I remember an early point in my career as a young and green developer, ready to share a bold, innovative idea during a standup meeting. My heart raced, palms sweaty, and just as I was about to speak, a senior developer cut me off, jokingly calling out a mistake I had made the previous week. I wanted to correct him and say that I caught the mistake early, but in that instant, my confidence shattered.
Amy Edmondson, a Harvard Business School professor, would refer to this as a breach in 'psychological safety.' She describes psychological safety as "a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking."
Psychological safety is a theory I've become intimately familiar with throughout my career, having seen many engineers, like my younger self, hesitate to voice their thoughts or innovative concepts, fearing ridicule or repercussions.
But there's hope. As the tides of the tech world are turning, it’s becoming more evident that the most forward-thinking tech leaders are actively nurturing an environment of open dialogue, learning, and groundbreaking creativity.
In this blog post, we'll delve into the significance of creating a psychologically safe space and provide you with actionable strategies to foster an environment where your developers can thrive, collaborate, and drive remarkable innovation.
What is Psychological Safety?
Psychological safety is fundamental to understanding dev team dynamics. Envision it as an unseen protective force within a group, allowing members to confidently be themselves, voice opinions, and pursue innovative ventures without fear.
Anchored in a foundation of trust and mutual respect, it promotes transparent communication, daring endeavors, and genuineness. By cultivating this kind of environment, you pave the way for a culture where every team member feels valued and empowered.
How Can Engineering Managers Create a Psychologically Safe Space?
Set the Gold Standard
Reflect back on moments at the beginning of your career when you felt vulnerable or unsure about something. Sharing such personal anecdotes with your direct reports showcases your humanity and fosters a deeper connection, paving the way for trust and open communication within the team. When your dev team sees you embracing mistakes and seeking growth, they'll feel encouraged to do the same, contributing to an atmosphere of openness.
Encourage Open Communication
In every interaction, there's an opportunity to emphasize the value of unreserved communication. Whether it's during daily standups, casual coffee breaks, or in-depth meetings, encouraging transparent dialogue is vital. Utilizing tools like 'hay for Slack' can further facilitate quick pulse checks and ensure everyone's voice is heard. A culture where communication is championed fosters unity and innovation.
Reframe Mistakes as Stepping Stones
Shift the perception of mistakes from being failures to valuable learning opportunities. In one project mishap as a junior, my engineering manager reframed it, saying, "Consider this a tuition for the lesson learned."
Teams should view mistakes not as failures, but as insights leading to growth. By fostering this mindset, you shift from punitive reactions to constructive progress, encouraging your engineers to venture boldly without fear.
Elevate Every Idea
When one of our junior developers once suggested a minor UI tweak, it significantly enhanced the user experience for a product we were building. This incident underlined the importance of valuing every idea, regardless of its perceived magnitude. By acknowledging and celebrating all contributions, from the smallest insights to the grandest visions, we cultivate an environment where innovation thrives and every voice feels acknowledged.
Feedback With Care
Feedback is the cornerstone of growth. Yet, it's not just about what's said, but how it's said. Constructive feedback, shared with empathy and respect, can inspire change and foster improvement. Encouraging this among your team cultivates a mindset of continuous learning. Remember, as an engineer once told me, "Seek feedback not for validation, but for growth." This ethos will ensure everyone thrives.
Combat Subtle Negativities
Microaggressions, though subtle, can deeply undermine psychological safety. These seemingly innocuous comments or actions can perpetuate stereotypes and inadvertently marginalize your developers. It's imperative for engineering managers to actively identify and address such behaviors, creating a vigilant awareness within the team.
Prioritize training sessions and resources that highlight these nuances, ensuring an inclusive environment where everyone feels valued and respected.
Champion Continued Learning
Commit to your dev team's growth by investing in courses, workshops, and seminars. This tangible support not only bolsters their skill set but also nurtures an environment where they're inspired to explore and innovate. Such dedication ensures they’re equipped for future challenges and conveys your belief in their potential, solidifying a foundation of trust and mutual advancement.
Having a psychologically safe space isn't just a 'nice-to-have'; it's the crucible in which ingenuity is forged. As an engineering manager, your commitment to creating an environment where your developers feel valued, heard, and free to contribute their best ideas is instrumental. By embracing the ideas outlined above, you’re setting your tech venture on a trajectory for unparalleled success, all the while creating a culture that magnetizes and nurtures top-tier talent. It's a journey, one that I, as an engineering manager, continue to navigate and cherish every day. 🎬