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The Emergent Leader: Building Psychological Safety for Scrum/Agile Teams – Agile Coaching Exchange

The Emergent Leader: Building Psychological Safety for Scrum/Agile Teams

Written by #ACESoCal co-organizer   | Originally published on the ScrumAlliance Community Blog on 1 November 2016

This post explores the concept of building psychological safety in Agile teams. It’s in three parts to focus in depth on each area that can help teams get to the next level.


What is psychological safety?

Vignette #1

A cross-functional development team is talking through a code review, and a new engineer sees something that he feels is very risky to the approach the coder took to write the modules of code being reviewed. Everyone in the room is patting the developer on the back for his excellence in tackling this difficult module. The new coder says nothing for fear of being the odd man out.

Vignette #2

The lead tester has worked with his team for years and spots a problem with a particular piece of functionality. He’s brought this up to the lead developer before but was accused of harping on the same issue when the team is trying to get a product out the door and to a customer. He doesn’t want to be an impediment, but the issue is not getting fixed and he has a concern that putting this code out could be risky to the business’s reputation. He says nothing for fear of being put down.

Vignette #3

A product owner is new to her role and has only recently been trained to be a product owner. She knows her product and her customers quite well but struggles with the technology side of things. She’s still trying to define her place and her role in the Scrum framework and often times feels shut down by the development team because she isn’t technical. She feels sometimes that her viewpoint isn’t important since she cannot articulate it in a way that has enough technical “heft,” if you will. She’s frustrated. She wants to do a good job but feels like building credibility with this team is a constant uphill battle. She prefers to attend as few forums a possible with this team. She’s less willing to share what she knows because it’s not being perceived as valuable. She is very quiet during planning sessions and reviews.

We’ve all seen these scenarios or something just like them. What’s happening is quite subtle; we may not even realize it’s happening.

Psychological safety is a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking. In psychologically safe teams, team members feel accepted and respected (Amy Edmondson, Harvard Business School). Each one of these scenarios is an example of where psychological safety is missing. Amy Edmondson says, in her TED Talk video, that no one wants to appear ignorant, incompetent, intrusive, or negative. Psychologists call this “impression management,” and it’s a strategy we start using early on in our formative years so that by the time we are adults, it’s second nature. This practice can get in the way of innovation, creativity, and building a culture of openness and transparency.

Why is it important for Scrum/Agile Teams?

The most frequently used “flavor” of Agile is Scrum, and the values of Scrum are important to its effective execution: courage, focus, openness, commitment, and respect. Being willing to inspect and adapt, along with transparency, are also key.

Unfortunately, all of that doesn’t happen “auto-magically.” It takes an acute sense of situational awareness, particularly on the part of the key facilitator, the ScrumMaster, to create a space for people to make their contributions, share their ideas, and draw on their innovative thoughts, all to really bring their best to their work, the team, and the organization. It also takes a general awareness on the part of the team that this can happen and can stifle their ability to innovate. In 2013, Google made this discovery: Who is on a team matters less than how the team members interact, structure their work, and view their contributions. High-performing teams, they found, almost always displayed five characteristics, and psychological safety was #1. According to their research, by far the most important team dynamic is psychological safety — the ability to be bold and take risks without worrying that your team members will judge you.

So what are some ways we can start?

Facilitation, the focus of part 1 of this post, is described as:
verb (used with object), facilitated, facilitating
— to make easier or less difficult; help forward (an action, a process, etc.)

Careful planning facilitates any kind of work.
— to assist the progress of (a person).

As Agile Team facilitators and ScrumMasters, we have to be acutely aware of what’s happening around us in the room with our participants, so we can facilitate good outcomes. Part of the role of a facilitator is to ask questions that invite (create the space for) participants to open up and talk about their impressions. There are some things you can do at the start of your session, like setting session norms, stating a clear purpose, and stating the objective of your meeting so that all are clear on what’s expected. There are other ‘tee-up’ types of things you might do long before this meeting is in play, but while you’re in the meeting, your role is to work with the attendees to achieve the stated objectives. Here is Tip #1 for getting there.

Asking guiding questions can help move the conversation around the room so you can hear from everyone.

Some examples of the type of questions you can ask:

Questions that overcome resistance:

  • What concerns do you have about this topic?
  • What conditions or assurances will overcome those concerns?

Questions that diverge:

  • What would be the opposite of that?
  • What would the competition to that?

Questions that invite development:

  • Can you say more?
  • What else is this connected to?

Asking questions in an unbiased way creates an opportunity for lateral and critical thinking among the members present. It can open up the discussion and create that psychologically safe space for idea sharing.

At the end of the day, psychological safety is about trust. Trust starts as teams are in the forming stage and can be bolstered by activities such as establishing team working agreements (team norms), conducting regular continuous improvement forums like retrospectives, holding each other accountable, and having fun together!

Watch for part 2 of this post, where we will explore situational awareness and how it, along with great facilitation, aids in building psychological safety in Agile teams.


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