Psychological Safety and Agile

Photo by: Oliver Hale.

You’ve probably heard it before, but it bears repeating: To be flexible and adaptable, we need to experiment in the process. Without a safe space for experimentation, there is no being or doing Agile.

Psychological safety is a term used to describe a safe space for experimentation and learning. In that safe space, teammates feel good expressing their ideas, asking questions, and giving critical feedback without worrying about being ridiculed or rejected by the rest of the team. And it’s no wonder that psychologically secure teams outperform those without. It has a lot to do with the post I wrote a few days ago about Transparency and Adaptability.

Now… Will it be easy to create these spaces?

As Agile Coaches, we face the daily challenge of building, caring for, and maintaining a safe space for experimentation where teams are and do Growth Mindset and Agile. I have seen with great sadness, how in recent years, the organizational culture of many companies ends up eating the safe spaces for experimentation, and many Agile Coaches immersed in it, instead of defending said space, are consumed by that culture and end up not just accepting it, also numb in it, breaking any effort to be and do Agile. Each person must understand that failure is part of the process, even more so when you experience being and doing Agile. Psychologically safe spaces are paramount to allow teams to experiment and fail without fear of retaliation or punishment. Psychological safety can take many forms, from team members always making agreements, to even creating communication codes to support each other. What matters is that the team works together to create a space where people feel safe enough to experiment and try new things, even if they may fail, because failure allows the team to learn what they would like to do the next time differently.

Are there typical behaviors that indicate that my space is not safe for experimentation? Yes, I will tell you the three most typical:

1. The leader who fears losing his status and position: Imagine a vision alignment meeting, where after some suggestions from the team to improve the backlog, a leader openly tells everyone that if this fails, it will be their fault, and they will see later, but that he warned. This afterlife story happened to a fellow Agile Coach while facilitating an event where the leader angrily stated this. The culture of fear of losing your position or status should not cost others the opportunity to follow, speak or give suggestions for continuous improvement. If you’re a leader who fosters spaces like this… have you ever wondered about the damage this can do to your team and even to your role? And if you are an Agile Coach in a team like this… Have you ever wondered what work you are doing with that leader to get to a situation like this?

2. The team facilitator who wants to impose their agenda: Another typical case of breaking out of the safe space into experimentation is when the facilitator forgets that his team’s main task is to facilitate spaces neutrally. “Carlos,” a newcomer Scrum Master to a group, started accompanying him, showing himself as a “Rockstar.” Soon after, his teammates make him notice his towering ego in his interventions, in addition to always offering himself to be the person who leads everything, from supplier accesses to conversations in his daily synchronizations, including adding elements to the backlog / Jira. This true story also happened to a colleague, Agile Coach, who worked in a team where “Carlos” was the facilitator. If you’re a team member in a space like this… How would you feel if your facilitator is now all roles in one and does not respect any opinion? And if you are the Agile Coach of “Carlos,”… Have you ever wondered about the impact on value, but also on team interaction, when neutrality is broken? Own agendas and inflated egos do not build a team.

3. The Agile Coach who has each and every answer: Now it’s the turn of the Agile Coach who comes disguised as a silver bullet or magic recipe. The one that has the answer to everything. For example, the team has a problem prioritizing initiatives. The Agile Coach comes in to tell them how to do it without even listening to the real problem, or worse, asking for permission. Or where the team has a problem with its dependencies, and now, there is an exact solution answer, without again listening to the problem, edges, opinions. The Agile Coach, who makes solution judgments full of biases, is the first to break the culture of experimentation in teams. If you are a team member with an Agile Coach with a silver bullet complex… How can you point out that the safe space is being built by everyone’s opinions and suggestions and, in addition, systemically, should a conversation be built to achieve an experiment? And if you are that “Silver Bullet” Agile Coach… Are you sure you have a good understanding of what it means to be flexible and adaptable, contextual and neutral?

How is Psychological Security built?

Psychological safety is based on trust and mutual respect, which can be difficult to foster. But it’s a crucial element of any team: without it, people will compete for status and power, withhold information, and stop sharing ideas.

1. A group of people is very different from a team: Collaborating with the group to make it a team. What differentiates them is that the team has trust and agreements. They are an ecosystem (Not an EGOsystem). Let’s help people get to know each other on a deep level with spaces where they can get to know each other. Beyond role and responsibility… Who are we? What are we a team for?

2. The optimization or sub-optimization of a human system occurs through interaction: This is nothing more than fostering agreements so that this interaction is consistent so that the value we increase occurs. Generally, a good starting point is for those agreements to be based on respect and inclusion. We must be respectful to our teammates, but we also expect them to be respectful to us. It is essential that managers model this behavior for their teams. The company culture, in general, encourages people to treat others well: treat others how they want to be treated, not how you want to be treated. This means spending time understanding what each person needs so that they feel comfortable, vulnerable, and open with you.

3. Neutral and inclusive facilitation: Neutral and inclusive facilitation is critical to fostering an environment of open communication and healthy team dynamics. This approach reduces bias in the workplace by allowing all voices to be heard and ensuring that all participants have equal access to information. It also helps foster a collaborative culture. Team members feel comfortable expressing their ideas in a safe and welcoming environment. Neutral facilitation occurs without prejudice, while inclusive facilitation ensures that everyone has equal access to information. Neutrality can also mean being objective, impartial, or non-emotional; it is crucial because when people are not neutral during meetings, they tend to make decisions based on their own opinions rather than what would be best for the organization as a whole. Inclusive facilitation means ensuring that all parties have equal access to information to freely and openly share their thoughts without feeling left out of the discussion or decision-making processes. Finally, make sure people feel safe by encouraging questions and giving honest feedback, even if it’s constructive criticism. Inclusive facilitation means ensuring that all parties have equal access to information to freely and openly share their thoughts without feeling left out of the discussion or decision-making processes. Finally, make sure people feel safe by encouraging questions and giving honest feedback, even if it’s constructive criticism. Inclusive facilitation means ensuring that all parties have equal access to information to freely and openly share their thoughts without feeling left out of the discussion or decision-making processes. Finally, make sure people feel safe by encouraging questions and giving honest feedback, even if it’s constructive criticism.

Final words

Do you remember when you had an excellent idea for your Agile team but didn’t share it for fear of being judged? Or maybe you know an Agile teammate who was unfairly punished for failing at something? Both examples have something in common: they are cases that show the toxicity of not including that safe space to be and do Agile. This concept has existed since the 1950s, but in recent years it has become more critical in Agile because it is pretty simple to relate that if Agile is a thought that helps us to be competent in knowledge and practices on how to be and do flexibility and adaptability, we must always experiment to achieve it.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store