Agile Doesn’t Work Without Psychological Safety

One of my favorite topics to teach is psychological safety. And yet, it is one of the least favorite things I have experienced in my business career – or rather I’ve experienced the absence of psychological safety in many of the companies I’ve been involved in. Perhaps that’s why I’m passionate about helping teams capture it now, while the concept is considered “hot” and a buzz phrase. Harvard Business Review author Timothy R. Clark has written a great article on some aspects that we might not think about – from an Agile perspective.

We are coming out of an era when being disrespectful to others in our workplaces was acceptable and expected. What we’ve experienced at the hands of others, and especially our managers or others in our departments or divisions, is damaging to our cores, doesn’t value the experience we’ve gathered over the years, and does a great disservice to our companies. When people become fearful of telling the truth because of the fear of retribution, or loss of status or promotion, they cease to interject good solutions to problems in order to stay “even-keeled” and risk-averse. However, this robs the organization of finding the best solutions to problems – ones that take into account the individual knowledge of each team member; something that could not be gained otherwise.

“When team members stop asking questions, admitting mistakes, exploring ideas, and challenging the status quo, they stop being agile. How can a development team perform rapid prototyping, for instance, if it’s swimming in fear?” I want to add to this the ability to ask for help. How many of us got to the point where we took on too much for our companies without asking for help? We felt that asking for help was showing that we were weak and not in charge of ourselves or our time. It was a weakness – and to be managed – or it would show up in our yearend reviews. Therefore, sometimes we chose burnout instead of asking for help. Burnout was an acceptable solution and showed we were committed to our companies. Psychological safety means asking for what we need, forgiveness for mistakes, giving and receiving candid feedback – even sometimes to our managers, freedom from intimidation, discussing failures, but also exploring possibilities and synergistic solutions, accepting the foibles of everyone, and holding the space open for everyone to contribute their best.

Being human means we make mistakes – but it can also mean that we ask forgiveness for them. This small change starts the building or rebuilding of trust that is so essential to make us the best teams possible, and then the best companies possible. Agile teams that put on this mantle of owning their humanity, allow the team to morph, ebb and flow together, evolve, discover, and solve together – where all are welcomed and respected and none are disparaged. I’m glad that we are at the point where we say “yes” to psychological safety.