Psychological Safety At Work

Overbearing and oppressive leadership can make people afraid of failure, destroy initiative, and even cause unethical behaviors within the enterprise.”

Agility is the state envisioned by moving to an Agile way of working. Agility is the state of continuous flux, high responsiveness, speed, and adaptiveness. Some basic facts are fundamental for any transformation towards a state of increased agility.

  1. Agility can’t be planned
  2. Agility can’t be dictated
  3. Agility can’t be copied
  4. Agility has no end-state

I would like to emphasize point two above, Agility can’t be dictated. The agile methodology says people over processes hence having a safe and secure team is the fundamental requirement to succeed in any Agile transformation.

“Agile teams live with constant change — whether it be learning, evolving priorities, or shifting technologies — their energies must be spent on working together healthily. If they are living in an unhealthy and unsafe environment, it will undoubtedly slow the team down, reduce innovation, and cause unnecessary burnout within the team.” 

Pete Anderson, Lead Product Owner, Target

According to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, a five-tier model of human needs, often depicted as hierarchical levels within a pyramid.

“Needs lower down in the hierarchy must be satisfied before individuals can attend to needs higher up. From the bottom of the hierarchy upwards, the needs are physiological, safety, love and belonging, esteem, and self-actualization.” 

So, I can’t give more emphasis on why meeting physiological and phycological needs is a must for any human/team to function effectively.

Cut to the present scenario, as countries introduce measures to restrict movement as part of efforts to reduce the number of people infected with COVID-19, more and more of us are making huge changes to our daily routines. The new realities of working from home, temporary unemployment, home-schooling of children, and lack of physical contact with other family members, friends, and colleagues take time to get used to. Adapting to lifestyle changes such as these, and managing the fear of contracting the virus and worry about people close to us who are particularly vulnerable, are challenging for all of us. They can be particularly difficult for people with mental health conditions.

Just to give you an example, one of my friends who works for an IT firm. Due to the Covid-19 lock-down, he was working from home for some time. He called me a few days back and sounded very depressed. He told me that in the wake of lock-down relaxation he was asked to come to office and work. He has a small kid at home and his wife also works from home. He has no choice but to comply. I can imagine what he must be going through, can he focus on work @office? What about his morale and motivation? This is not just an isolated example rather we have numerous such examples around us where there is no psychological safety net.

As I said before, Agile puts people at its core. As we know Scrum is a subset of Agile. It is a lightweight process framework for agile development. There are three roles in Scrum.

  • Product Owner
  • Scrum Master
  • Development team

Scrum Master is a servant leader responsible for ensuring the team lives agile values and principles and follows the processes and practices that the team agreed they would use. In the context of our discussion, Scrum master can be that person who provides that safety net to the team members so that they can feel engaged and work towards the Sprint goal. But how?

Here are some helpful tips:


The responsibility of psychological safety should lie with the Agile leaders. Agile leaders do not have to hold a ‘C’ level position. Anyone can fulfill the role of an Agile leader. “Moreover, only these leaders can create an environment that encourages high-performing Agile teams to flourish and produce value. Leaders, therefore, must internalize and model leaner ways of thinking and operating so that team members will learn from their example, coaching, and encouragement”. If this is not the case with some of the organizations then it is the responsibility of the Agile enabler or Scrum Master to act as a change agent and coach the leadership team / key stakeholders.

Provide a platform to speak up:

Placing draconian restrictions on employees is a detriment to psychological safety, especially rules or infrastructure that limit communication. To overcome this, create liberal pathways to leadership, provide channels for feedback, and encourage conversation. Develop an environment of trust and mutual respect in which people are comfortable being themselves. Spend time connecting with people to gain their trust and earn their respect. Remember, respect cannot be demanded with titles. One of the keys to psychological safety is that people feel comfortable voicing their opinions and do not fear being judged.

  • Coach Product Owner and stakeholders so that they too recognize the importance of team members speaking up their mind
  • Be open to opinions that differ from your own
  • Be approachable and encourage team members to ask questions
  • Be a good listener

Come up with a team social-contract/working-agreement:

One of the core concepts of Agile for any Scrum team to embrace is the concept of working agreements. The discipline of the team comes straight from working agreements it establishes on its own. A working agreement is not meant to dictate precisely how work gets done, but more to emphasize team behaviors that will keep everyone productive, positive, and accountable. 

Let me give an example of a social contract that we follow in our team:

  • Show respect for every team member.
  • Any change to the Sprint backlog requires Product Owner approval.
  • Always adhere to the Definition of Done while it comes to the acceptance of the increment to be released.
  • Update the user stories before each day’s daily stand-up event.
  • Keep cell phones away during every Scrum meeting.
  • Adhere to the time boxing of the Scrum ceremonies.

Focus on team morale rather than the happiness index:

Morale is the enthusiasm and persistence with which a member of a team engages in the prescribed activities of that group. So, rather than focusing on the mundane Sprint happiness index, we can focus on team morale.

Teams with High Morale usually have the following traits:

  • Members are willing to help each other out, no matter the nature of the task;
  • Members are proud of their team (and usually tell the outside world) and the work they do;
  • Members will go the extra mile individually or for the team, even if it means staying late to finish the sprint;
  • Members will persist (not give up), even in the face of high work-pressure, difficult technical problems, nasty bugs or a difficult sprint;
  • Members are generally happy in the team and enjoy working there, on a whole

So as a Scrum Master, how can you measure the morale of your team?

A practical version of the measure is shown below:

  • In my team, I feel fit and strong;
  • I am proud of the work that I do for my team;
  • I am enthusiastic about the work that I do for my team;
  • I find the work that I do for my team of meaning and purpose;
  • I look forward to working with the team every single day

If we have a good, statistically sound measure of Team Morale, we can use it to advance our understanding of the processes at work in Scrum Team.

Run a better Retrospective:

“Psychological safety is a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes.”

Amy Edmondson, Professor, Harvard Business School

One of the Agile Manifesto‘s principles suggests, all teams regularly reflect on how to become more effective. The main goals of a retrospective are to promote self-improvement, improve processes, and advance team members’ skills. Retrospective meetings can be a good platform to enforce psychological safety a little further.

We can adapt the following guidelines while running with the Sprint retrospective meetings:

  • Nominate a facilitator

A successful retrospective needs a facilitator who can ensure the group will achieve the goals of the meeting. A facilitator can help open up the discussion by asking:

  1. What didn’t work?
  2. What did everyone do and how did we do it?
  3. What will we do differently next time?

To create safety, the meeting facilitator needs to actively invite input from and engage with all team members. The facilitator also needs to manage the meeting to avoid interruptions.

  • Everyone has a voice

Team members are not only permitted to speak but should feel an obligation to flag issues when they occur. When teams are sharing bad news, it is even more important to create a feeling of safety and empowerment.

  • Have Fun

The foundation of play is “enjoyment.” Laughter is often recognized as a fundamental sign of a safe connection inside a team. Therefore, creating the opportunity for fun will allow everyone to signal they feel safe. This may require you to try out some unconventional techniques.
A lot of deliberate practice is needed to master the art of blameless retrospective. It is worth investing the time to have regular retrospectives to create a feeling of safety and enable people to discuss their work openly.


“The best software comes from the collaboration between all team members where all get a voice in the development process. To maximize this collaboration, team members must feel safe in sharing ideas and concerns. They also must be encouraged to be creative and push the bounds of the development process to create software that is exponentially better than expected. This goal of developing great software is at the core of physiological safety.”

 Mark Smith, Vice President Solutions Consulting, MentorMate

The transformation to Agile has been one of the major management shifts in software development in the last 15 years; physical product development organizations are now beginning to integrate Agile into their processes as well. While Agile brings many benefits, many organizations have experienced challenges with its implementation.

High performing teams require psychological safety. As such, Agile teams need to feel that they can speak up without any repercussions whatsoever. While this may seem trivial, many Agile teams operate in an environment that forces them to avoid difficult conversations and walk around the truth. To conclude, in essence, psychological safety is not a luxury for Agile teams.

It’s a necessity.

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