Being an effective technical leader goes beyond task and goal setting: it encompasses creating an environment where developers can truly thrive. At the heart of this achievement lies psychological safety, a term often mentioned but not always fully understood.
In this episode of Codurance Talks, our Managing Director in Spain, José E. Huerta Rodríguez, sits down with Markus Seebacher, Director of Engineering at Block, to discuss the nuances of creating a Developer Experience (DevEx) that not only prioritises psychological safety but also serves as a catalyst for innovation within organisations.
While investing in performance is certainly valuable, José and Markus emphasise the importance of not overlooking psychological safety, a fundamental element that underpins everything. Productivity, efficiency, and effectiveness depend on individuals working well as human beings, feeling comfortable, and being able to communicate. But what does psychological safety really entail?
José and Markus define it this way:
''It's an environment where you feel secure, where your reactions are not conditioned by fear or pressure. Psychological safety means that the team feels comfortable taking interpersonal risks. Can I be my authentic self? Can I ask questions freely? Can I contribute or challenge the status quo? Can I express my thoughts without fear?''
Leaders play a crucial role in creating an environment where reactions are not conditioned by fear. In this sense, their behavior shapes the Developer Experience and sets the standard for safety, defining how the team perceives risk: do they see it as positive or view it as negative?
If the team perceives it as something negative, the organisation will be adversely affected, as only through that safety to take risks can a curious and innovation-driven mindset be cultivated within an organisation.
How to create a psychologically safe environment?
To create a safe environment, Markus discusses 4 stages, originally developed by Timothy R. Clark, of psychological safety that a technical leader should strive to navigate in order to provide a good Developer Experience:
Phase 1: Inclusion Safety
Psychological safety is grounded in inclusion; that is, in social and cultural acceptance. This means that team members should feel valued as individuals and have the freedom to express their authentic identity. To foster a sense of belonging among your team members, it is essential to promote an environment that celebrates differences, prioritises collaboration over competition, and establishes 'social rituals' to facilitate connection within team members. Encourage inclusion through the following actions:
- Work on your communication skills to promote open dialogue and cultivate an environment where everyone's voice is heard and valued.
- Get to know each team member individually, understanding their specific strengths and challenges.
- Set an example by actively collaborating with each member of your team.
Phase 2: Learner Safety
Feeling safe during a learning process empowers team members to welcome vulnerability, make errors, and explore new ideas without the fear of being mocked or criticised. To promote this sense of security and establish a culture of continuous learning, you must separate the idea of making a mistake from the fear commonly associated with it. Communicate this differentiation to your team in the following way:
- Engage in a constructive conversation with your team about different types of errors - preventable mistakes, those related to code complexity, and intelligent mistakes - and how to address them. The goal is to explore the cause of each error so that, subsequently, the team is capable of designing appropriate solutions for each one of them. In this way, not only is an environment conducive to growth and improvement, but there is also a shift from a blaming mentality to a problem-solving mindset.
- Present errors as opportunities for team development. Emphasise the learning aspect, and along with the team, reflect on what can be gained from mistakes to drive improvements in the future. Here, the real mistake is not learning from an error.
Phase 3: Contributor Safety
In this phase, it'll be essential for team members to feel empowered to actively contribute to value creation and take full responsibility of their work. Among the actions you can take to cultivate a sense of meaningful contribution are:
- Encourage team members to engage with personal initiative and autonomy.
- Foster responsibility by asking questions about what each person should do, rather than giving out instructions. You can also promote ownership by placing particular emphasis on individual responsibility at the task, project, and outcome levels.
- Understand the specific skills and challenges of each teammate to provide necessary support and adjust challenges according to their personal abilities.
Phase 4: Challenger Safety
Feeling safe when facing a challenge drives teams beyond their comfort zones toward innovation with greater confidence. At this stage, you must protect your team members as they take risks and push their boundaries. This involves guiding the team in a controlled manner, ensuring they feel supported without feeling limited. In this regard, your role as a leader should be reflected as follows:
- Foster an environment where challenges are perceived as growth opportunities.
- Provide protection without taking away autonomy from team members.
- Encourage constructive responses to disruptive ideas and avoid establishing a culture where such ideas are dismissed.
In this episode, we discussed how navigating these four stages of psychological safety can have a significant impact on your team, facilitating their growth and success in an environment where they experience harmony, maintain motivation, and, above all, are empowered to achieve the desired increase in productivity. The key lies in how people collaborate from the outset, with trust being the central element of this process.
We encourage you to reflect on these stages and actively work towards creating an environment where psychological safety is not just a goal but a tangible reality that drives innovation in your teams. If you're seeking to enhance your team's Developer Experience (DevEx) and transform their way of working, we recommend our Katalyst by Codurance program, where we can assist you in boosting both your teams' performance and satisfaction.
We also recommend you download Markus Seebacher's psychological safety Starter Kit here: Free Starter Kit.