Creating Environments High in Psychological Safety with a Combined Top-Down and Bottom-Up Approach
MMS • Ben Linders
Leadership is critical for making psychological safety happen, but they need to lead by example and show that it’s safe for people to take interpersonal risks. Complementing leadership with team workshops in communication skills can enable people to speak up and feel safe to fail.
Jitesh Gosai shared his experience with psychological safety at Lean Agile Scotland 2022.
Applying ideas from psychological safety can enable people to speak up in teams about what they don’t know, don’t understand, or mistakes they have made, as Gosai explained in Learnings from Applying Psychological Safety. Trust and creating safe spaces are essential for all teams. Enabling people to push out of their comfort zones and take risks without fear of punishment or embarrassment is critical for people to be able to speak up. People need to feel that they will not be punished or embarrassed if they take interpersonal risks.
Working with teams Gosai found out that communication skills are not evenly spread, with some members being much more skilled than others:
We thought that if teams could communicate more effectively, members might be more willing to speak up when asked.
This led them to create a top-down approach to develop leadership behaviours that encourage people to take interpersonal risks, but also, a bottom-up approach that equipped team members with the skills to communicate more effectively.
To get started with the bottom-up approach, they developed and ran a series of workshops involving different teams across the department to improve skills in active listening, question-asking abilities, and how to get and give feedback:
One of our objectives with these workshops was for each to be stand-alone so teams could choose which they attended, but also allow them to get hands-on with the skills and walk away with something valuable that they can use immediately.
Their initial surveying of teams showed high workshop ratings for engagement and learning outcomes and were successful in terms of improving people’s skills in communication. They were less sure if people were using those newfound skills. This is where the top-down approach comes into play; working with the team leads to encouraging people to speak up using their new skills, Gosai mentioned.
When psychological safety levels increase, leaders expect the number of problems to go down, but quite the opposite happens, Gosai mentioned:
Teams with high levels of psychological safety tend to report more issues and therefore appear to have more problems than those with low psychological safety.
Leaders may believe making it safe to fail will result in people purposely causing more failures. But what this doesn’t take into account is that people don’t naturally like to fail, Gosai explained:
From an early age, we are taught that failure is bad, so it doesn’t feel good when things don’t go as planned, and we try and limit failure. Therefore it is unlikely to lead to the blasé attitude that the team leads worry will occur. While there is a chance the odd individual may take this view, assuming all team members would behave this way would be an overreaction. Besides, if there are people with this attitude in your teams, it would be better to know sooner rather than when a major catastrophe occurs.
InfoQ interviewed Jitesh Gosai about psychological safety.
InfoQ: What made you combine a top-down and bottom-up approach?
Jitesh Gosai: These two approaches will work in a symbiotic relationship. Leaders of teams would show that it’s safe for interpersonal risk-taking. At the same time, team members would feel more confident in taking interpersonal risks as they would have the communication skills that help them articulate themselves better.
Then when leaders made the case that we need people to share what they do and don’t understand, team members would have the necessary skills to do so.
InfoQ: How did you get started with this approach?
Gosai: We looked at taking interpersonal risks as a nice-to-have and not the focus of the workshops for the time being. We could introduce interpersonal risks later with the team leads’ support. First, we wanted to be able to say we’d improve team communication skills objectively. We did this by sending them through the workshops and surveying the participants to see if it improved their skills.
The next stage for us will be developing the top-down approach by working with team leads and helping them understand how their behaviours and language can encourage or discourage interpersonal risk-taking. But also how they could measure levels of psychological safety in their teams. From there, we want to work with teams and help them connect how their communication skills can help them take interpersonal risks and demonstrate that nothing terrible will happen as a result, but quite the opposite.
InfoQ: What problem did you see when trying to address psychological safety?
Gosai: Team leads often worry that all this speaking up will slow the team down or tie them up in knots discussing and debating topics unrelated to everyday work. But team members are people and will be affected by current events.
If you want them to do their best thinking, that may mean giving them the space to discuss those matters with people they may spend as much time with as their own families. But leaders should set boundaries based on organisational policies, the consequences of crossing those boundaries and the reporting mechanisms when those boundaries have been crossed.