When thinking about becoming a better software engineer, most of us think about learning new languages, using new technologies, reading books about software architecture, participating in tech conferences etc. We rarely stop to think about the non-technical aspects that drive motivation, engagement and performance. But having good technical skills is not enough to ensure success. Similarly, it is not enough to put together a group of highly skilled individuals in order to create a highly effective team.
Humans are deeply social and emotional creatures and software engineers are no exception. We have an innate, biologically-driven need for interpersonal relationships. Our brains are built to help us function as members of a tribe, with most of our energy being devoted to connecting with others. Similarly, a significant driver of our behavior and attitudes is emotion. We evolved to have emotions because they facilitate adaptive responses to environmental challenges.
The workplace – a place driven by profits, results and performance metrics – can seem to have no room for emotion or genuine human connection. Even the terms used to describe humans in the workplace, e.g. “human resources”, “head count”, “human capital” are dehumanizing, as they imply viewing humans as a type of a resource, an interchangeable-object, and not as a human being.
But developers do not leave their psychological needs at the office door when coming to work in the morning. Nor do they give up social expectations or interpersonal anxiety when they join a meeting via Zoom.
In the strive for performance, new technologies and technical skills, software engineers can end up neglecting aspects that are harder to conceptualize, measure, and reason about, but which are in fact prerequisites for high performance.
One of those aspects is psychological safety – a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking. It describes a team climate characterized by interpersonal trust and mutual respect in which people are comfortable being themselves, speaking up, engaging in constructive conflict or confrontation, and feel that it is safe to experiment and take risks. In a team that is psychologically safe, people feel that their input is valued, are not afraid to speak up when they identify a problem or a potential risk, offer feedback and constructive criticism, view failures as a learning experience, ask questions, share knowledge and learn from each other.
Psychological safety doesn’t mean reducing performance standards or lack of consequences. In a psychologically safe environment, people can still be fired for not meeting performance expectations or for repeated rule violations, but their behavior is not governed by interpersonal fear. Not enforcing consequences for clear rule violations or allowing low performing individuals to stay in the team and contribute to an “inverse bus factor” can in fact decrease psychological safety. For instance failure to address one person’s low performance or lack of dependability can trigger micromanagement, which in turn reduces the entire team’s psychological safety.
Also, psychological safety on its own does not lead to high performance. In order to be successful, a team still needs to have smart, motivated people. But in order for the smart, motivated people to succeed, the team climate needs to allow them to feel included, safe to learn, to experiment, to ask questions, to admit and learn from mistakes without fear of rejection, humiliation or retribution.
In “The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety” Clark argues that psychological safety is a basic human need, the manifestation of the need for self preservation, but in a social and emotional sense.
While research in organizational psychology has demonstrated the significant role of psychological safety on a wide array of work related outcomes, such as learning, performance and work commitment, its impact appears to be greater in environments where there are higher creativity requirements, sense-making requirements and complexity. It is unsurprising thus that psychological safety plays a key role in software development. Perhaps the most widely known study in this regard was a longitudinal study performed at Google, which identified psychological safety as the number one characteristic of successful high-performing teams. Since then, additional empirical research in organizational psychology has supported the connection between psychological safety and various aspects of our behavior and attitudes in the workplace, such as:
Brain science has amply demonstrated that fear inhibits learning and cooperation. Research in neuroscience shows that fear consumes physiologic resources, diverting them from parts of the brain that manage working memory and process new information. In an environment that is not perceived as being safe, a junior developer may refrain from asking questions for fear of appearing stupid, another developer might refuse to take up a challenging task for fear of failure and subsequent punishment, yet another might focus on covering up a mistake instead of learning from it.
Communication, knowledge sharing and voice behaviour
Psychological safety has been linked to greater knowledge sharing among team members, more interpersonal communication, greater reporting of errors, voicing disagreement and more candid feedback.
Performance, innovation and creativity
Psychological safety has a strong influence on performance at both individual and team level. This influence is both direct and indirect, through factors such as learning and team turnover. In addition to performance, employee perceptions of psychological safety are positively associated with creativity, innovation and knowledge creation.
Work engagement, commitment and job satisfaction
When developers feel safe in their current team, they are more likely to want to remain in the same workplace and develop stronger attachment to the organization. Similarly, the reduced anxiety that comes from psychological safety allows individuals to develop professionally and experience greater job satisfaction.
Psychological safety and burnout
Lack of psychological safety also plays a role in one of the most damaging phenomenon in the workplace: burnout. Burnout is defined as a state of mental and physical exhaustion, cynicism and reduced professional efficacy and its prevalence is high in the tech world: 2 out of 5 IT professionals are at high risk of burnout. Considering that burnout is the result of poorly managed chronic stress, it is not surprising to see that perceiving your environment as safe and supportive reduces stress and lowers the risk of burning out. In addition, as burnout comes with increased irony, cynicism and skepticism, it can in itself reduce psychological safety of the team.
What’s more, burnout incidence has been on the rise after the pandemic. One of the reasons is the increasingly blurred lines between work and personal life. With the ability to work from home, it becomes increasingly difficult to disengage from work, with 56% of IT professionals stating that they can’t relax once their work day is over. Similarly, as the level of prior interaction between and familiarity among team members is a key driver of psychological safety, remote work and hybrid working environments can pose additional difficulties in creating a safe environment.
Given the extensive impact of the non-technical aspects of our work environments on our performance and general well-being, perhaps we can become better engineers by developing a deeper understanding of our own needs in the workplace and how to protect them. You can read a few practical suggestions in this regard in the second part of this post.
- Van der Kolk, B. A. (2015). The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma . Penguin Publishing Group.
- Edmondson, A. (1999). Psychological Safety and Learning Behavior in Work Teams. Administrative Science Quarterly , 44 (June, 1999), 350-383.
- Clark, T. R. (2020). The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety: Defining the Path to Inclusion and Innovation . Berrett-Koehler Publishers.
- Newman, A., Donohue, R., & Eva, N. (2017). Psychological safety: A systematic review of the literature. Human Resource Management Review , 27 , 521-535.
- Edmondson, A. C. (2018). The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth . Wiley.
- Frazier, LM, Fainshmidt, S., Klinger, RL, Pezeshkan, A., & Vracheva, V. (2017). Psychological Safety: A Meta-Analytic Review and Extension. Personnel Psychology , 70 , 113-165.
- Vévoda, J., Vévodová, Š., Nakládalová, M., Grygová, B., Kisvetrová, H., Grochowska Niedworok, E., & Merz, L. (2016). The relationship between psychological safety and burnout among nurses. Occupational Medicine/Pracovní Lékarství, 68.