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Creating Psychological Safety for Inclusion and Innovation

Updated: Apr 21, 2022

by Sam Bowtell, CST


Our Daily Scrum

It’s our daily scrum, and as usual each team member has a chance to share some highlights from yesterday, some goals for today, and to highlight if they face any impediments. The team members in Sydney always go first, keen to contribute and share. Then we go to our offshore supplier in India and get their updates. Gopi shares, but Vijay and Kaushik don’t have their cameras on, and we don’t get to hear from them today.

We didn’t see them on camera or hear them speak yesterday, and I don’t expect they will have anything to say or switch on their cameras tomorrow. Maybe they are just shy and quiet. Maybe they are worried about their self-image and looking at themselves online, maybe it’s how they are dressed and not feeling professional enough as they are at home, or maybe it’s worrying about their family in the background coming into the picture?

Or… maybe they are multi-tasking and are actually doing something else right now when they should be focused on the daily scrum? And the camera being off gives them air cover to do the work they really want to be doing?

Or… maybe they are hiding, and feel quite comfortable in doing so? Maybe they don’t really feel part of this group of people and that the virtual setting gives them an excuse to retreat into the shadows and to be deep in the background, just listening and not being seen so there is a good chance they won’t have to speak or contribute?

Inclusion Safety

Think about a time when you felt excluded from a social group at work, at school or at home. What happened? What fun things did the group do without you? How did you try to break into that group? Why didn’t they include you? How did it feel to be excluded?

And now think about a time when you were included in a social group at work, at school or at home. What happened? What fun things did you do with the group? How did you all meet and get involved? How did it feel to be part of such a great group of people?

Being included in, or excluded, from a social group is something that we have all experienced since we were at school, and it continues in the workplace. Often, we may not consciously be excluding people, but may be too busy to take the time to ensure that everyone feels included as part of the team. If you don’t feel included or connected with a social group it’s very unlikely that you will actively contribute, let alone make suggestions about improvements or innovations.

Inclusion is the first stage of creating Psychological Safety in a team. In this article I will help Scrum Masters and leaders understand how to create higher levels of Psychological Safety with their teams, while sharing and explaining the 4 stages of Psychological Safety:

· Inclusion Safety

· Learner Safety

· Contributor Safety

· Challenger Safety

I will also suggest 7 tips of how to create Psychological Safety and deliver a deeper understanding of the concept through my examples and stories.

Fig 1: The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety from the book by Timothy Clark

Let’s go back to the Daily Scrum I described in the introduction. I decided to travel to India and meet the people working with us (we were the client). Our supplier was based in Chennai, a city on the south-eastern coast of India in Tamil Nadu. Gopi, Vijay and Kaushik were all extremely chatty and sociable with me, we had Indian coffee and later had a delicious meal in a local restaurant. We started to build relationships, rapport, and the foundations of trust. They explained how they didn’t really understand the bigger picture of the project we were delivering and didn’t feel they needed to share what they were doing as a supplier.

I met other team members working for clients from different countries, and the most motivated shared that they had ‘broken down the wall’ between the client and supplier, and that they now felt truly part of the ‘team’. They felt included. I learnt that changing my language made them feel more included, rather than use the words ‘offshore’ or ‘supplier’ I would simply refer to them as our colleagues or team members in the Chennai office.

For Inclusion safety to exist the leader or Scrum Master gives permission for the person to be part of the group, respecting the person’s humanity.

Learner Safety

Once people feel included you can move to Learner safety. With this stage, people feel safe to ask questions, give and receive feedback, experiment, and make mistakes. Feedback is a great way for people to learn and grow, yet we often get it so wrong, leading to people feeling defensive. The leader needs to help people learn from rather than punish mistakes. The leader needs to give an individual permission to learn, and to make it safe to do so. In return the individual needs to engage in learning and growing.

Let’s go back to Chennai. Gopi was very keen to learn and grow in his Scrum Master role, and we created the safety for him to do so. I gave him feedback regularly and he felt comfortable to ask questions when he wasn’t sure. By building a relationship with Gopi, I came to understand his learning needs and potential areas of growth. We created an Agile learning community between Chennai and Sydney, and the other team members started getting involved in their own development in a safe environment.

Contributor Safety

Now that Gopi and his colleagues in India felt safe to learn, something amazing happened. They started to suggest things and try things without being asked to, and without asking for prior permission. They brought a level of creativity and fun that we didn’t know they had in them, using gamification to make learning in the team fun (increasing the learner safety in others) and thrilled me with their innovative ideas and suggestions. We had moved to Contributor Safety where the leader gives autonomy for people to do their job fully. In return, the leader expects performance in return, and that the individual continues to actively contribute.

People often ask me, how do they get the quieter people in the team to contribute, to speak up and to offer ideas and suggestions. They expect people to have Contributor Safety straight away. I ask them to reflect on whether those team members feel truly included in the group, and if the person feels safe to learn. The earlier stages of Psychological Safety need to be achieved before we can get to the higher levels.

Challenger Safety

The highest level of Psychological Safety is called Challenger Safety, when people feel safe to challenge the status quo, and to make suggestions. They need to know there is no need to fear punishment and be confident there is no risk of reprisal or damaging their position or reputation. Crucially this means having the total confidence to speak the absolute truth to a decision maker when they think something needs to change.

When people challenge the status quo there will naturally be some degree of confrontation or conflict. The leader needs to maintain this at the level of an intellectual conflict, preventing any slide towards interpersonal conflict. A good leader achieves this by accepting the challenge in opinion with an open mind and by enabling dissent. This helps true innovation happen as people feeling safe to suggest ground-breaking or evolutionary ideas.

Bringing all the stages together

Challenger Safety happened in India when the team in Chennai decided to create their own version of an Agile conference that we had first started running in Sydney. Rather than just dial in to the last few hours of the day of learning from Australia, they challenged and suggested that they run their own satellite Agile conference, with their own speakers for their audience in India. The event was a huge success and to me showed how all the levels of Psychological Safety come together one after the other.

At the first conference, Gopi and his team felt included as we had invited them to join the Sydney based event as attendees (Inclusion Safety). At the next one, Gopi put himself forward as a speaker for the Sydney event and asked us to give feedback and help him refine his talk (Learner Safety). Other team members then asked to get involved in the organising committee for the Sydney event (Contributor Safety) and finally the innovative idea came up to run their own event in Chennai (Challenger Safety).

And remember, these were the once the ‘resources’ from our offshore supplier in India, who were now acting and feeling like our colleagues from the Chennai office, engaging with equal voice and cameras on with our team in Sydney. Yet, they remain employees of our supplier in India, we just decided to treat them with the same respect, dignity and inclusion that our people in Sydney expected as a basic human right at work.

How to create Psychological Safety in your team

Below are 7 tips on how a leader can create a higher degree of safety in their team. I would also recommend creating an anonymous Psychological Safety survey and run a workshop with the team to learn more about how they are feeling. I was often asked to do this for other teams as an independent facilitator.

  1. Start with yourself, admit that you are human and make mistakes.

  2. Admit that as a leader you don’t have all the answers. Ask the team for ideas and input.

  3. Never shut people down or punish them for ‘silly’ ideas. Listen and let ideas evolve.

  4. Give and receive regular feedback.

  5. Be grateful for things the team do for you and others.

  6. Talk about non work-related matters with your team members.

  7. Help and support your team to make time to learn as well as deliver.

Learn more about the 4 stages of Psychological Safety from the excellent book by Timothy Clark which I highly recommend.

Sam Bowtell Certified Scrum Trainer




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