Psychological safety has recently become one of the buzzwords in many workplaces. Many leaders might understand its importance but they often misunderstand what exactly it means and how to establish it.
Missing psychological safety in a product-led organization will diminish innovational strength, meaning either missed economic opportunities or even becoming obsolete.
What is psychological safety?
“Psychological safety is fostering a climate of respect, trust, and openness in which people can raise concerns and suggestions without fear of reprisal. It’s the foundation of a learning culture.” (Adam Grant, Think Again)
Psychological safety is a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking. People are not afraid of negative consequences like being criticized, ignored, laughed at, or punished. Working in a psychologically safe environment does not mean that people always agree for the sake of being nice. It also doesn’t mean that people will praise or unconditionally support everything you say. It’s not about being nice, but candid.
It provides the environment to address conflict productively. It enables people to speak up and think of what’s best for the team.
Psychological safety and team performance
“There’s no team without trust.” (Paul Santagata, Head of Industry at Google)
There was a two-year study on team performance, conducted by Google, which revealed that the highest-performing teams have one thing in common: psychological safety — the belief that you won’t be punished when you make a mistake. Studies show that psychological safety allows for speaking your mind, creativity, and sticking your neck out without fear of having it cut off — just the types of behavior that lead to market breakthroughs.
Product managers need to put a focus on creating and fostering a team environment and culture where team members can feel psychologically safe. This means design, tech and product experts feel free to speak up anytime even when they have something to say that does not belong to their area of expertise. Product managers need to encourage team members to take risks. If taking a risk leads to a bad decision, the whole team is accountable and works together on mitigating the risk and learning from it for the future.
Psychological safety was by far the most important of the five dynamics Google found — it’s the underpinning of the other four.
How could that be? Taking a risk around your team members seems simple. But remember the last time you were working on a project. Did you feel like you could ask what the goal was without the risk of sounding like you’re the only one out of the loop? Or did you opt for continuing without clarifying anything, in order to avoid being perceived as someone who is unaware?
To sum it up, psychological safety has a direct immense impact on team performance.
Psychological safety and innovation strengths
“If people trust you, their willingness to explore can be without bounds. Without it, you’ll go nowhere.” (Jamie Gardner, Co-Founder of Merilu and Partner at X Sector Labs)
Product managers see mistakes as threats to their career and do not trust in their teammates and supervisors. In this case, product managers are not customer-focused but career-focused. They will do everything they can to stay safe in their job or to move up the career ladder. This might not always be the best for the customer or for the company. For example, those product managers will accept all feature requests from senior stakeholders to satisfy them and not the customer. Career-focused product managers will also keep certain information away from the team (e.g. stakeholder decisions or feedback) and use that information for their own beneficial career moves. All in all a very bad behavior not resulting in creating extraordinary products.
Another downside is that product managers are not willing to take risks and fail. They sometimes keep their ideas to themselves. Doing so massively decreases innovation power and thus, customer satisfaction.
Let’s have a look at figure 2. The right part of the table describes the consequences of not having a psychological safe working environment or team culture. This implies significant downsides for a product team:
Without psychological safety product managers or product teams follow the path of least resistance.
This means that product teams without this culture only go for low effort ideas. So when product teams follow the low effort path they will indeed develop and release some high-value easy wins but the majority will be incremental feature development. Let’s take the checkout experience from an online store as an example. Without feeling psychologically safe to undertake some risky experiments, product managers focus on minor UX enhancements that lead to micro-conversion optimizations, such as changing the placement of certain CTAs. A better option might be to focus the effort on a “one-click checkout” or testing a one-page checkout experience vs the multi-page checkout.
This might be a way to go for products that are in a very mature stage of the product lifecycle but for all the others this is not the way to delight customers. It can become even worse… some product managers might just accept stakeholder requests because they are not willing to question those requests. Some of those requests can even be money pits.
In order to stay relevant, product teams need to take some of the big bets to either fail and learn fast or when being lucky, release the next big thing to the customers.
Increasing psychological safety in your product team
Each team member has a different mindset. The more you as a product manager can learn about where people are coming from, what motivates and demotivates them, what is their purpose, the more effectively you can amplify a mindset built around fostering psychological safety. In order to do so, product teams should invest in team-building and joint leisure time activities. Important is that those activities are not perceived as a must to participate.
An example of a team-building activity can be to host an “anxiety party” to practice vulnerability”. A design team at Google Ventures wrote down their biggest anxieties and then had everyone rank their concerns in order from most to least worrisome. After that everybody shared the list with their teammates, who could provide feedback and perspective. This helps teams to practice honesty, encourages them to acknowledge their own insecurities, and even find alignment on how to move forward with projects or learn which ones need to be prioritized over others.
Speak human to human
Underlying every team’s who-did-what confrontation are universal needs such as respect, competence, social status, and autonomy. Recognizing these deeper needs naturally evokes trust and promotes a positive language as well as positive behaviors. Paul Santagata (Head of Industry at Google) reminded his team that even in the most controversial negotiations, the other party is just like them and aims to walk away happy.
He led them through a reflection called “Just Like Me,” which asks you to consider:
- This person has beliefs, perspectives, and opinions, just like me.
- This person has hopes, anxieties, and vulnerabilities, just like me.
- This person has friends, family, and perhaps children who love them, just like me.
- This person wants to feel respected, appreciated, and competent, just like me.
- This person wishes for peace, joy, and happiness, just like me.
Be a collaborator, not an adversary
Think of your last game night or sport match. Have you lost a game? How did you feel? Usually, we humans hate losing even more than we love winning.
As a team you can’t be in competition with each other, you must always remember that it’s the team vs. the problem.
Let’s transfer this to the professional environment when you approach a certain conflict. A perceived loss triggers attempts to reestablish fairness through competition, criticism, or disengagement, which is a form of workplace-learned helplessness. But when conflict comes up, avoid triggering team members fight or flight response. True success is a win-win outcome. When conflicts arise, ask yourself as a product manager “How could we achieve a mutually desirable outcome?”.
Foster team openness and receptivity
The biggest benefit of psychological safety in teams is creativity, meaning ideation and receptivity to new ideas. The more a team is open and receptive to new ideas, the more it will learn, grow, and continuously get better. It will also start to challenge the status quo ranging from the customer to the most backend systems. This is a lot about establishing a growth mindset (see figure 5).
Ask for feedback
After a team discussion or meeting, ask your teammates for feedback. This helps you to illuminate blind spots in communication among the team which helps to increase trust among team members. When team members understand their thoughts are valued, you create a learning opportunity for the entire team which shows the team they can rely on each other. You, as a product manager can close a conversation with these questions:
- What worked and what didn’t work in my delivery?
- How did it feel to hear this message?
- How could I have presented it more effectively?
Transform blame into curiosity
Blame creates toxic conflicts which lead to defensiveness, arguments and disengagement. Blame should never become the leading voice on your product team. Change it to curiosity. To do so, a product manager needs to teach the team to interact with a growth mindset (see figure 5) that inspires questions, discussions, and problem solving.