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Psychological Safety and Software Engineering

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Psychological Safety and Software Engineering

No idea is too ridiculous. In the world of software engineering, the freedom to fail (and the freedom to learn quickly) creates a culture of constant innovation – how do we build a working environment that encourages and embraces every contribution? The answer might rest with psychological safety.

Coined by Amy Edmonson back in 1999, psychological safety is defined as the ‘belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes, and the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.’

This freedom to take risks that leads to meaningful growth and transformation, not just in terms of output quality, but also the culture itself. ‘Failure’ is woven into the fabric of software engineering. Any software engineer who’s ever coded will have likely struggled to get something right on their first attempt, whether it involves correcting a typo or ripping up the project and starting again, bugs are all but guaranteed, and they’re a vital part of growth.

Leaders must ensure that their teams are equipped to fail, learn, try again, and succeed. They’ll probably have a hard time doing this without the presence of psychological safety. For those wishing to benefit from the increased productivity, innovation, and greater retention rates that psychological safety represents, it’s worth thinking about these points.

Invite Feedback

Do your team members have an opportunity to offer their input? Involving your people in the decision-making process lets them know their voices are valued, provided you solicit feedback in a way that suits your individuals. For example, not everyone is comfortable speaking in a forum setting, but it doesn’t mean they don’t have anything valuable to say.

Encouraging contributions from a diverse range of perspectives (and not shutting them down) is vital. Transparency, respect, and communication are the foundations of this dynamic – have you made a decision that affects the team? Let them know the reasons for it.

Software engineers shouldn’t feel as though their jobs are at risk if they make an honest mistake. Working in fear of humiliating reprisal is a surefire way to limit productivity. Without encouraging feedback, it’s impossible to know if your team members are vulnerable enough to take risks. Perhaps the worst mistake is not being allowed to make mistakes in the first place.

Fight for Your Team

For many, agility and adaptability are the name of the game in today’s software engineering landscape, or rather, that’s the ideal. A successful, agile team take risks because they need to – are you championing their efforts?

Buy-in from leadership is essential. This doesn’t mean you need to become a helicopter manager, quite the opposite, it demands that you place your trust in your people. Once you shift focus away from what a ‘perfect’ team looks like and instead focus on letting your team learn and grow.

Understand Unconscious Bias

A little self-awareness goes a long way. Everyone has some form of bias, it’s part of being human, but naturally, some biases are vastly more harmful than others. Some of the best leaders take steps to understand and mitigate their bias, which in turn, enables them to develop a far more inclusive style of leadership.

There are some free bias tools online, but it’s worth exploring formalised bias training if you’re planning on leading a team. What’s this got to do with psychological safety? Bias can limit the freedom of expression. Those with certain biases might react differently to team members based on their social and political identities (check out intersectionality), and this can mitigate psychological safety if left unchecked.

If people aren’t empowered to be authentic at work, they’re essentially limiting themselves, the opposite of psychological safety.

Lead with Kindness

Kindness wins every time. Empathic leaders typically have an easier time creating a culture that thrives on communication, transparency, and ultimately, psychological safety.

Work with Trust in SODA

At Trust in SODA, we thrive on connecting people with opportunities they can thrive in. To continue making a positive impact on the working world, we need to help employers develop the kind of environments that cater for the diverse needs of incredible tech talent. If you’d like to know more about our community-led recruitment solutions, our diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging methodology, our thought leadership events, or you’d just like to talk tech careers, get in touch with the SODA squad today, we’d love to hear from you.