Creating a culture of psychological safety in engineering teams

By Sarah Gruneisen and Benjamin Augustin

As an engineering leader, fostering a culture of psychological safety should be a priority. In a psychologically safe working environment, people feel included and respected, and able to share their ideas, questions or concerns without fearing repercussions for any mistakes or failures. 

Creating a culture of psychological safety is essential for innovation – without out-of-the-box thinking, trying and failing, there can be no progress. Therefore, it’s arguably one of the most important things for engineering leaders to focus on when it comes to improving their leadership skills.

Everyone has a ‘hierarchy of needs’

You may already be familiar with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, which remains an excellent way to demonstrate the importance of psychological safety in the workplace.

The base of the pyramid represents our most fundamental physiological needs (e.g. food, drink, and shelter), followed by safety needs (e.g. security, stability, and well-being), then love and belonging needs (e.g. trust and acceptance), and esteem needs (e.g. dignity, achievement, respect). 

Maslow's hierarchy of needs

Only when your needs are met at one level, can you progress to the next level of psychological safety. Eventually, you reach self-actualisation which is all about fulfilling your potential and personal growth – and that’s where true innovation and creativity happens. If this is what you want as an organisation, your people must have their needs met at every level.

Right now, amidst the cost of living crisis, many of your team will be feeling like the base of their pyramid is unstable. Their concerns are probably feeling impossible to leave at the door when they come to work, such as:

  • Do I have enough money to feed my family and pay my bills? 
  • If I have to get to the office and back each day, who is going to pick up the kids after school? 
  • Inflation is going up, will I still be able to make my mortgage payments?

As leaders, if we want our organisations to grow and prosper with healthy, happy teams who are capable of doing their best work, we need to do what we can to actively support them not only to survive but to thrive.  

Building your team’s confidence and esteem

A key area that workplace leaders contribute to is employees’ esteem – their sense of feeling valued. In your words and actions, focus on answering your team’s inner questions:

  • Am I seen and valued?
  • Am I empowered? 
  • Does my boss know or care what my talents are?
  • Are my skills being used?
  • Does anyone care about my ideas?
  • Do I feel appreciated and supported?

Let’s say you have an employee with ADHD and they’re exceptionally good at coming up with creative ideas and getting started on projects, but they quickly get disconnected. They’re hugely proactive and motivated, but they struggle with the finer details and finishing off the last 20% of a task. 

As a manager, if you only ever focus on that last 20% in every one of their appraisals, telling them that they don’t finish projects and aren’t good at the details, they are going to end up feeling like a miserable failure. They’ll worry that their job is on the line. They won’t feel valued or empowered. They won’t feel like their talents are being used. And so, they’ll never reach a point of being able to contribute to your company at the highest level of their potential.

This scenario is true for anyone, not just neurodivergent members of your team.

Understanding and fulfilling your team’s values

Do you know the core values of the people in your team? Do you know what they need and want as individuals to thrive in their roles? If not, organise a values workshop to find out what environment they need to feel nourished and energised. If you try to plant a seed in a desert (rather than a tropical forest), it’s going to take a lot longer to grow. 

Everyone’s values are equally important and it’s perfectly possible to build a team that meets everyone’s needs. Let’s say you feel someone in your team is not making an impact on your business development goals. You might say to them: “I want you to speak at conferences, you need to get your voice out there!” 

If they’re introverted and they tell you that they don’t want to speak on stage, listen to them. They can still make an impact, but in a different way that respects their values and preferences. They don’t need to be loud or stand on a stage. It won’t feel authentic to them and it’s likely to make them feel deeply uncomfortable – possibly even fearful. 

Instead, explore other ways they could make a difference. They might be better at one-on-one interactions, writing blog posts or contributing their expertise to articles or podcasts which can have just as big an impact. If they are an artist, they could even make a small cartoon series describing tech how-tos, etc.

An exceptional manager asks, who are the individuals in my team? How can I support them to make an impact using the skills, talents and preferences that they have? How can I create a space where their values are honoured? This is psychological safety. 

Fostering a failure culture in your team

Understanding and respecting people’s values and making sure everyone in your team feels able to contribute is vitally important for innovation. Equally important is fostering a culture of failure.

In organisations with good failure culture, people know that failure is not a reflection of who they are as an individual – it’s the result of trying something new that you can learn from and move forward with.

During project debriefs or post-mortems, avoid pointing the finger at people. Instead, point a finger at the actions (or lack of action) that led to the outcome. Then, as a team, look at what everyone can do collectively and proactively to avoid that outcome in the future. 

When you pass judgement on or blame an individual for failures, that person is unlikely to try anything new again. Now, you’ve killed innovation within your team because you’ve said to them: “Don’t try anything if you’re not 100% sure it’s going to be a success, or you’re going to be blamed.”

Blame culture is the opposite of failure culture – and as well as damaging team well-being and morale, it can damage your business too. In a blame culture, the things you need to know as a leader will be hidden from you, as people are more likely to shut their eyes to problems than risk speaking out and being punished. 

You want people to feel safe enough to have tough conversations and bring challenging issues to light. Not only will your team feel valued and more productive, but you’ll get the insights you need to drive your business forward.

Don’t have team heroes

Most teams will have a “hero.” This is a person who’s doing brilliantly and smashing their personal development and individual work goals. As a leader, it’s natural to want to sing their praises, reward them, give them raises and tell them they’re doing amazingly. Meanwhile, the rest of the team – who for whatever reason haven’t been able to achieve their goals – don’t get rewarded. 

In this scenario, the heroes – often the go-getters and perfectionists – will stop helping their team because they’re doing fine on their own. And so, when the team is struggling, they’ll focus on perfecting how they show up and do their job to get that next raise.

Controversially, we need to stop rewarding the heroes. Either everyone in the team wins, or everyone loses. If you have a team hero, ask yourself why everyone in the team is looking to the same person for help. What knowledge or skills do they have? Why aren’t they sharing this expertise with the team? Why are other members of the team feeling that they need to work late or work weekends to “catch up”?

No team is successful because of one individual’s success. Having an irreplaceable “hero” on your team doesn’t make your team a highly successful one. A highly effective team is one where everyone is able to contribute efficiently and feel like they’re equally valued and part of the team.

Take the opportunity to enable and empower that irreplaceable “hero” to take on the role of mentor or trainer, bringing others up and spreading their knowledge. This will lead to a much more balanced and productive team environment.

Lead by example

Engineering leaders are the ones who drive cultural change in organisations. For example, if you want to shift away from a culture of overworking, then as a leader you need to set an example by not working overtime and setting boundaries around your working hours. 

It’s the same with psychological safety – leaders must be the drivers of the culture shift. If you want to create a failure culture, the first step is to acknowledge and celebrate your own failures as a leader. Raise up your hands and say: “I messed up. This didn’t go well” and invite the team to engage in dialogue around what happened.

Psychological safety enables powerful communication

When your team feels a lack of psychological safety at work, communication suffers. People in trigger mode aren’t in talking mode. And if, as a leader, you don’t understand the needs of the individuals in your team, you can’t hear them when they express those needs. This leads to feelings of frustration and disconnection.

Psychological safety also creates the ability to have courageous conversations about difficult things. If you’re being micromanaged and checked up on constantly, causing you increasing stress, then you might well snap, shout at your manager and tell them they’re making you angry and anxious. Whereas, if a culture of safety is in place and you feel able to communicate, you might say: “Today you’ve asked me to update you four times and it’s making me feel stressed, distracted, and like there’s a lack of trust.” You can express and own your feelings, show you value your autonomy and know that this will be respected.

When you can share your feelings in this way, it opens up a conversation about personal values – and you can work together to find a solution that honours and meets both your needs. In this scenario, that might be agreeing to message once a day about your progress, or promising that you will let them know 48 hours in advance if you anticipate any delays. This way, you get to keep your autonomy while honouring your colleague’s values. And that’s only possible when our needs of safety, belonging and esteem are being met.

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