psychological safety

If you want your engineering team to devise creative solutions to difficult problems, collaborate effectively, take risks and innovate, then promoting psychological safety should be among your top priorities as an engineering leader.

What is psychological safety?

Psychological safety is key for a thriving engineering team as it means that individuals in the team feel safe and comfortable in challenging ways of working, asking for help, discussing mistakes or concerns and suggesting ideas. Such a culture within a team promotes openness and honesty but may also encourage engagement, teamwork, and productivity and may reduce risk and turnover.

“The belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes, and that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.” Edmondson, 1999

Why is it essential for engineering teams?

The key components of psychological safety are truth and trust. Engineers who feel psychologically safe can speak openly and honestly without fear of reprisal. That makes them more likely to share ideas, engage in healthy debate, try new approaches, and set challenging goals. The more confident and secure a team feels, the faster it can move. In addition, they are more likely to take risks that can result in substantial innovative leaps.

And research shows that teams with strong psychological safety don’t make fewer mistakes than teams with low or absent psychological safety. However, they are more successful because they feel more comfortable admitting mistakes and therefore are more likely to admit them and less likely to hide them.

The link between data and psychological safety

Many engineering leaders think there’s a conflict between data gathering data about engineering habits and productivity and psychological safety. They fear that taking objective measurements or using an Engineering Management Platform (EMP) to gain visibility into their engineering processes will make engineers feel overly scrutinised, less trusted, and, ultimately, less safe. 

This is not an unfounded concern — many engineers have been burned by flawed metrics, or worse, metrics that have been misused or weaponised against them. Still, used correctly, engineering intelligence data can actually increase an engineering team’s feelings of safety.

Find the facts

Engineering leaders are used to relying on their guts — for years, they’ve had to. The problem is that your gut is biased. Our brains constantly make complex calculations using inputs, including subjective observations, half-remembered anecdotes, deeply ingrained cultural preferences, and rendering judgments that feel right. Engineering leaders must supplement those instincts with objectively verifiable data to protect their employees.

Such cognitive biases are often a result of your brain trying to make information processing simpler. For instance, you may remember an event or situation in a biased way, leading to repeated biased decision-making. Or you may pay attention to some things and ignore others, which can influence your thoughts.

And this is another area where data is really powerful as it can help you check your assumptions and combat biases.

For example, early in the pandemic, at Code Climate we saw our average daily Pull Requests dip, and it would have been easy to assume that our newly remote workforce wasn’t pulling its weight. However, data from our EMP, Velocity, told a different story: remote workers were working longer hours, including at night and on weekends, than they had been in person. They also had a higher rate of Rework.

By digging into the data, our engineering team leaders understood that the problem wasn’t the level of effort but the quality of communication and alignment on best practices.

Use data to build trust

For a truly genuine, psychologically safe team, individuals need to feel that trust is present within the team culture. Team members must be confident that they will not be blamed or punished if their code isn’t successful (for example, if it introduces a bug).

Data can be used to back up feedback or conversations between the engineering lead and team members so that even if mistakes have been made, the culture of psychological safety ensures that errors are transitioned into opportunity or learning.     

Attack problems, not people

You can also use objective metrics to frame problems for group discussion. A general conversation about a project roadblock can be very threatening, as asking engineers why things are moving slowly is more likely to put them on the defensive than lead to a productive conversation.

Using data from your EMP, you can define the problem specifically and narrowly and keep the discussion focused on the work, not the people behind it.

Use data for a learning experience

For example, a team lead can run a report showing long-running, high-activity pull requests. The team can then discuss the PRs in question as specific units of work, shifting focus away from the performance of individual engineers. This framing helps to foster a blameless culture where no one is negatively singled out.

Instead, everyone evaluates the work together, contributes to the solution, and benefits from what they learn. This data-driven approach to defusing project risks and removing roadblocks supports learner, contributor, and challenger safety. Engineers see that their mistakes will be used as a learning experience rather than a demerit in their permanent record and that their insights and ideas for improvement are valued.

Promoting psychological safety is incredibly complex. Engineering leaders need a wide range of tactics tailored to their individual team’s needs. The responsible use of data can contribute to a strong foundation for psychological safety. That said, it remains up to you as an engineering leader to create and protect an environment of truth and trust. 

Code Climate can help: to learn more about how data can contribute to psychological safety, speak to a Code Climate Velocity specialist.

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