DevOps Institute

4 Ways To Improve Psychological Safety in the Workplace

Culture and Human Skills, Transformational Leadership, Upskilling

Image of life saver on a beach during sunset
Image source Icagiao via Getty Images

By Dr. Gautham Pallapa, Award-winning Author, Leading with Empathy | Founder, Transformity

Psychological safety is the belief that an individual or team will not be punished or humiliated for sharing ideas, taking risks, or soliciting feedback.

Dr. Amy Edmondson, the Harvard Business School professor who coined the term psychological safety, defines it as, “a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes.”

Psychological safety is a crucial component of organizational culture, especially in a hybrid work environment. Productivity, innovation, and creativity cannot thrive in environments that are low in trust and where the workforce languishes in a heightened sense of fear, stress, and anxiety.

It is the responsibility of organizational leaders to create a safe environment for teams to be psychologically safe. This blog will share four practices to establish or improve psychological safety in the workplace.

You may like The Humans of DevOps Podcast: Psychological Safety

Increase cooperation

Create stable, balanced, and cross-functional teams that are built around value streams and a common purpose. Ideally, these teams should have a representative from each functional area in the value stream and be empowered to create value, deliver it to production or to the customer, and manage the value. 

They need to have a common purpose, shared responsibility, shared Objectives and Key Results (OKRs), and shared incentives. This will improve cooperation within the team and introduce shared accountability. It also helps share risks within the team. 

Quality, security, and resiliency are the responsibilities of everyone on the team, and the shared OKRs will drive that behavior. Make sure that the teams have a common toolset as well – conformity will help camaraderie in this case. It will also enable team members to help each other when they have challenges with a tool, or there will be consensus in changing toolsets if that doesn’t work out for them.

Co-location are a good solution if the teams are not distributed. In a remote setting, (which is commonplace nowadays) it’s smart to have a common messaging channel, team space, website, common meetings, standups, and so forth. This will also help break down silos within the organization.

Celebrate failure

Celebrating failure means empowering the workforce to be comfortable with failure and not try to hide mistakes. 

Have blameless post-mortems. When you remove blame, you are removing fear. When fear is removed, people start feeling safer and more comfortable sharing information. Encouraging radical candor, conducting blameless post-mortems, and demonstrating that people who speak up will not be punished or face retribution will increase the psychological safety of teams. They will start trusting and realize that we are all in it together and that the goal of these activities is to improve quality and increase value, and not have someone pay for mistakes. 

In one organization, I purchased large novelty pink erasers which had the words “For Bigger Mistakes” on them and gave one to each member of the team. This was a constant reminder that it was ok to fail

Embracing failure is one of the best things that can change the organization. Have a failure wall and encourage people to post on there. Have a celebration at each town hall where you have a team come and share their failure and validated learning out of that failure. Set an example by sharing your own failures in the town hall or meeting.

Encourage experimentation 

Promote innovation. Encourage experimentation. Give teams the freedom to explore new ideas and concepts that align with the value that they create. Talk about the strategic experiments that you are running in your town halls and newsletters to signal that experimentation happens at all parts of the organization and not just at the operational level. 

I once had a few teams hesitant to experiment because they did not feel comfortable with failure. I shared my philosophy around experimentation to help them overcome that discomfort. 

First, I told the teams that there are no successes or failures in an experiment. There are only intended or predicted outcomes or unintended outcomes. When an experiment does not yield the expected outcome, it still provides us with a lot of data and insight about the experiment. Proper analysis of the experiment and its outcome provides validated learning for the organization that can save significant time and effort for other teams when shared. Remember, the failure of one team is validated learning for the entire organization.

Next, I encourage teams to perform a scenario analysis exercise to answer the question “What is the worst that can happen if we run the experiment?” This enables teams to identify risks and realize that it is costlier not to run the experiment than actually run it.

Experimentation need not be just product-centric. It can be improving a process, eliminating waste, a new way of working, or a new ceremony that the team wants to try out. Reward experiments that increase value.

Listen to The Humans of DevOps Podcast: Leading with Empathy

Promote fun 

People spend a lot of time at work, and there is no point in having them be miserable while working. Encourage fun activities and team events. Don’t limit it to obligatory social hour events at the end of the week. While they can start out as fun, pretty quickly, it will become a chore, not to mention the drop in engagement if it is repetitive. Be quirky. Have a cooking class as a social event. A hackathon works well to have fun and encourage experimentation and the comfort of failure.

Psychological safety can only exist if people are comfortable enough to experience their complete emotions and feel empowered to be themselves at work. It is impossible to create psychological safety if the workforce does not trust and respect their leaders to be empathic and authentic. Therefore, it is essential for leaders to lead with empathy instead of ego.

Learn more about how to empower people through empathy, collaboration and communication from Dr. Gautham Pallapa. Access his course, Leading with Empathy, in SKILup IT Learning.

Upskilling IT 2023 Report

Community at DevOps Institute

related posts

[EP109] From a DBA Jerk to a Collaborator!

[EP109] From a DBA Jerk to a Collaborator!

Join Eveline Oehrlich and Grant Fritchey, Product Advocate at Redgate Software, to discuss product advocacy, collaboration, and leadership. Grant has worked for more than 30 years in IT as a developer and a DBA. He has built systems from major enterprises to...

[EP108] Leading an Engineering Team Today

[EP108] Leading an Engineering Team Today

Join Eveline Oehrlich and Nickolas Means, VP of Engineering at Sym, to discuss the best practices and challenges of leading an engineering team, collaboration, and more. Nick is the VP of Engineering at Sym, the adaptive access tool built for developers. He’s been an...

[EP106] Identity Orchestration Tidbits

[EP106] Identity Orchestration Tidbits

Join Eveline Oehrlich and Topher Marie, CTO and Co-founder of Strata, to discuss Container Orchestration. Before Strata, Topher was the CTO and a co-founder of JumpCloud. In the past, he has also been an Architect for Oracle’s global cloud identity and security...