Data from Google’s Project Aristotle, a multi-year study of why some of the company’s teams were successful while others were not, revealed that psychological safety is the secret sauce behind its highest performing teams. (Psychological safety, according to Julia Rozovsky, an analyst with Google People Operations, is the dynamic that addresses: “Can we take risks on this team without feeling insecure or embarrassed?”)
But the multi-million dollar, 180-team study did not provide details as to how psychological safety is created. Fortunately, this teaming “discovery” by Google is not new. Thanks to human factors research in aviation and health care, creating psychologically safe environments is relatively simple — though not necessarily intuitive.
A psychologically safe environment cannot be established by simply proclaiming: “This is a safe environment.” And, as far as I know, Google does not possess a magic wand. Psychological safety, according to Amy Edmondson, a professor of leadership and management at Harvard Business School, must be created by leaders through simple behaviors and actions. Those leaders include perceived, functional and, most importantly, managers in the middle of the organization.
Before introducing key behaviors and actions that promote a psychologically safe environment, leaders should understand the benefits of establishing this critical condition that enables individuals working in groups to rapidly transition to becoming members of high-performing teams.
- Encourages speaking up
- Enables clarity of thought
- Supports productive conflict
- Mitigates failure
- Promotes innovation
- Removes obstacles to pursuing goals for achieving performance
- Increases accountability
Your daily stand-up is the perfect place to create a high-performance, psychologically safe environment for the team. As a leader, you can accomplish this by :
- Being accessible and approachable. (Yes, managers are encouraged to attend Scrum events)
- Acknowledging the limits of current knowledge
- Being willing to display fallibility
- Inviting participation and valuing input
- Highlighting failures as learning opportunities
- Using direct language
- Setting boundaries
These seven key behaviors and actions will help you establish a psychologically safe environment for your team – no magic wand needed.
Practical Application to Daily Stand-ups (Scrum) and Your Typical Ineffective Meetings
Most Scrum teams blindly follow The Scrum Guide’s approach to stand-ups, where each team member answers the following three questions:
- What did I do yesterday to help the team meet its goal?
- What am I doing today to help the team meet its goal?
- What impediments are in my or the team’s way of meeting the goal?
This three-part daily Scrum Q&A is a recipe for a status update — which is not the intent of the daily Scrum, but is its typical outcome. To avoid this, and to create psychological safety during the daily Scrum, the event instead needs to be viewed as a re-planning session.
Below is an example stand-up and script that follows an effective planning process and provides several opportunities to display the behaviors and actions needed to create psychological safety.
“Good morning, team. It is 9:15. Today is May 6, the third day of Sprint. Our Sprint objective is to deliver the grommet and flipperdoodle functions for our elite users so they can bypass the ninth stage of zoom and provide us with rapid feedback. We have 12 stories with 68 points that support our objective. Our team goals are to use ATDD on 70 percent of our stories, practice closed-loop communication using SBAR, and to have at least four different team members other than the ScrumMaster lead the daily stand-up.”
With the big picture approach, we just created an opportunity for the person leading the stand-up to be viewed as approachable. We also established boundaries by starting on time (ending on time is equally important). Moreover, we repeated shared and common objectives and goals — the Sprint objectives are customer-centric and the goals are focused on teaming.
“Does anyone have a quick, individual failure from yesterday or today that you would like to share with the team?”
This is a great time for a manager, product owner, or functional leader to admit a failure, or show fallibility, in front of the team. Keep it short, 30 seconds or less. For a manager who is attending the stand-up, this is the only opportunity you have to talk until post stand-up.
“What impediments, dependencies, or threats are going to keep us from achieving our Sprint objective and team goals today?”
This step invites participation and allows the team to build off of each other’s impediments. The idea is to share impediments, perceived or actual, and park them until all impediments are heard. There should be no discussion about individual impediments until the impediment popcorn stops popping and the team moves to the next step. The ScrumMaster will act as a scribe. Warning: This approach will uncover more impediments than The Scrum Guide’s stand-up process.
Plan of the Day
“What are you doing today to overcome the impediments and move us closer to achieving the Sprint objective and team goals?”
This question invites additional participation, where team members are free to use the information radiator and talk about what they plan to do today and with whom. They will also use this time to quickly discuss what they can do to overcome or remove team impediments. Each member is invited to talk and may include information from what they did yesterday. This is the re-planning part of the stand-up. Realize that this is just the start to the day’s conversations.
Adaptability Plan (or the What If? Plan)
If there are any leftover impediments that the team or ScrumMaster cannot solve, then the team should develop a “what if” plan. For example, Mike’s spouse is expecting and may deliver their first child during this sprint. By definition, this is an impediment to achieving the Sprint objective. The team should build a “what if” plan around Mike’s potential departure. Make sure to invite participation.
When you view the daily stand-up as a re-planning session, you’ll get more than just a status update — you’ll create a psychologically safe space for your team to reaffirm objectives and goals, identify impediments, and most importantly, create a plan for action.
Brian “Ponch” Rivera is a recovering naval aviator, co-founder of AGLX Consulting, LLC, and the co-creator of High-Performance Teaming™, an evidence-based approach to rapidly building and developing networks of high-performing teams.
 Duhigg, Charles. Smarter Faster Better: The Science of Being Productive in Life and Bussines. Random House. Apple iBooks Edition
 Edmondson, Amy C. Teaming: How Organizations Learn, Innovate, and Compete in the Knowledge Economy. Wiley. Apple iBooks Edition.