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Building psychological safety into the core of a team’s culture

Jehad Affoneh
Jehad Affoneh
6 min read
Building psychological safety into the core of a team’s culture

One of the most important aspects of any team is its culture. When teams grow, culture is generally a representation of what people believe the culture to be instead of what leadership might want the culture to be. For example, although the leadership team might want an open and inclusive culture, their ability to convince their team members that is the case is the true measure. If team members believe the culture to exclude them or they fear sharing their honest and open opinions, culture gets defined that way.

Although it is defined by the belief of everyone on the team, it is shaped by how leaders act, what they value, and what they refuse to tolerate. Regardless of what some might tell you, culture trickles down.

As the design team at VMware grew significantly over the past couple of years, we started having conversations about the importance of psychological safety. Psychological safety is a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking.[1] It can be defined as "being able to show and employ one's self without fear of negative consequences of self-image, status or career" (Kahn 1990, p. 708).[2] In psychologically safe teams, team members feel accepted and respected. It is also the most studied enabling condition in group dynamics and team learning research. [3]

When we dug deeper as part of our efforts to transform culture at VMware’s design team, we started investing more time on better understanding why a team needs to be psychologically safe and how to understand if they are. Then make sure we build the right mechanisms in place to ensure that is our culture.

Reading through multiple different aspects of phycological safety, the striking insight to me was research done by Amy Edmondson at the Harvard Business School that shows how teams with more mistakes produce better outcomes. Successful teams are able to admit more mistakes because they feel the psychological safety to speak about them, analyze them, fix them, and most importantly, learn from them.

To better understand why the team might not be comfortable doing this already, we spent some time listening to team members through surveys, one-on-ones, and structured workshops and conversations. We then analyzed these results.

88% of designers on the team felt "extremely positive" about their ability to highlight and share problems with their leadership team. This was an improvement over the original survey we did a month and a half before.

As we looked through this, we also analyzed what type of problems are hard to bring up. What we discovered is that problems resulting in possible conflict or disagreement were especially difficult to bring up or openly discuss.

Conflict, disagreement, Intra-team relationships, Management-decisions, and cross-team relationships were highlighted as top reasons of what type of problems are hard to bring up.

As we continued to have these conversations, we also focused on understanding what makes it hard to bring up these problems.

Fear of hurting other people's feelings, previous inaction, the fear of getting blamed, feeling that the problem is unimportant, wanting to be independent, and the lack of direct management support were highlighted as reasons for not feeling positive about sharing problems.

Then we focused on what we, as a leadership team, can do to make this year. This drove us towards our current framework: ask, listen, take action, and empower.

Our framework for building a better culture, more inclusive, and physiologically safe team at VMware Design: ask, listen, take action, and empower. 
  • Ask: think of the last time you highlighted an issue you’re facing at work with your manager outside of your one-on-one and without any prompting. It must’ve been a large enough of an issue or a big enough of a mistake to bring it up. The reality with that is most issues and mistakes are a collection of small incidents. As a manager, not having the forum to bring those up means you’re not really listening to the day to day of your team. Although creating a culture of openness means having the ability to talk about the small mistakes and day to day issues, getting there requires a two-way conversation that a manager or a leader has more ability to kickstart. Simply asking the question: “what’s on your mind?” at the beginning of your one-on-one with your team is enough to help them share more than they might’ve otherwise. Asking isn’t about simply asking: “are there issues?” or “what’s wrong?”, it’s about ensuring that you have an open door welcoming those ready to share with you. As a leader, it’s also important to make it clear to people on your team that the problems the team is solving are difficult ones and you need everyone’s voice in the conversation in order for the team to be successful. It’s not just an opportunity to come to a one-on-one, but a necessity for them to speak up, and in multiple forums. At VMware Design, we have an open door policy that we continue to emphasize. You’re welcome to share your thoughts, concerns, or observations with anybody. Skipping a level isn’t bad, the goal is to get to outcome, not follow the chain of command.
  • Listen: asking is obviously one part of the journey, truly listening is the other. The ability to listen, even when you disagree, means that you actually care to hear the team’s thoughts and ideas. It allows for a conversation where their voice isn’t drowned by the disparity of the roles between yours and theirs, as people reporting to you. Truly listening, not just staying silent while you think of what to say, is difficult for most people. The ability to truly listen, think, and then analyze your thoughts is especially hard when you either disagree with what your team is sharing with you or cannot empathize with their position. There is no silver bullet to solve this, I am sorry. The only solution I found is to listen more. Have more conversations with more people. Allow more opinions to be shared, speak last, and be decisive. It’s also important that you’re listening to who is speaking and who is not. As an inclusive team, you need to make sure that the loudest, most aggressive voices are not the ones actively listened to or the ones overriding more introspective and sometimes more thoughtful voices.
  • Take action: you now know of an issue, you’re clear on a concern, and it’s your job to take action. Your action could be to delegate, take a decision of how things move forward, or provide advice. An action, however, is almost always needed. Those who share with you, especially as you go this journey of psychological safety, are waiting to see if you truly care about their issues. How you follow up and take action determines if they’re going to share with you again.
  • Empower: you shouldn’t solve all problems. You want to empower your team to solve their problems. The way to do this, however, is to go through the journey of asking to get these issues and concerns out there, listening in order to truly understand the nuances and details of that concern, and take action where appropriate. As you listen to your team, offer context they might not be aware of, think with them about possible solutions, share your chain of thoughts with them, and then discuss possible next steps. Empower them not only by letting them solve their problems but by sharing your thoughts, brainstorming solutions, and then coaching them to take the next appropriate steps.

Here is the thing to keep in mind as you go through this journey, it requires constant asking. The loop of asking, listening, taking action, and empowering your team never ends. We spend time every week, every month, and every quarter on ensuring we continue to be a psychologically safe team. This is not a one time journey, it’s a constant one. Keep pushing.

A special thank you to Kevin McBride for his efforts to educate me and the rest of the team on this and for reading and contributing to this article. The impact that’s made on our culture has not only made us a more productive team, but a better and more connected team as well.