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Psychological Safety And Scrum Teams: How To Create A High-Performance Environment

 

by Catherine Travis & Che-Chuen Ho | July 23, 2021 | Blog

Concept image with Psychological Safety written on a sticky note.The term, the myth, the legend, the… buzzword? 

Psychological Safety has certainly earned its place on the buzzword shelf. Organizations have gravitated toward this concept because they want to address a challenge around creativity, innovation, and basic team formation. 

But sometimes psychological safety is used to veil or avoid addressing the real issues: that crucial conversation you’re putting off with a coworker, feeling afraid to speak-up so that a loud voice doesn’t crush your idea, or not asking for help for fear of looking "bad". 

When Amy Edmondson first introduced the concept of psychological safety, she envisioned “a climate in which people feel free to express relevant thoughts and feelings without fear of being penalized.” 

Sounds easy, right? 

Edmondson also notes that for many, “the ability to ask questions, seek help, and tolerate mistakes while colleagues watch can be unexpectedly difficult.”

Why is it so difficult? Why are so many of us feeling unsafe? 

Maybe it’s the culture or an individual’s upbringing. Maybe we have not been provided with the proper skills or tools. 

Whatever the reason, people are not speaking-up and it’s hindering their ability to take courageous leaps that lead to creativity and innovation. 

When talking about why she wrote Dare to Lead, Brene Brown references a Time magazine cover story about a worldwide deficit in innovation. The author then states that we don’t have vulnerability in the company, and vulnerability is the foundation of courage, creativity, and innovation.

 

What Happens When Teams Lose Sight Of The Purpose?

 

Why is it so important for teams to create a shared understanding of what psychological safety means to them and how to support that environment? 

Without an open and honest discussion and agreement in place, we either see cringe-worthy behaviors or great team-improvement ideas rot on the vine. For example:

 

Psychological Safety Is Not A License To Be Rude

 

“I should feel safe to express my viewpoints wherever and however I like, right?” In a sense, yes. 

However, if the team has not agreed to "unfiltering" or rudeness, the resulting environment may feel aggressive and confrontational. In that kind of situation, many people shut down or become argumentative, leading to exactly the opposite of what we want to achieve.

 

Using “Safety” As A Way To Avoid Discussion

 

“I don’t feel safe to talk about it.” 

Any team member must always have the option to not talk about something. At the same time, every team member has the responsibility to maintain a healthy environment for self-improvement. Without a process in place to ensure open discourse around touchy topics, the team runs the risk of burying issues and creating a passive-aggressive culture.

 

Finger-Pointing

 

“You didn’t express that properly, so you offended me. You should have expressed it this way…” 

Like learning a new language, it takes some time to gain proficiency. During the learning process, speaking the new language feels awkward and embarrassing. Without the right encouragement, teams often throw their hands up in frustration and give up.

 

Tiptoeing Around The Point

 

On the opposite end of the spectrum from unfiltered sharing lies too much filtering where people fear missteps and offending others. 

This behavior often leads to everyone walking on eggshells and being afraid to speak openly. Or they make comments like "Please, just get to the point!” They might mean to encourage, but without having the conversation about behaviors beforehand, it may come across as demeaning or bullying.

 

What Does A Positive Environment Look Like?

 

Stylized head silhouette with a keyhole“Humans are not either thinking machines or feeling machines but rather feeling machines that think.” -- Antonio Damasio, Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain

We can use our understanding of human biology to create an environment that supercharges performance, creativity, and efficiency. Our minds become open to possibilities and innovation when we feel safe.  

“Safe” does not mean the absence of conflict. It means that the members of the team uphold their allegiance to the team over self-interest. 

Individuals belonging to such a group feel safe to express ideas and opinions without fear of retaliation. Disagreements and even heated arguments will still happen. However, skilled teams will disagree about the idea and not the person. In this way, a team can lay out a smorgasbord of options for them to choose from when designing a solution.

At first, it feels awkward and the speech patterns sound stilted as the members attune themselves to each other. If the team doesn’t keep the goal in mind and the honest observations flowing, the atmosphere can diminish into one or more of the scenarios mentioned above.

At the heart of it all lies curiosity and the spirit of experimentation. Whether trying to create a better product, team, or organization, instill a culture that revolves around the question, “How might we supercharge performance, creativity, and efficiency?”

The Scrum Values of Commitment, Focus, Openness, Respect, and Courage supports this kind of environment. However, as often said in regards to Scrum, the Scrum Values are easy to understand, but difficult to master.  

Try some of the experiments and exercises below to start the conversation with your team or organization.

 

Experiments & Exercises To Try 

 

There are several exercises, activities, and experiments that you can try to build up safety in a team.  

Psych Safety Check: A foundational exercise that’s a great place to start. Here’s how to do it: 

Bring the team together: 

  1. Establish a shared definition of what psych safety means for your team. It may take a few sessions to really get to a shared understanding of what psychological safety means for your team.
  2. Create a numeric scale (1-5) and define what each number represents 
  3. ie. 1 = I don’t feel safe and will not speak 3 = something is in the air, but enough to participate 5 = 100% safe to openly share) 

This serves as a gauge for whether or not the session will have authentic conversations and productive participation.

The natural place to start is to use a psych safety check to kick off a retrospective, though it can be applied to anything where stakes may be high and creativity needs to flow. 

Scrum Values Spider Chart Exercise This is a great way to visually see what the Scrum Values look like in your team. If the Scrum Values of Focus, Openness, Respect, Commitment, and Courage are fully embodied on a team, the hope is safety will flourish.  

The Facilitator will read each Scrum Value (Focus, Openness, Respect, Commitment, Courage) aloud with its definition from the Scrum guide.

Have each team member privately record their rating (on a scale from 1-10) for how they feel the team embodies that value. 

The Facilitator will collect the responses from each team member, figure out the average, and post them on a spider chart.

Discussion - the team will discuss and generate actions to take to boost each Scrum Value’s rating, starting with the lowest scoring Value  

 

Container Building

 

Brené Brown’s website includes a read-along workbook for use with her Dare to Lead book. Page five of that workbook presents an exercise that works very well to start the conversation about an agreement that creates a proper environment. 

Have each person in the group answer the following questions individually on sticky-notes. Write down one idea per note. Each question may have more than one note.

  1. What do you need to feel free to express relevant thoughts and feelings without fear of being penalized?
  2. What gets in the way?
  3. What does support look like?

Have everyone share their answers and use them to develop group ground rules that you can use in all of your discussions.

Regarding the last question, “What does support look like?” This part acts like the glue that holds a team together and builds trust. Not only do we talk about what we need and what gets in the way, but we also discuss how best to help each other when we slip up or are on the receiving end of an unskillful response.

 

Conclusion

 

Brené Brown reminds us that courage, creativity, and innovation require us to be vulnerable. By creating an environment that supports psychological safety, we can foster a new culture where these traits may flourish. Scrum gives teams and organizations a framework in which they can experiment with improvements, then inspect the results with an eye towards designing the next improvement experiment.

We hope this article started a conversation within you and your teams. We’ll explore the many facets of this topic in our new series #SuperchargingTeams. 

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