Psychological Safety and Its Importance in an Agile Environment

One of the most intrinsic goals for any Agile team is to harvest the full knowledge and input of everyone on the team. However, so often when the question of “Does anyone have anything to add or any questions?” comes up, no one speaks.

So, how do you encourage team members to speak up, therefore achieving the level of participation needed in an Agile environment? It comes down to one thing: psychological safety.

Defining Psychological Safety

The Center for Creative Leadership defines psychological safety as, “The belief that you won’t be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes.”

Put another way, psychological safety means that a person understands that they can speak up without losing the support of those around them. Notably, this doesn’t mean that everyone will be “nice” all the time (in fact, feeling pressured to be nice rather than voice an opinion is contradictory to psychological safety), but it does mean that there is a mutual sense of respect for colleagues and their ideas.

In the workplace, if a culture of psychological safety exists, employees will be more likely to say something when a process isn’t working, share a brainstorm they have, or ask for help when they are struggling. And while these are all things that enhance the employee experience, they can also have major impacts on a business’s bottom line.

Agile Doesn’t Work Without It

Given how it allows for a free exchange of ideas, psychological safety is important for any collaborative team, though Agile teams particularly can’t function without it.

As mentioned earlier, an Agile team relies on an exchange of knowledge and input from every member so that the entire team can perform at their highest level. For example, senior engineers should be able to spread their knowledge to more junior engineers and junior engineers should be able to question processes or methods; in turn, this exchange leads to everyone writing more outstanding software.

Additionally, the team must feel empowered to speak up and question things. If something isn’t working properly, the engineer should be able to make recommendations to the product owner, and conversely the product owner needs to be able to provide guilt-free feedback; this exchange will ultimately create the best product possible.

In order to reach this goal of everyone participating and sharing their thoughts, it is critical that an Agile team operates in an environment that is imbued with psychological safety.

Techniques to Achieve Psychological Safety

Building a culture of psychological safety is something that is easier said than done, but it’s certainly not impossible. Here are three ways to kickstart this process on a Scrum team and help make sure everyone feels secure in speaking up:

  • Limiting team size: The fewer people there are in a group, the more time there is for everyone’s voice to be heard. Scaling down the team size also reduces the risk that comes from speaking up. By only having the core members of the Scrum team present for an exchange of ideas, everyone will feel more comfortable speaking freely.
  • Engaging a facilitator: A facilitator can be either an external third party or someone within the Scrum team that volunteers to be a completely objective member in the discussion. This role’s only mission is to ensure that all voices are heard without pressure or force. Because this person is acting in an impartial role, they will guide the discussion to give everyone a chance to speak up. A facilitator prevents the louder voices from overruling the team.
  • Creating a team of equals: While there is no hierarchy in Scrum and the team itself is naturally one of equals, when it comes to decision-making, it is important to keep external leaders out of the room. Even the most democratic of leaders have the ability to intimidate team members or cause them to worry about what repercussions there might be for speaking their mind, and so that psychological safety is broken. A truly Agile leader will recognize this and let the team manage itself, only stepping in to remove external blockers or red tape for the team.

Building an environment of psychological safety is essential for arriving at a full exchange of knowledge and input, that key ingredient for successful Agile teams. When members of an Agile team feel that they can ask any question or share any thought, the rest will naturally fall into place.