others? Oftentimes, it’s the golden rule that many of us learned in childhood — “treat others the way you want to be treated.”
But there’s a problem with the golden rule: It assumes that other people want to be treated the way you want to be treated. The golden rule isn’t an approach that’s tailored to any one person; it’s a default, standardized approach to treating all people.
I think it’s time to modernize the golden rule — instead of treating others the way we want to be treated, we should start trying to treat others the way they want to be treated. With psychological safety, we don’t want people to show up in the way they think they’re supposed to show up. We want them to show up exactly as they are to their community, and we want them to be confident that they’ll be treated exactly as they’d like to be treated.
2. Create Space for Different Communication Styles
There are a variety of ways to give and receive communications — we know that visual learners, auditory learners, kinesthetic/tactile learners, and reading/writing learners operate in the workplace.
So in the spirit of inclusivity and making people feel like they belong, we must change the way we communicate to accommodate all styles of communication and learning in order to achieve psychological safety.
What does this look like in practice? If you have visual learners on your team, put closed captioning on your Zoom meetings. If you have auditory learners on your team, record presentations and send them the recorded audio along with the slide decks afterward. If you have tactile learners who are mastering a new skill, have them try it in a practice setting a few times before moving on to the real thing.
Communicating frequently, transparently and in the manner that people best receive information is ultimately how we can serve our employee base the best. It’s all about communicating with them the way they want to be communicated with (does that sound familiar?).
3. Encourage Employees to Break the Mold
A big part of psychological safety is encouraging employees to be their unedited selves. So if an employee has an idea that could go against the norm, it’s important to encourage that employee to express their idea — even if it doesn’t end up actually breaking the mold at the company.
Some of the planning strategies that my team is using in engineering have been conducive to building psychologically safe teams. I personally think it’s critical to have engineering teams more involved in planning. So rather than a product manager telling an engineering team “go build these five specifications,” a product manager now comes to the engineering team and says, “let’s build these outcomes together.” And because that conversation has started so differently, the dialogue within the team will be more focused on collaboratively choosing where we need to go.
Breaking the mold comes with a balance. There is, of course, a business to run — there is still code that must be written, and there are still products that must be delivered. But it’s also important to experiment with evaluating new, different, better ways to do things. And when you put the brain trust to work at experimenting with new ideas, everyone should feel comfortable expressing their ideas.
4. Understand Your Purpose and Help Employees to Understand Theirs
Every person needs to understand that the work they do matters — we want to know that the blood, sweat and tears that we put into our work makes a difference and contributes to a bigger picture. But this isn’t always easy to explain, especially in a technical environment like the network management world.
Mapping the mission and vision of the company and a department is directly correlated to the engagement of people around us. On the engineering side, we rely on our product management organization to tell the stories that help us understand why we’re doing the work that we do. But it’s ultimately the responsibility of a leader to make sure that their teammates understand that their work matters.
5. Prioritize Building and Maintaining Human-Centric Relationships with Employees
Authenticity is the root element of great human-centric relationships. If you’re looking to build a human-centric organization, it’s all about making investments in others and the relationships you have with them. And if you’re looking to build a human-centric relationship, you need to build a relationship that is focused not on work, but on the human.
For instance, my one-on-one conversations with team members doesn’t start with “where’s that thing you were supposed to develop?” Instead, they might start with “what’s the best thing that’s happened to you since the last time we talked?” Expressing genuine curiosity about who someone is and how you can help them elevates the sense of belonging that psychological safety is all about.
Creating a psychologically safe environment where people feel safe and therefore are productive is one of the easiest and freeing things that I can do as a leader. Also, doing this does nothing except enable positive gains from my team. The psychological safety ROI is practically guaranteed to produce healthier teams, longer retention, increased productivity and, ultimately, better results.