Why is psychological safety important to software engineering teams?

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Fire extinguisher by Piotr Chrobot

4 minute read

Before you can answer this question you need to know what psychological safety is. Amy Edmondson in her book The Fearless Organisation describes it as: 


The belief that the work environment is safe for interpersonal risk taking

The Fearless Organisation

The best way to understand what this means is to break down the three key areas.


Interpersonal risk

Interpersonal is defined as relating to relationships or communication between people therefore interpersonal risks are issues that could affect relationships or communication. This can be thought of as others perceiving you to be: 

  • ignorant – when you share you don’t know something
  • incompetent – when you make a mistake as you don’t know how to do something
  • negative – when you highlight mistakes, issues or potential problems
  • disruptive – when you make suggestions that are different to others or generally asking questions that no one else is

The most effective way to counteract these risks? Staying silent or limiting what you do say to just the bare minimum.

The problem here is that those very risks are some of the best ways we can learn from each other. By not taking those risks we slow or even limit the innovation opportunities for ourselves and others.

Work environment 

This can vary from situation to situation but typically the group of people you find yourself working with to accomplish some goal.  For software teams this is usually the team in which you work in day to day. But other working groups could also exist such as your peers across the department or the leadership team you are a part of. 

Belief 

This relates to the individual within a work environment and is what they think about taking interpersonal risks.

What does a psychologically safe environment look like? 

Based on the above definition a work environment would be one that allows individuals to speak up and take interpersonal risks by asking questions, saying they don’t know something, pointing out problems, admitting to making mistakes or make alternative suggestions without other people thinking less of them for it. In fact it is actively encouraged and rewarded to speak up in this way. 

A point to note is that psychologically safe environments don’t mean that there can never be any conflict. In fact it’s quite the opposite and that conflict is almost a characteristic of psychologically safe environments. In an environment like this individuals can have different views but, importantly, can work through them productively without resorting to stalemate.  

Complexity in the work environment 

A lot of work done by software engineering teams can be thought of as complex. Complexity arises from a number of factors such as uncertainty in what needs to be done, how best to do it and if the outcome is even obtainable. On top of that no one person can understands all the intricacies involved with the work due to most systems being larger than any one person can fully understand. This leads to high levels of interdependence between team members while they carry out the work and learn more about the system as they go.  This all needs highly effective collaboration between teams members to work out what needs to be done, how they will do it and how they will know it’s been successful.

These are some of the core reasons why software teams adopt agile delivery methods as they take into account this complexity and allow the people involved to learn as they deliver the system. 

Effective collaboration for group learning 

Effective collaboration between team members isn’t simply each person completing their part of the work and then handing this off to the next person like a production line. All this requires is effective cooperation between team members and coordination to fit all the pieces together. The problems with this production line framing of the work is that it misses the interdependence that exists between team members due to the complexity in the work environment. 

With effective collaboration individuals are able to learn from each other much more effectively as they are able to speak up and take the interpersonal risks without needing to second guess if their fellow team mates will think less of them for it.

Why is psychological safety important to software engineering teams? 

Creating software systems needs people to share information due to the complexity involved with the work. One of the best ways to make sure that information can flow freely as possible is for the people involved to feel it is safe for them to take interpersonal risks. While this does not guarantee success, teams that do are more likely to identify issues, come up with solutions and implement them much quicker than teams that don’t.

Psychological safety is a characteristic of highly performing teams and is a prerequisite for effective collaboration which is fundamental within software teams. 

What do you think?

Do teams need psychological safety?

What else can they do to help smooth the flow of information in teams?

How have your teams addressed collaboration?

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