How tech companies can create psychological safety

When I first heard about the ‘Human side of IT-event’ my heart immediately skipped a beat. I feel like a large part of the presentations and talks in our tribe are targeted for developers. And this event sounded like it was also meant for me, the business analyst! During this internal Rabobank event, the ethical, responsible and sustainable side of IT were highlighted and one of the sessions was about psychological safety. In this blog, I’ll share the key take-aways of this session, given by Carolien Tijssen - Agile Coach at Rabobank.

Danielle Almeida
Danielle Almeida
Scrum Master / Business Analyst – Housing
5 minutes
March 31, 2022

Rabobank is an IT company, and engineers play a key role in shaping the future of the bank. So we need a context in which engineers can flourish: an engineering culture. And psychological safety is essential to create that culture. It’s crucial that engineers feel free and safe to fail. Because mistakes are inevitable and failures happen when we innovate, take risks and build new technologies. It’s how we learn and improve.

Psychological safety – in the news

As Carolien mentioned right at the start, psychological safety is an increasingly important topic. Especially with current events as the coronavirus pandemic and the new (digital) challenges that the pandemic presents. As well as recent developments within several industries about transgressive sexual behaviour. Psychological safety is always an important topic, and – I fully support this development – increasingly so within the working environment.

Psychological safety – it’s a perception

What immediately resonated with me is Carolien’s emphasis that psychological safety is a belief of an individual. What is perceived as a psychologically safe environment for one person, can be perceived as an unsafe environment for the next. That shows exactly the complexity of the matter: there is no absolute truth. We all have different personalities, experiences and backgrounds. We take all of these factors along with us when deciding if, and under what circumstances, we feel psychologically safe.

Psychological safety – the features

What drives a company to create a safe environment for their employees? Besides the obvious answers – which we won’t discuss further in this blog – safety brings a lot of additional important features within a team. When someone feels safe, he or she dares to bring up new ideas, ask questions, show concerns about a matter and is also able to admit to their own mistakes. Psychological safety is a crucial factor for these features. Psychological safety is perceived as a pre-condition for a team to be able to be High Performing. And don’t we all want to be High Performing?

Psychological unsafe – how to detect it?

So how are you – as a team member or a coach – able to detect whether one or more people within your team perceive the environment as psychologically unsafe? Carolien explains that this one important sign can be that people do not speak up. Or – even more interesting – when people say that everything is fine. As there are always ways to improve yourself and your team, team members saying that everything is going well and that there are no points for improvement, might be a sign that he or she perceives the environment as psychologically unsafe.

If this sign is not picked up by the team, this behaviour might evolve to sabotaging behaviour. Sabotaging behaviour is all about gossiping, laughing at each other and counter acting. It can even evolve towards fraudulent conduct. It is all too clear that it pays off to take the extra time and attention to make sure your team members feel safe to speak up.

Psychological unsafe – what can YOU do?

Ok, so you decided that you want to make a difference. That might be easier said than done. Because how do you go about it once you realize that one or more members within the team don’t feel safe? What can you do?

In addition to intervention tools from a coaching perspective, according to Carolien it mainly comes down to this: take the time to get to know one another. That might be a more important part of your job than many of us may realize. What drives my team member(s)? What gives them energy, and what sucks all the energy right out of them? What can I wake them up for in the middle of the night? And – especially nowadays – what is their home and working environment?

When you notice that some of your team members speak a lot and others don’t speak at all, it might help to first give people time to write down the answers during a session and present the answers later on. This gives everyone a chance to think and to say what they want to say about the subject.

One playful exercise you can do during a session with your team is called ‘Tinder in Reverse’. Carolien explains the basic principle, which is to talk to one of your colleagues so you are able to make a Tinder profile of them on a piece of paper. What positive characteristics and fun memories can you write down about him or her? In addition, your colleague writes down 1 lie and 1 truth about him- or herself: something that might be surprising to the team members. You then present his or her Tinder profile to the team. Are you and your teammates able to subtract the truth from the lie about your colleague? It’s a fun exercise that lets you build a closer bond AND get to know all of your team members better.

The After Talk

Fortunately, we had enough time left at the end to ask Carolien some questions. Under the capable guidance of Mariska Spanenburg – van Beem, the conversation now really got going! I was pleasantly surprised by how much of a lively subject this is within our tech departments.

It is generally accepted that psychological safety has very much to do with inclusion and diversity. When people feel included and respected for their individual input and beliefs, they are more likely to feel safe and speak up.

When we look at people through the eyes of ‘introvert versus extravert’ – which was widely pointed out in the chat – Carolien emphasizes to be careful with these kind of labels. She refers back to her word of advice to invest in all your team member by planning 1-on-1 talks. Also, give everyone the chance to write down their own answer during team meetings before discussing it in the group. And in Carolien’s very own words: in team discussions never forget to search for the ‘li’ in the ‘lalalala’!

About the author

Danielle Almeida
Danielle Almeida
Scrum Master / Business Analyst – Housing
With a passion for people and the environment, Danielle feels right at home working for the area of Sustainable Living as part of ‘The Treehuggers’ team. She recently joined the team of Inclusion Agents at Rabobank. Equality – at every level – is a core value of hers, so she's thrilled and honoured to be a part of this journey that Rabobank is following to become a more inclusive employer. In her free time she enjoys running and writing. She has a daughter, who is her motivator to work on personal growth and to stand for - and express - her beliefs and values.