Measuring Psychological Safety in your Team

measuring psychological safety

We know psychological safety is crucial for high performance teams, and particularly so for technical delivery teams. Innovation is so critical for creating products that delight customers and serve critical business needs, and psychological safety is a fundamental enabler of innovation.

Below are ten questions that you can ask yourself or your teams to determine the level of psychological safety in your team. Rate agreement with the below statements on a scale of 1 – 5. 5 being “completely agree” and 1 being “completely disagree”.

When carrying this exercise out with your team, perform the survey anonymously – if it’s possible that your team are psychologically unsafe, they will be more likely to be honest if the survey is anonymous. If the team are very psychologically safe, then it won’t matter if the survey is anonymous or not.

It is also important to allow for qualitative, verbose feedback for each question as well, because that verbose feedback will facilitate and clarify some of the actions that you may need to take in order to improve these scores.

  1. On this team, I understand what is expected of me.
  2. We value outcomes more than outputs or inputs, and nobody needs to “look busy”.
  3. If I make a mistake on this team, it is never held against me.
  4. When something goes wrong, we work as a team to find the systemic cause.
  5. All members of this team feel able to bring up problems and tough issues.
  6. Members of this team never reject others for being different and nobody is left out.
  7. It is safe for me to take a risk on this team.
  8. It is easy for me to ask other members of this team for help.
  9. Nobody on this team would deliberately act in a way that undermines my efforts.
  10. Working with members of this team, my unique skills and talents are valued and utilised.

To explain the context behind each question:

1 – On this team, I understand what is expected of me.

It is essential that team members understand what is expected of them in terms of delivery (speed, quality, cost, and other factors) and behaviour (everything from dress code and punctuality to coding standards) to foster psychological safety. Ensure tasks are clear and well defined, behaviour expectations are explicit, and negative behaviours are dealt with.

2 – We value outcomes more than outputs or inputs, and nobody needs to “look busy”.

Outcomes (such as revenue generated or satisfied customers) matter more than outputs (emails sent, lines of code written, or meetings attended). If the team focus on what truly matters to the business, they are safe to make decisions that can improve outcomes, even if those decisions reduce output. The ideal is a team that possesses enough psychological safety to decide not to do something that could make them look good in the eyes of others, but doesn’t deliver outcomes for the business.

3 – If I make a mistake on this team, it is never held against me.

A psychologically safe team will never blame a member of the team for a genuine mistake if their intentions were good. Indeed, by enabling mistakes to be made without a fear of blame, you enable innovation and risk taking that can drive your organisation ahead of the competition. Utilise systems thinking and DevOps approaches to prevent mistakes before they happen or mitigate the impact of mistakes when they do.

4 – When something goes wrong, we work as a team to find the systemic cause.

Related to the previous point but important enough to warrant its own question, a system of discovering the root causes of mistakes and failures means that not only do team members feel able to take risks without being blamed, but every single “failure” is an opportunity for learning and improvement. By building psychological safety through these retrospective exercises, everyone on the team gets to learn from mistakes, meaning mistakes are a gift, not a threat.

5 – All members of this team feel able to bring up problems and tough issues.

In a psychologically safe team, all members of the team are able to bring up problems and tough issues, ranging from personal struggles to concerns about other (even senior) members of the team. This psychological safety is crucial for allowing both vulnerability to show when you’re struggling and need help, and courage to raise difficult topics.

6 – Members of this team never reject others for being different and nobody is left out.

Evidence shows that diversity in a team results in higher quality products and happier team members, but diversity in itself is not enough: it is crucial that team members are all included in decision making and delivering results. To facilitate psychological safety (and high performance) every member of the team needs to be invested in the decisions made and the outcomes generated. This is particularly crucial for remote and distributed teams, where it is more difficult to see if a team member is becoming disengaged.

7 – It is safe for me to take a risk on this team.

Mistakes happen unintentionally, but risks are about taking actions that might not work, or may have unintended consequences. Psychological safety provides the framework for positive risk-taking, enabling innovation and ultimately, competitive advantage.

8 – It is easy for me to ask other members of this team for help.

In psychologically unsafe teams, team members try to hide their perceived weaknesses or vulnerabilities, which prevents them from asking for help. In a psychologically safe team, members prioritise the team goals over individual goals. Helping others helps achieve the team goal, and because team members feel safe to ask for that help, psychologically safe teams achieve more of their goals than unsafe teams.

9 – Nobody on this team would deliberately act in a way that undermines my efforts. 

In an unsafe team, members compete with each other to achieve their individual goals, and may even undermine other team members if it could benefit them or it is perceived that doing so may elevate their “rank” within the team or organisation. In a psychologically safe team, that counter-productive competition doesn’t exist, and the success of the team is more important looking good in the eyes of others.

10 – Working with members of this team, my unique skills and talents are valued and utilised.

We all bring our own unique experience, skills and knowledge to the teams that we’re in, but we also bring our own prejudices and biases. In a psychologically safe team where members are valued for being their true selves, biases are less likely to manifest. Indeed, team members may feel safe enough to identify, raise, and discuss their own biases or those of other team members. By doing so, we provide space for each individual to maximise their potential from utilising their own unique skills and talents.

Regularly Measuring Psychological Safety

By measuring the degree of psychological safety on your team, you can begin to build your own unique strategy for developing and maintaining it. For instance, this may involve running more regular retrospectives or by workshopping the team’s values and behaviours.

Measurement is only a tiny part of the process. Download a complete Psychological Safety Action Pack full of workshops, tools, resources, and posters to help you measure, build, and maintain Psychological Safety in your teams.

Remember to be patient: this is a journey, not a destination, and work on your own psychological safety too. You can’t effectively help others if you don’t look after yourself.

Take this survey for yourself.

Psychological Safety in Remote Teams

A sudden adoption of remote working.

In early 2020, due to the Covid 19 outbreak, many organisations around the world went through a sudden digital transformation and many teams became remote. With this near-instant operational pivot to distributed and remote teams, organisations and the people within them encountered new and difficult challenges such as poor internet connectivity, inadequate home offices, and trying to manage simultaneous family and work life.

One of the biggest challenges is the impact of being physically distant from our teammates on our psychological wellbeing. Distributed teams have fewer opportunities for spontaneous, casual conversation; team members have more difficulty picking up non-verbal cues in conversation, and people are more likely to feel alone, anxious, unsure of what to do, and may even experience self-doubt or imposter syndrome.

Fundamental requirements for high performing teams

Psychological safety is the number one requirement for high performing teams. Without it, a team will never achieve high performance and the members of that team will not be able to realise their full potential. Now that many of our teams are distributed and remote, psychological safety is even more difficult to build and maintain.

Here are ten things you can do, whether you’re a leader or a member of your team, to help foster and build psychological safety, and increase the performance and happiness of your team and yourself.

Ten key actions to improve psychological safety in remote teams.

1. Set the stage.

We’re all going through difficult times, whether it’s financial concerns, supporting vulnerable friends and relatives or just dealing with the mental load of what’s happening in the world. Be honest about this with your team. Be explicit about the challenges ahead, and show your vulnerability. Without you showing vulnerability, your team will be unlikely to, and it’s a key part of building psychological safety. Be positive and enthusiastic about facing these challenges. 

management and leadership

2. Make sure everyone knows what to do.

Knowing what to do, when to do it, and what good looks like is crucial for remote team members. It’s far more difficult to ask for advice or assistance when remote, and self-doubt will creep in quickly. So make sure team members know what is expected of them, and ensure that workloads and deliverables are realistic. 

3. Focus on outcomes, not outputs. 

Outcomes matter more than anything else. Whether your desired outcome is satisfied customers, revenue generated, uptime, or something else, focus on that, and ensure the team remain focussed on it. Resist the temptation to revert to more traditional, “lazy” styles of management by measuring outputs, lines of code written, story points completed or meetings attended. And certainly avoid falling back to input-driven management by logging hours worked – we already know that is a route to reduction of psychological safety and it’s the last thing a distributed team needs. 

By keeping the team focussed on what really matters to the business, psychological safety will be improved, because team members will know that their hard work makes a difference, and they can contribute to the success of the organisation.

outcomes vs outputs

4. Build a culture of appreciation.

When we’re all in the same place, appreciation and thanks are much easier to communicate and tend to be passive or automatic. With distributed teams, much more effort needs to be made to ensure team members feel valued and appreciated. This means being much more explicit with appreciation, and communicating it in multiple ways such as through video calls, emails, and instant messaging. It’s very easy to forget how often we thank each other when we’re co-located, and without that culture of appreciation, psychological safety will suffer.

5. Embrace routine and ritual.

The dramatic shift in ways of working has resulted in disruption to our routines – our start and finish times, any regular meetings, and lunch breaks have all been disrupted. Routines help us as humans feel more comfortable and psychologically safe when the world around us is changing and there is so much uncertainty elsewhere. 

Ritual also plays an important role in team cohesion, particularly so with distributed and remote teams. Every team will have its own rituals and ceremonies, from ringing a bell at a sprint kickoff, to having end-of-week drinks on a video call. Whatever the rituals are, keep them up in order to build psychological safety.

ringing a bell

6. Establish work boundaries.

Work has invaded our homes and our personal space and time. It’s very easy to allow work to spread out, particularly if strict boundaries are not set. Help your team set these boundaries, and enforce and model them. This may be ensuring that team members can turn off their phones after 6pm without worrying about missing important messages, or purchasing home office equipment so they don’t need to work from their kitchen table. 

To maintain psychological safety, team members need to be able to remove themselves from work and maintain their own personal, home and family space.

7. Use the many species of video call.

Video calls aren’t just for meetings. To bring back the feeling of cohesion and togetherness that is so important for psychological safety, try out different kinds of video call, such as “good morning” meetings to start the day, or by having an “always-on” watercooler style meeting where people can drop in and out as desired. Feeling more connected to team mates will build psychological safety and improve communication.

8. Be actively inclusive, or risk being passively exclusive.

In an office setting, it’s easy to see if someone is not engaged or is pulling away from the team. With a distributed team, this is far more difficult even on video calls. 

A critical stage of psychological safety is “contributor safety” – everyone needs to contribute if the team is to achieve high performance, and in distributed and remote teams, if you’re not being actively inclusive, you’re risking being passively exclusive. To build psychological safety, invite participation, ask questions, and always ensure that everyone has spoken at least once before ending a meeting.

one person withdrawn from the group

9. Adopt Hanlon’s razor.

First published in German in 1774, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote in The Sorrows of Young Werther: “Misunderstandings and lethargy perhaps produce more wrong in the world than deceit and malice do. At least the latter two are certainly rarer.” A sentiment later attributed to Robert J. Hanlon, hence “Hanlon’s razor”.

That is to say, it is important to assume the best intentions. If an email or message comes across as rude, blunt, or offensive, assume it was a miscommunication or misunderstanding. If in doubt, ask for clarification, ideally via video or voice.

To avoid others falling into the same trap, embrace emojis and gifs in your communications, even if they’re not your usual style. Emojis and gifs can help build and maintain psychological safety by ensuring that your communication is received in the most positive way possible.

smiley emoji helps to reassure intention

10. Put your own oxygen mask on first.

If you’re struggling with your own psychological safety, you will not be as effective in helping others with theirs. Find a mentor to advise and help you, eat healthily (but remember to treat yourself), exercise, meditate, and take time away from work; essentially, do whatever you know helps you maintain a happy and healthy approach and pace of work. As leaders of teams, many of us get so focused on caring for our team members that we minimise or neglect our own needs, but if you don’t look after yourself, you can’t look after others.

Take your time.

Finally, be patient. These are difficult times, and it’s to be expected that we will all experience challenges that impact our psychological safety and that of our team members. Utilising the ten behaviours above will help you and your team maintain psychological safety and improve not just team performance, but happiness too. Remember, happy teams aren’t happy because they’re high performing: they’re high performing because they’re happy.

Check out information about how to measure psychological safety in your teams here.

Download a complete Psychological Safety Action Pack full of workshops, tools, resources, and posters to help you measure, build, and maintain Psychological Safety in your teams.

For more information about building psychologically safe teams, read more about DevOps and psychological safety, read about high performing teams and psychological safety, or get in touch if you’d like me to speak or work with you.

Resilience Engineering, DevOps and Psychological Safety in High Performing Teams

The Links Between Psychological Safety, Resilience Engineering and DevOps

Note: since writing this, I’ve learned a lot more about resilience engineering and its relation to DevOps and psychological safety, which I’ve written up here in a rather haphazard way…


Psychological safety is cited as the key factor in team performance by numerous studies including Google’s Project Aristotle and the DORA/Google State Of DevOps Reports. The evidence shows that teams that operate in psychologically safe environments where they can present their true selves at work, take risks, admit mistakes, and ask for support from their teammates, significantly outperform other organisations

However, establishing psychological safety is rarely prioritised by delivery-focussed leaders. Instead, leaders tend to focus on objectives, metrics, and modern practices such as value-stream alignment and cross-functional teams. While these have great value, and will go some way, or indeed a long way, to drive performance and delivery, they are not the full picture.

It can be very challenging, however, particularly for less experienced leaders, or capable leaders in difficult circumstances, to build and facilitate psychologically safe environments. This is particularly true in technologically-oriented organisations where the domain is complex and failure is explicit, obvious and can generate a large blast radius. 

Mistakes happen. They must happen.

In a psychologically unsafe team, a software engineer who makes a mistake in a complex system and releases a small flaw into production that later causes an outage may be blamed for the mistake. The flaw will be easily attributable, and the impact of the outage can be significant. In many organisations, the resultant fear of error can dramatically slow down the rate of change and speed to market.

Of course, the converse is not appealing either; it’s not acceptable to tolerate errors, outages, and mistakes. Speed to market with a faulty product or service may be equally as bad as a significant delay to reach the market. Customers do not tolerate poor quality services, so we need to build high quality services and do it at velocity. This delivery at pace is one of the key tenets of DevOps, and an effective DevOps culture requires psychological safety.

Resilience Engineering and Psychological Safety

In my work on psychological safety in high performance teams, I’m often asked about how to achieve it, and whilst there are many general approaches that overlap significantly with principles of excellence in servant (or empathetic) leadership, there are also specific actions and approaches that are suitable specifically for technology teams. Here, we’re going to drill down into one of the key aspects of a DevOps approach: Resilience Engineering, and how it supports psychological safety.

Resilience Engineering is a field of study that emerged from cognitive system engineering in the early 2000s, largely in response to NASA events in 1999 and 2000, including the failure of the Mars Climate Orbiter. It is defined as “The intrinsic ability of a system to adjust its functioning prior to, during, or following changes and disturbances, so that it can sustain required operations under both expected and unexpected conditions.” Erik Hollnagel

Resilience Engineering is the intentional engineering of a system (a sociotechnical system, such as a community,  organisation, or nation) to not anticipate, detect and respond to both external and internal changes, planned or unplanned, to the system itself and continue to operate whilst change occurs.

Very little theory within this domain has been generated that doesn’t emerge from studies of real work; Resilience Engineering exists within high-stakes domains such as aviation, construction, surgery, military agencies and law enforcement.

The approaches below begin to approach the realm of resilience engineering, but as described by David Woods, Professor, Integrated Systems Engineering Faculty, Ohio State University, only really contribute to robustness, not resilience:

  • Decoupling and reducing dependencies between components
  • Utilising microservices and containerisation
  • Autoscaling applications based on demand
  • Creating self-healing applications and systems
  •  Using monitoring and visibility tools to facilitate responses to out-of-bounds events
  • Adopting error budgeting instead of (or in addition to) uptime measures
  • Using automated code testing, continuous integration and advanced deployment practices

robustness vs resilience

These approaches extend to concepts such as chaos engineering. This is where flaws and interruptions are intentionally introduced in order to examine how the system behaves and help engineers identify how they can improve it.

DevOps practices such as these help to build and improve psychological safety, through facilitating safe risk taking , and resilience Engineering requires psychological safety to be present, because it is only psychological safety that enables people (the adaptable component of a system) to anticipate, respond and adapt to changes and challenges.

The formation of DevOps teams

As a new DevOps-oriented team moves through Tuckman’s Forming-Storming-Norming-Performing cycle, it relies more and more on cultures and practices that facilitate risk taking and admitting mistakes. If these practices are not embedded, the team will never be able to progress to the “performing” stage, because high performance explicitly requires innovation, and therefore, risk taking. Without psychological safety, teams will cycle around the Storming and Norming phases as elements change in or around the team, such as people leaving or joining.

It is only once an engineering team reaches the high performing stage that they can truly deliver high quality services at velocity. By utilising resilience engineering principles and DevOps practices, engineers are supported to take risks, experiment, deploy changes and recover quickly. They can feel comfortable in the knowledge that if something did go wrong, they’d find out straight away, before customers start calling. These practices, far from being so-called “soft” skills, are measurable by solid metrics that describe velocity whilst maintaining reliability, such as Change Rate, Mean Time Between Failures (MTBF) and Mean Time To Restore (MTTR).

Engineering Team Topologies

Resilience Engineering has many similarities with the concept of Site Reliability Engineering (SRE), introduced by Ben Traynor’s team at Google in 2004. SRE practices and capabilities may be implemented by an expert, dedicated, shared SRE team, or it may suit your organisation to embed an SRE function into each stream-aligned (SA) team if the products and systems are large enough to justify it. Alternatively, it may be feasible to empower software engineers themselves to carry out SRE responsibilities if your systems are small enough.

In addition to expert leadership practice, well organised teams, adopted shared values, systemic root causes being diagnosed in retrospectives, and an embrace of continuous improvement, we must adopt capabilities that empower team members to carry out their roles without fear of failure. In a technology team, those capabilities are the very same ones that enable high velocity change, security, and reliability. 

For more information regarding technology team organisation, Matthew Skelton and Manuel Pais explore in great depth how software teams can be organised to deliver most value, safety, and performance in their book “Team Topologies”, where they examine how the concepts of Conways Law, Cognitive Load and Organisational Evolution converge. 

It’s not only engineering teams that benefit from resilience engineering.

Whatever team you’re on, or whatever team you lead, considering resilience engineering principles will improve delivery, safety, happiness, and performance. This enables people to work without fear, psychologically safe in the knowledge that errors do not flow downstream. This place is where true high performance, speed to market, quality and innovation happens.

Psychological safety is also a core component of Agile delivery teams, as it fundamentally enables truthful communication, response to change, and the ability to make mistakes and innovate.

Build your own high performing teams with psychological safety

For more information about high performance teams, psychological safety, DevOps, or any of the other concepts covered in this article, get in touch. I’m always open to opportunities for collaboration, speaking at events, podcasts, or other ways to get involved and help teams become more productive, safer, and most importantly, happier.

Download a complete Psychological Safety Action Pack full of workshops, tools, resources, and posters to help you measure, build, and maintain Psychological Safety in your teams.

@tom_geraghty

tom@tomgeraghty.co.uk