It’s not easy to work in environments without safety, and it’s more productive to operate where it exists. So here’s some ways we can make it a reality.

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

It’s not easy to work in environments without safety, and it’s more productive to operate where it exists. So here’s some ways we can make it a reality.

…Why is psychological safety so important for product teams, organisations and cultures?

For me, it’s about innovation and learning. Indeed, psychological safety is for those reasons a positive thing in any workplace, but if you want to have an environment where there is an entire team bringing their A-game, where ideas are constantly emerging and improving the product, where fear isn’t dominating the dialogue and where joy is part of the work, then building this kind of safety is critical.

Look at it this way — if your competitor products are being built by teams just as good as yours, but with more psychological safety — then that’s a competitive differentiator, and you’re going to get beaten.

Everyone makes mistakes, including you. When you are talking to your team, do you regularly admit of your errors and learning? do you go into them in fair detail, so that they resonate with listeners? You want to be doing this regularly if you want to create psychological safety.

The opposite behaviour, which I hope is not yours, is the proud despotic character. Someone who never errs, and if they do, hushes it out of existence. If any learning is made, it is theirs alone; even their own learning is partial. They feel unsafe to share, and cascade their fear.

Your aim is to normalise the safety, by setting an example.

Don’t indicate shame about mistakes, or pride; indicate learning.

Better still, choose your moments for reflecting on your personal experiences when it will help the team to think similarly.

For instance, the team just released a bad bug into the software in production — everyone is hanging their heads, avoiding eye contact, wondering who is to blame. If this happens, can you talk about how you’ve experienced bugs before? how the learning from the bug was applied and how it helped build a better product? about how you personally contributed to the bug in the first place? and you’re glad that it helped you to understand how to tackle them in future, but they’re partly unavoidable?

Seize opportunities to establish safety. Don’t let them pass.

This is more normalising; you don’t just set an example through your own mistakes being shared, but through congratulating those that follow the behaviour.

I find this so powerful, because it rapidly moves a mood and a default emotional reaction onwards into a learning mode. It’s also a great relief to experience this environment as the ‘accountable party’, to feel like you are cheered for the courage of being flawed, or knowing you are flawed, no longer having to hide behind a veil of false perfection.

So when people show the behaviour, don’t miss the opportunity to reinforce the culture. Thank them for talking about their reflections, for being honest, for showing integrity.

You will reap the reward from these people later, when they forgive you for your mistakes too, and those of their peers or colleagues; all of this helps to move from an environment of judging one another to curiosity and safety. It moves not just individuals either, because this behaviour is pervasive.

Everyone wants to move to this mode. It is magnetically attractive and once normalised by a few, it drives bullies from the workplace.

Learning. Reflection. Honesty. Integrity. Transparency. Experimentation. Journey. Hindsight. Hypothesis.

Why? because your team will be doing none of these things consistently or effectively if you do not have a psychologically safe environment. And by using these words consistently, others will use the same language, will form concepts around these words which will gently signpost a cultural shift that is needed or happening.

Learning isn’t possible if we hide flaws. Reflection is misleading or incomplete in secretive blame cultures. Honesty is short-changed, the same with integrity. Transparency does not exist. Experiments are always successful (!). Hypothesis is for scientists, and isn’t a well established method in a blame/unsafe culture. It is not a continuous journey, of ups and downs, but a single track to a destination, which allows of no deviation. Hindsight is partial, if it ever happens.

If you are leading people, you want to be normalising, but also formalising. By this I mean turn the psychological safety into something you are aligned as a practise and culture you wish to instil and ensure, through formal appraised performance.

So your line reports should have goals around this, until you see them establishing the behaviours. Are they being reflective? no? then set a goal to practise this. It could be something as simple as:

“Reflect on 3 things which went wrong and how we learnt from them in the past X”.

You can then discuss what happened, and what was learnt, and reinforce the behaviours in the way you discuss those things.

Set goals — make them SMART, talk to one another about them. Demonstrate the example you wish to set in the way you collaborate and reflect.

Photo by Kony on Unsplash

I’m sure few of us will do this without good reason, yet I think we have to accept that bad ideas do come up, with fair frequency, from any direction (product, engineering, UX, stakeholders, Customers).

The question then is what to do with them? sometimes your gut, or mood will cause you to trigger a “That idea’s sh*t” reaction. But you need to contain that. If you don’t, your creating an unsafe environment. So the paradox is — I want to both close down poor ideas efficiently, but do not want to create an unsafe environment; how do we reconcile these?

And there are methods to do this. My favoured approach is to use questions, but you have to do this in a non-combative/unemotional way. You need to ask honest questions not leading questions. You need to spend a little more time listening, to the rationale, to the problem statement, to the solve, and allow the proposer to move naturally to the same place you may have already gotten to. Key questions to ask are:

“Can you walk me through what outcome this helps to achieve, and what problem statement or customer need it tackles?”

“If we are to measure the success of this, how would we do that?”

If you ask these questions alone, they will frequently lead to the discovery of gaps in the thinking, by the proposer themselves, rather than you as the PM/PO.

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio: here

In environments where people feel comfortable to be themselves, they feel able to talk freely and to put forward their thoughts without fear. This cannot happen in a place where people are interrupted or talked over, where a domineering character leans in or where a manager is continually being directive.

First practise listening yourself. Be more patient, give people time, resist long-monologues. Second, if others are being impatient, talking over, or interrupting people that speak, you can reinforce the process/practise by going back to those people “X I wasn’t sure you had finished your thoughts on that, would you like to give any further comments?”.

Listening well is something relatively few people actually do. Active listening requires engaging the brain in the words of the speaker, and resisting the urge to complete sentences or add your own commentary too early. As a PM this is especially dangerous as there are stakeholder engagement scenarios where preparing your next comment or rebuttal seem vital, but I have found that these are a lower priority to practise than active listening.

Micromanagement will remove psychological safety as people it gives the impression of lack of confidence in the work. That in turn drives fear in the execution of the work, to the point that quality and speed are impacted.

You need to be a servant leader, and to demonstrate the principles of that position in your behaviour. This can be very hard where you feel domain expertise, which will require you to bite your tongue and hold back frequently, as your brain races to (likely correct) approach. As a domain specialist you need to increase your tolerance for missteps, for failure, for learning through mistakes. Your specialist, subject matter expertise level knowledge can be a hinderance to you when managing people and the inputs of others, because it will trigger you to manage fine detail — why? because you are at home with that detail, and you know what good looks like.

So — resist the urge, temper your instincts and coach. The only place where you ought not to do this is where urgency or crisis requires it, and when you’re in that mode you need to communicate it clearly.

Sometimes people are emotionally charged, and will say and do things which reduce pyschological safety.

The causes for this are myriad, and very often things like someone having lack of sleep, being ill, or having personal issues that are causing them anxiety.

These things manifest at work, in colleague conversations. I have a high tolerance for this, and always assume positive intent, but whether you have tolerance for it or not, what you want to be doing is spotting those behaviours in a meeting or call or from a person and finding a way of taking offline or out of the current meeting where the charged emotional nature is ascendent. You want to do this not because you are empathetic or not to the originating person’s behaviour, but because you know that ‘hot’ emotionally laden conversations are psychologically unsafe, and you won’t get the best output/outcome from that conversation. Moreover, you want to encourage the same behaviour in those around you — of spotting charged, unsafe debate and minimising it.

Many times I have seen people start meetings totally stone cold, with the ice fully intact, perhaps feet thick.

This is always a bad call, because it does nothing to set the tone. So the tone will be set by the natural baseline. And what is the baseline at 9am Monday? what is the baseline at 4pm Friday? or after a big sporting event that everyone’s been up late watching? or a social event where drinks were poured? if you don’t set a baseline tone, the tone is set for you — and that can go either way.

So let’s assume the baseline is risky, and we want to move it to something less tense, less agitated, dramatic, or defensive. Start the meeting with humour or something else lighthearted, smile, put people at ease, show your own vulnerability to encourage others to do the same.

And carry the same through to all your meetings or those you attend. If you don’t, then the natural baseline of someone on the group on the call/meeting, will be the dominant tone, and that tone may very well be unsafe.

Again this is a magnetic, self-perpetuating and reinforcing thing. People will want to join you on calls. People will want to help you. Why? because your meetings/calls bring joy to the work, not peril.

Let’s look back at the concepts:

  1. Understand the Why of psychological safety for product
  2. Use your personal experience to show vulnerability/safety
  3. Applaud and reinforce others showing vulnerability/learning from mistakes
  4. Use positive phrases like Learning and Reflection
  5. Set reinforcing goals for those you manage
  6. Don’t shoot down ideas
  7. Learn to listen attentively
  8. Don’t micromanage — be the servant leader
  9. Discourage ‘hot’ debate
  10. Be lighthearted — icebreak and set tone

I hope people find these useful tactics, let me know if you have others or disagree with any of the above! always keen to hear more perspectives.

You might like to read another article I wrote on important product soft skills here: Biases and Jedi Mind tricks for product people.


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