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Building Psychological Safety from the ground up

10.12.2022 | Psychological-safety Teams Culture | Katy Scott

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Over the last year our teams have been learning about psychological safety, the belief that on teams, it’s okay to speak up with concerns, questions, ideas, and mistakes. This concept has been studied for decades and has been shown to correlate with more effective teams, an improved likelihood of successful process innovation, and a boost in employee engagement and team innovation.

While understanding this concept is crucial, we know that to be successful at creating truly psychologically safe teams, we have to create intentional practices and spaces to discuss team health. Over the last year, we’ve introduced and iterated on frequent retrospective meetings, working agreements, and team health assessments.

Retrospectives are an integral part of our organization - they encourage participation and provide a space for team members to share their interests and views. Because we are unabashedly agile advocates who practice extreme programming, each team holds retros weekly so that these practices become ingrained into every team’s working cadence.

In addition to weekly retros, over the last few months, our teams have gone through project-specific ‘working agreements’ where everyone aligns on their preferred core hours, times for stand-up, communication tools, meeting attendance, etc. This is typically an event that happens when teams are initially formed. We will also revisit conducting this meeting periodically as people join the team or changes occur on the team throughout the project. Working agreements have a third-party facilitator who ensures that everyone has a voice and that their opinions and preferences are heard and mutually agreed upon by everyone. We’ve found working agreements as a great way to allow teams to hold themselves accountable to the standards that they align on and help to foster healthy boundaries between work and personal time.

While working agreements and retrospectives both allow teams to come together and discuss their working conditions and collaboration, the best way to truly understand a team’s cohesion is through a team health check. These meetings are conducted quarterly and are an intentional space to analyze the team’s product development and identify areas for improvement. Compared to retrospectives, team health checks tend to be more summative and long-term, allowing teams to reflect on their team’s trends around their teamwork, support, learning, and more specific product categories like their ability to deliver value and the health of the codebase.

Inevitably, building psychological safety on teams is a continually moving target, but we hope that these efforts will give all of our employees the tools to understand and recognize the behaviors of healthy teams and the space to voice their opinions and concerns.

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