What Is Psychological Safety and Why Is It Important for Product Managers



Last week, I wrote an article about the importance of Servant Leadership and how qualities of servant leadership can really differentiate good Product Managers from great ones.


One topic that is very interconnected with Servant Leadership is Psychological Safety. Servant Leadership is a leadership principle that in a way, drives more empowered employees, and more engaged teams.


On the list of critical soft skills important to Product Management, if Servant Leadership ranks as number one in importance, I would argue that Psychological Safety comes in at a very close second. This is especially true for Product Managers looking to have the best possible teams that crank out new great high quality features to improve the lives of your customers.


What is Psychological Safety

Psychological safety is basically having a willingness to take risks and volunteer your opinions with complete freedom; without concern that you might be ridiculed, or condemned. Paul Santagata, head of industry at google is quoted saying “There’s no team without trust”, and in many ways psychological safety is just that. Trust.


Teams with high Psychological Safety instill a creative atmosphere as they collaborate. Everyone is seen as well intended, and people can volunteer new, sometimes crazy ideas without a fear of being made fun of, or feeling stupid.


You can think about a team's psychological safety sort of like an improv class. Experienced improvisers will listen to what others in the group propose for a scene to act out, and just go with it when it is their turn. They adjust reality to fit the needs of the scene created, and accept their improv partners idea at face value.


However newer improvisers (or in this case people fostering lower levels of psychological safety), will try to re-write what their improv partner proposed instead of just going with it. By not being open and accepting to new ideas, improv groups can be less and less “psychologically safe”.



What it looks like when your team doesn’t have psychological safety


Let’s paint a pretty blunt but demonstrative example of what a team would look like if they had very low levels of psychological safety. Engineer 1, Engineer 2, and the Product Manager are in a room grooming stories for their upcoming sprint. They are talking through the work, breaking it down in sub tasks, and discussing the best potential approach to implementing a feature.


Suddenly, Engineer 2 has a crazy idea for a feature they have been working on;


Engineer 2: "What if we don’t automatically recognize the users location and instead prompt them to enter in their zip code. Doing this will be considerably easier to implement and will let us get this live for feedback from our customers in half the time."

Engineer 1: "Hmm that is a bad idea. It will make implementing auto detection take a lot longer."


Engineer 2: "You’re a bad idea! It makes total sense! What are you talking about?!"


The Product Manager who had been sitting in silence this whole time slams his fist on the table! “That is the stupidest idea ever, the user would never like that. Let’s do it the original way."


How do you think Engineer 2 felt about this iteration? There are distinct negative repercussions, both immediately, and long term for this team.


Immediately, the team allowed the Product Manager's hot headedness get in the way of a core agile principle of delivering value early and often. It would take the team twice as long to implement this feature, and in that time the team could have gotten loads of valuable feedback. Now, the team will be stuck working on this feature for months, only to find that the third party tool they were planning on using would be constantly wrong, customers all want to enter a different zip code anyway.


Now on the long term, the impact is even greater. Engineer 2, a rising star of the team is now disengaged. She is no longer willing to propose out of the box solutions that if listened to, would drastically improve how often the team delivers value.



What it looks like when your team does have psychological safety


This scenario above looks a lot different on a psychologically safe team. Let’s rewind to where Engineer 2 proposed that wacky solution:


Engineer 2: "What if we don’t automatically recognize the users location and instead prompt them to enter in their zip code. Doing this will be considerably easier to implement and will let us get this live for feedback in half the time."

Engineer 1: "Hmm, it may make features down the line slightly more challenging, but I really like how you’re thinking about this. Let’s take some time to dig into the potential future architecture here and create a spike to investigate. Great work!"


Product Manager: "Interesting! I’m not sure if it will resonate with our users, but I’m excited to test this out and see how it does."


And - Scene


WOAH


Complete team transformation. Does the psychologically safe version of the team mean that no one challenges anyone? No! Here you can see other team members did have concerns, but they are making an effort to question their viewpoints, listen to their teammates, and trust in each other's experience.


The end result of this team is multifaceted

  • Engineer 2 now feels listened to. In future meetings, she’ll remember how Engineer 1 and the Product Manager reacted to her idea, and will be ready to call out other ideas the team may not have considered before


  • Engineer 1 has also been thinking of different optimizations, and now she sees the Product Managers willingness to try new things


  • The Product Manager in the end provided a much more iterative roadmap to the teams stakeholders, and instead of waiting till the full feature was ready, realized that the team didn’t need to build zip code autodetection anyway!


Three ways to be a Product Manager who fosters Psychological Safety


1. Assume good intent


Technical development can often get heated. Folks have their own way they want to do things, and in software development there are often thousands of ways of doing the same thing. We all need to remember that everyone we work with is doing the best they can and are well intended.


Some people jump to conclusions, assume what others are thinking, or negatively interpret the actions of others. Assuming positive intent is a great way to cut through the clutter and realize that even when ideas are challenged, or new solutions are proposed, it is done in a positive way.



2. Foster team openness and receptivity


One of the biggest benefits for teams with a high degree of Psychological Safety is a receptivity to new ideas. This new idea receptivity spans all the way from the customer, to the most back end systems of code. Just because something has been done the same way for the last 20 years, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t challenge it. The more a team can be open and receptive to new ideas, the more we can learn, grow, and improve.


Want to learn more about what a growth mindset is and how it can help change not only your team, but also your life outside of work? Check out my review of the book Mindset, and how it can help product managers be better.



3. Get to know team members on a personal level


People have preferences. Not everyone will prefer to receive feedback, groom backlog items, or work collaboratively in the same way. Some people, based on their past work experiences or familial upbringing, will be better suited than others to psychological safety and its practices.


Not everyone's mindset starts from the same place. The more you as a product manager can learn about where people are coming from, what motivates and demotivates them, the more effectively you can instill a mindset built around fostering psychological safety.


This also comes in to play when a team member is causing problems. I’ve seen multiple times where one team member (often someone more experienced) can completely dismiss a team's psychological safety because they aren’t receptive to new ideas. Or sometimes a squad needs to reform and someone new joins that can trigger problems. Taking the time to get to know your team members on a deeper level can help overcome these challenges.



Psychological safety is absolutely critical for Product Managers. Whether or not you directly manage people, all Product Managers do have a position of leadership in the organization. People look to you to drive strategy, to think outside the box, and shepherd new ideas from inception to production. Ideas start in incredibly fragile states, and so do inter-team relationships. It takes time for teams to grow, and ideas to grow. By fostering psychological safety, we as Product Managers can create a better, more effective working environment.


About the author:

Ben Staples has over 7 years of Product Management and product marketing eCommerce experience. He is currently employed at Nordstrom as a Senior Product Manager responsible for their product pages on Nordstrom.com. Previously, Ben was a Senior Product Manager for Trunk Club responsible for their iOS and Android apps. Ben started his Product career as a Product Manager for Vistaprint where he was responsible for their cart and checkout experiences. Before leaving Vistaprint, Ben founded the Vistaprint Product Management guild with over 40 members. Learn more at www.Ben-Staples.com


I do Product Management consulting! Interested in finding out more? Want to get notified when my next Product article comes out? Interested in getting into Product Management but don't know how? Want book recommendations?! Contact me!

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