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The Importance of Psychological Safety on Scrum Teams

May 4, 2023

As a follow up to their webinar - Psychological Safety for Effective Facilitation and Better Team Interactions, Patricia Kong, Product Owner of Enterprise Agility and Professional Scrum Trainers Andy Hiles and Ravi Verma, reconvene to discuss the importance of fostering psychological safety and trust on Scrum Teams based on their own experiences.





Patricia Kong: 0:21

My name is Patricia Kong. I am happy to be your guest host today for the Community Podcast. I am back here today we did a webinar actually on about psychological safety and Scrum and we the three of us participated. So I am here with Andy Hiles and Ravi Verma. Could you could you both just give a quick introduction today?

Andy Hiles: 0:49

Yeah, sure. So my name is Andy Hiles. I'm a professional scrum trainer with I realized this is my 20th year of doing software development stuff with people. Which is causing me to feel very old.

Patricia Kong: 1:05

That's why we've been talking about your gray beard.

Andy Hiles: 1:09

Hence the white beard.

Patricia Kong: 1:13

Speaking of mustaches and beard, Ravi, yes, my name is Ravi Verma. I'm joining you from Dallas, Texas. Unfortunately, this isn't my 25th year. So

Ravi Verma: 1:25

on the topic of psychological safety, thank you for making me feel unsafe and old. Go and, and the fruit of the tree of my follies and mistakes is the evergreen and it is a gift that keeps on giving. So 25 years of making mistakes and no signs of slowing down.

Patricia Kong: 1:50

Excellent. And it's a gift for me to be on the ride with you guys. So let's see if we can maybe increase that that that psychological safety as we dive into the discussion. So the webinar was really was really popular and had had a lot of questions that I was hoping we could get. Just touch upon some of the different stories from from your experiences and and expound on what you've been thinking about and what you've experienced since that time. So I think the first thing that we should do is, you know, we're going to talk about how this exists maybe in an organization at the team level at the management level, and how all these things connect. But I guess for a baseline Andy, you're doing research on this, so So can you break down quickly for us what psychological safety is I know, you recently wrote a blog site at Amy Edmondson and some of her work around safe space for psychological safety.

Andy Hiles: 2:47

Yeah, sure. I mean, it's it's the ability for an organization to cope with candid feedback is probably one really good way of putting it that people within an organization feel free enough to be able to provide critical feedback on the progress of whatever it is they are building. And I think this is kind of where the some of the misconceptions come because it talks about psychological safety, people get kind of this feeling that it's a, a warm comfort blanket that wraps around all kinds of behaviors that happen. And really what we're talking about is, is just candid feedback, the ability to be candid and open with each other and provide that feedback without fear of getting in trouble or retribution or being cast as an outsider or being held, you know, to some disciplinary action action by the kind of the management team or, you know, whoever your peers, you know, what it's, you know, it's definitely not what some people would can conceive a almost safe space, in a sense, that kind of critical feedback is going to come and it's gonna probably feel very personal and very harsh. So there is no psychological safety, and it's bound within a team space within a product development space, it doesn't really kind of go to create a trigger free environment, it's that it's that ability for us to sit around a table, you know, a virtual table as they are now and be able to just provide feedback on how each other are building those products or how each other's kind of approaching those problems. And I think that's kind of leads into where the the kind of the intersection of what psychological safety was intended to describe and where people have kind of slightly misconceived its nature about what actually, you know, people should be getting out of it.

Patricia Kong: 4:43

I think like when you were talking about that warm blanket like that support, that's really the safe space that might be the back channel on Slack where you're talking to a couple colleagues, then just venting and knowing that that's going to be okay.

Andy Hiles: 4:58

Well, it's kind of interesting because It almost should, you know, in some respects, it should be that warm blanket, it should be the ability for me to wear, wear some armor and go into a, you know, maybe you know, big fluffy jacket and go into a room and say, I'm not really feeling this product, or what we're doing towards this product, or we're really not hitting our, our definition of done, we really need to kind of get on top of our quality here. Yeah, and the people within that room should say, you know, what I, I understand, or you know what you're not, you're wrong, you know, I don't agree with you, it shouldn't be the rest of the group kind of tearing into you at that moment and saying, You're wrong, you're stupid, you're stupid, or there's something about you personally, which is kind of leading you down this decision. So that sort of warm kind of comfort blanket should come from the support from your peers about the decisions that you're making. But it shouldn't lead to personal attacks in the same same respect. And that's where we kind of get on this imbalance with, how do you go and create that level of respect throughout the team that I can come to, you know, let's say Ravi and say, Ravi, I noticed what you did, and it wasn't great. You know, Ravi be able to just kind of take that as a criticism of the thing we're building not Ravi in in so much of the way he's, he's behaved or acted.

Patricia Kong: 6:21

Ravi, Ravi would be okay. So, Andy, from your experience, as a coach, you know, with your own company, working with clients, what, what's an example, where you've seen some of that? Some some of those challenges around psychological safety, or places where it's just been destroyed, where it's existed? And then it just went away? What are some things that we can share of what that would look like? Where psychological safety is either deteriorating or doesn't exist?

Andy Hiles: 6:56

Yeah, that's really, I mean, I guess I would have spent a large proportion of my career, feeling it not putting a label on it. And the kind of the thought I was having to this kind of question, which was actually more about psychological safety being incredibly hard to put in place, because you needed a strong bond within that team to form a level of inter team cohesion, you know, almost, you know, to some degree, what some people would see as trust, to be able to share something very personal, your feelings, your approach your understanding to other members of that team. And that being quite hard to create that bond without impacting a level of culture. And this is kind of where where I'm kind of going next with with this kind of thinking is, each team has it. So you know, at a team level, we have micro culture, we have, you know, even between two people, there's probably a kind of a bond that a culture that forms within the team space as a culture, you know, a definition the way we you know, things are done around here, that leads to behaviors, and certainly values, we talked about Scrum values a lot. And so putting a level of interpersonal trust in place, and the ability for us to be critical with each other is going to impact that culture. Because you might have people who are kind of adverse to that, that's going to be quite hard to create as a bond. The other thing I found quite interesting with this is how easy that would be to destroy, you could create, let's say, You created the perfect team. And I think in the blog, I wrote about the Pixar, they have that thing called the brain trust, which is super interesting to go and research about, which is super is the kind of the Pixar animators being highly critical about the product they're building together. But taking action moving forward and being respectful to one another. That's the culture they've built. All it would need is somebody in that room to take that thing super personally. And that psychological safety perhaps to be broken right there, you know, things get escalated, heated, etc. You know, and it could be quite a Yeah, quite an easy thing to go and break in that space. And certainly, in my experience having having sat both as a as a developer and as a leader in that concept, I've seen it from both sides, people joining teams, established culture within teams where the bond is really high, the criticality is quite high of each other in our output. Yet, a new person coming in not fitting in with that culture can then derail it, and certainly lead to a lot of conflict within the team and mistrust etc, bad behaviors.

Patricia Kong: 9:47

I think that's important to point out that it's not constant, which is what what you're hitting on that that new person or that out, side person from the team, I think pushes us to talk about Really the rest of the organization, right? So you can have a team that that has a bond used to a way of working. And they could be a high performing team, like you said, but that boundary where it hits management and culture is another thing. And that those were a lot of questions that we received from the webinar. What do you do when the leaders are affecting your psychological safety? Why don't they believe it? So Robbie, in your experience, and you've done a lot of, you've produced a lot of content around, you know, agile leadership versus management, how to distinguish what does it mean, how do you accelerate your role? What do you think if you were talking to the leaders and managers are helping some of the other people to talk to have that conversation and they don't really understand maybe what, what psychological safety is? Or they just think, hey, it's that soft stuff again? Why? Why is it important how to how does psychological safety affect a team's delivery or value in an organization?

Ravi Verma: 10:57

Yeah, so you know, one thing that I'm trying to practice myself is when I find myself noticing a situation where I perceive that someone in management, and I'm intentionally not using the word leader, because not every manager is a leader, and not every leader is a manager. So I'm intentionally using the word manager. So let's say it could be manager, director, VP CEO, when I noticed or when I perceive that someone in a management position in a company has just behaved in a way that destroyed psychological safety for the team, and is now inhibiting self management and the delivery of sustainable measurable value. I used to immediately react. And what what I noticed was, I became an actor in something known as the Cartman Drama Triangle. And I wrote a blog on this, by the way, so a Cartman Drama Triangle is a three is a play with three roles. There's a persecutor, there is a victim and the rescuer. So I noticed a very unhelpful way of being in myself, which was the moment I felt psychological safety is compromised, that's a deep value of mine just got violated. And I start looking at that situation through these three lenses. Oh, the agile team is the victim. Management is the persecutor, aha, let me write in as the rescuer. Over time, what I'm trying to do is I'm trying to pause and be curious and see what the heck is going on inside of me because self awareness leads to self management. And I discovered that I started feeling unsafe. And I started wondering, Why am I feeling unsafe, because if the coach is feeling unsafe, then that might narrow the set of options that the coach can select from. Then I realized, Oh, crap, maybe something happened to me when I was a child, this is reminding me of that situation. So I might be overcompensating in response to something that happened to me as a child, which I didn't want to write. So first, realizing that I am not feeling safe, and then working with my coaches and figuring out how can I restore safety for myself, once I restore safety for myself, and I'm no longer feeling threatened by that person in management, then I started using the stance of curiosity and started exploring, okay, there's a human being here. And what might be very counterintuitive, is sometimes the most powerful person in the company is the most terrified person in the company. Power does not equate to psychological safety. And what I realized, as I was speaking to some of these people in intimate one on one coaching conversations, whether it's a director, VP or CEO, I discovered that there could be a very frightened child in there. And when that person is destroying psychological safety for the team, it's possible that something happened that destroyed psychological safety for them. And now what happens is, we have three sets of people who are all feeling psychologically unsafe, who want to do the right thing, but they got trapped or entangled are enmeshed in a pattern of being that is not serving anyone, they're dying to get out of it. They just don't know how to get out. Yeah,

Andy Hiles: 14:03

this is what leads to that kind of that what people would call a toxic culture within an organization lead driven by the top fear of things going wrong, you know, that kind of whole lack of safety through critical feedback, then driving that down through the teams. And it's kind of kind of leaving in being aware of that culture impact of the kind of being able to have, you know, critical feedback. And also opening up is, is just so important in this kind of dialogue. And for kind of Scrum Masters and coaches to be aware of.

Patricia Kong: 14:35

It's, it's, it's interesting about all the things that have to unveil, right. So if we're talking about a culture where people it's becoming toxic, that notion of power, you didn't get there, you know, through failure, and you've regressed into that mindset of control and all those things. But there could be I think, on the opposite side, looking at it, where you're talking about, there's a leader who says, you know, hey, let's do this. Is this culture, let's experiment, all those things, tell us how you feel, you know, share all that. And you may have people on the team who aren't ready for that. And that's another way to think about that safety, psychological safety. But I want to thank you both for sharing those words. I am wondering, how do you encourage this? What would what would you what would you guys suggest to other people who are going through this now and all these different? These different dimensions you just mentioned? Andy, what would you do to encourage a safe space, whether that's, you know, within yourself maybe, or with your teammates? And with the other people that you work with?

Andy Hiles: 15:41

Yeah, so so I'm going to, I'm going to borrow a little bit from Ravi here, which is, you know, if you want to start your safe, which is, you know, how safe do I feel, at the moment with this team? Can I be myself? Can I open up? Can I provide that critical level of feedback? Can I share something of myself with this team on my doing enough of that, then, you know, if you're a scrum master for teams, or maybe your product owner, or maybe you're just part of the team, looking at, you know, our best opportunity to invite all of this stuff is starting at the retrospective. And then starting to think about what could we do better to open up as a team, looking at our behaviors? Even going down to could we could we create a description somehow of our culture? How would you describe the culture within the team? Great retrospective started, right? Because if if nobody answers, you've got a you've got a bit, something's going on, right? You know, if people aren't brave enough to open up and say great, old, terrible. There's something to start there. So

Patricia Kong: 16:46

let me pull on that. So Ravi, you know, and he's talking about your great ideas, starting at the retrospective having that having that retrospection and that reflection together, but what do you do? When you feel like you are pulling teeth and nobody wants to talk? What would be your suggestions there?

Ravi Verma: 17:07

Once again, suggestion could be I learned this in corrective my co active coaching, they call it aw Gee, to articulate what's going on, which is to say, Just say what you notice, I'm noticing that we are exploring this question, but nobody's speaking up. What are you noticing? That's one technique. The second technique is a fellow trainer and a mentor of mine, Dr. Charles has checked. He says, He said to me one time, Ravi, when you ask a question in a training context, but in a webinar, can you please count slowly till 25? Because it's possible that the introverts are thinking, but because I the trainer felt uncomfortable with silence, I got anxious, I felt unsafe. So I filled up the silence with noise, right. So in our collective we say, Why am I talking? So I think this is what I would say, number one, articulate what's going on. Ask a question, deal with your anxiety, be quiet. See, if you can count in 25 seconds, there is a point at which the discomfort of silence is more than the discomfort of speaking, someone will speak. And when the first person speaks, others might speak and you might be very pleasantly surprised at what emerges.

Patricia Kong: 18:26

On that note, we're gonna give you all more than 25 seconds to reflect on some of the things that that Andy and Ravi have shared here. Thank you both. Thank you for speaking today and also in that webinar. So for those people interested, there was a webinar that we did on psychological safety. And there were a lot of great tips and questions there. So thank you everyone, for listening and talk to you next time. Cheers.

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