This article is part of a six-part series on software team dynamics. Did you miss the beginning? Read the Introduction to the series and the first article on Composition first.
Otherwise, thanks for returning to learn more about the origins of high-performing teams! In this article, we’ll examine the sources of psychological safety and bonding that lay the groundwork for effective collaboration.
Safety and trust are prerequisite for the collaborative performance of a team.
(Okay, so to be fair, this article is titled “Compassion” because that’s a pleasant and mostly accurate word that fits the “C” theme. From here on out, we’ll really be talking about Safety.)
Business thinkers have produced a glut of information on how to increase team performance, but without a sense of basic safety, nothing else gets off the ground. We’ve previously cited an excellent article detailing Google’s findings on team dynamics which found that the most valuable team members possess high “average social sensitivity” (nerd alert); in other words, “they were skilled at intuiting how others felt based on their tone of voice, their expressions and other nonverbal cues.”
They were skilled at intuiting how others felt based on their tone of voice, their expressions and other nonverbal cues.
Google summarized some this research on their own blog, too, distilling five keys to a successful team. They found that psychological safety was the prerequisite for all of the others. Here’s how they define it:
Team members feel safe to take risks and be vulnerable in front of each other.
How many workers (software engineers or not) feel this way in the workplace? How many organizations recognize that it impacts the quality of their work?
Make it Safe to Fail
One aspect of psychological safety is the perceived risk of failure at work. Do employees feel that it’s safe to attempt tasks without a guarantee of success? If they don’t, it will encourage them to shirk their responsibilities when success is uncertain. Of course, failure carries higher stakes in some situations than in others; but every team will benefit from identifying and naming situations where it’s safe for members to take risks and try new things.
Teams can build this into their culture by modeling and affirming ownership of mistakes, sharing less-than-shining moments with one another transparently, pausing occasionally to have fun, and proactively celebrating each other’s successes. In his Scrum Master Checklist, Michael James proposes this question as one way to gauge the health of a team:
Do team members seem to like each other, goof off together, and celebrate each other’s success?
Carol Dweck’s research on Growth Mindset illustrates how the way we view intelligence and ability has a profound impact on our attitudes toward challenge, risk, and failure. She suggests that ability and intelligence are acquired rather than innate, and they grow with effort and practice. The implications of her work are vast; I highly encourage anyone interested to investigate further.
Teams that can establish these cultural notions will likely find it easier to cultivate a willingness to embrace challenge, a healthy tolerance for well-managed risks, and a sense of security around occassional (and inevitable) failure. Simply approaching setbacks with the notion that abilities are malleable, rather than fixed, can make a world of difference in building a culture of safety.
Conflict is an inevitable part of any social environment, and every team of talented, passionate people will experience their share. Framing respectful, non-violent conflict as a normal, healthy, and good thing can do wonders to improve a team’s sense of safety and their willingness to communicate freely.
Marshall Rosenberg has written and presented broadly on the kind of language that enables healthy, earnest conflict—many of his workshops are viewable on YouTube. His ideas are mind-blowing; it’s entirely conceivable that watching one might change your life.
Compassion and Creativity
Building an emotionally safe culture has measureable benefits on the quality of work that teams produce. Studies suggest that trust among teams increases productivity, candor leads to greater creativity, and team members who demonstrate compassion to one another are “more creative, resilient, and eager to contribute at work.” Who doesn’t want their team to be more creative and productive?
Team members who demonstrate compassion to one another are more creative, resilient, and eager to contribute at work.
With that in mind, let’s remember that the level of compassion safety we build with our teammates will impact our group’s performance and our organization’s bottom line.
Ta-Ta For Now
Thanks for reading! Are you curious to learn more about what drives great teams? If so, stay tuned for the next article in this series: Communication.