How To Measure Psychological Safety In Agile Teams?

Apr 11, 2024 | Agile Values, Leadership, Mindset

How To Measure Psychological Safety In Agile Teams?

Think of the best team you’ve ever been part of. What made it stand out? Was it the easy way everyone shared ideas, or maybe the comfort of speaking up without fear of being shut down?

That magic ingredient is called psychological safety, a fancy term for feeling safe to be yourself and take risks without worrying about making mistakes in front of your teammates.

Now, we all know that measuring this magic can be as tricky as catching lightning in a bottle. It’s not something you can easily tally up like points on a scoreboard. But what if we could spot it in action?

Daniel Coyle peeked inside some of the world’s best teams and noticed things they all had in common—like how close they stand, the way they laugh together, and even how often they say “thank you.”

In this article, we’re going to turn those observations into a treasure map for finding and boosting psychological safety in your team. No more guessing if your team has it.

We’re going to show you how to see it, measure it, and make it stronger. It’s all about turning those everyday moments into clues that tell us how safe and connected everyone feels.

So, buckle up! We’re about to take a ride through the world of teams, uncovering the secrets that make the best ones tick. Whether you’re leading a team or part of one, you’re going to discover some very valuable tips to make your team not just good, but great.

Understanding Psychological Safety

The Secret Sauce of Awesome Teams

Ever wonder what makes some teams just click? It’s like they’ve got a secret sauce that makes everything they do turn into gold. That secret? It’s called psychological safety.

Imagine being in a team where throwing out a wild idea, asking a “dumb” question, or admitting a mistake feels as comfy as chatting over coffee with your best friend. That’s psychological safety for you—it’s the superhero behind the scenes, making sure everyone feels safe enough to be their brilliant, quirky selves.

What Is Psychological Safety, Anyway?

Psychological safety is when a team creates a cozy clubhouse where everyone can speak their mind, be themselves, and take chances without fear of laughter or eye rolls. It’s not about being cozy and avoiding hard truths. It’s about being brave and open, knowing your team’s got your back.

Amy Edmondson, who gave us the term “psychological safety”, defines it as follows. Psychological safety is “the belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes, and that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking” (Amy Edmondson, 1999)

Why It’s a Big Deal

In a nutshell, psychological safety lets everyone in the team fly their freak flag high and proud, which is when the magic happens. Ideas flow freely, problems get solved in creative ways, and the team moves faster than a speeding bullet because no one’s scared to speak up or step up.

But here’s the kicker: even though we know it’s awesome, measuring how much of this secret sauce a team has isn’t straightforward. It’s not like counting how many cups of coffee we drink in a day (which, let’s be honest, might be too many). It’s more about feeling the vibe of the team.

The Usual Measuring Stick Doesn’t Work Here

Most times, teams measure success with things like how fast they get stuff done or how many tasks they tick off a list. But psychological safety? It’s slippery. It’s about feelings and vibes, which don’t exactly fit into a neat spreadsheet.

Digging Deeper

In a past adventure into the world of psychological safety, we explored how it’s the backbone of innovative and self-managing teams. You can take a peek at that here: Unlocking Innovation and Autonomy: The Critical Role of Psychological Safety in Agile Teams. We talked about how it’s crucial for teams wanting to break the mold and invent the future.

But knowing it’s important and actually measuring it? That’s where we need to get creative. And that’s exactly what we’re going to dive into next. Ready to look at your team with a brand new set of goggles? Let’s go!

Clues of High Performing Teams

So, we’ve warmed up to the idea that psychological safety is the secret sauce behind awesome teams. Now, let’s play detective and spot the clues that show a team is basking in that sweet spot of confidence and comfort.

Daniel Coyle, in his adventures, didn’t hand us a to-do list to manufacture psychological safety. Instead, he pointed out the natural behaviors that bubble up in teams where psychological safety is already flourishing. These aren’t actions to mimic; they’re signs that we’re on the right track. Let’s decode these signals:

1. Close Physical Proximity

When you see a team naturally gathering close, it’s like they’re saying, “We’re in this together.” It’s not about forcing closeness but noticing when it happens all by itself—a sign of genuine connection.

2. Profuse Amounts of Eye Contact

Eye contact is the silent language of engagement. In teams where folks feel safe, you’ll see lots of it. It’s about those moments of connection that say, “I see you, and what you’re saying matters.”

3. Physical Touch

This isn’t about turning the workplace into a hug fest. Instead, notice the spontaneous high-fives or the quick, supportive gestures. These small actions are the team’s way of saying, “Got your back,” without needing to say it out loud.

4. Lots of Short, Energetic Exchanges

Quick, lively conversations are a hallmark of teams comfortable with each other. It’s not about cutting speeches short; it’s about the energy that comes from everyone feeling free to chip in.

5. High Levels of Mixing; Everyone Talks to Everyone

In a truly open team, there are no invisible barriers. You’ll see interns chatting with CEOs and designers brainstorming with accountants. It’s about everyone feeling valued, no matter the title.

6. Few Interruptions

In teams glowing with psychological safety, you’ll notice a respectful harmony in the workflow. It’s about the overall mindfulness of not disrupting others’ work. This quiet understanding allows everyone the space to think deeply, work without unnecessary stops, and maintain a smooth flow of productivity.

7. Lots of Questions

Curiosity is a symptom of comfort. When team members ask questions, it’s not just about seeking answers. It’s about feeling safe enough to admit what they don’t know and eager to learn from others.

8. Intensive, Active Listening

This goes beyond just not interrupting. It’s about the way team members lean in, nod, and respond in ways that show they’re really absorbing what’s being shared. It’s listening that says, “Your thoughts are important.”

9. Humor, Laughter

Laughter is the sound of barriers breaking down. It’s not about cracking jokes to lighten the mood but noticing the natural laughter that comes when everyone feels comfortable being themselves.

10. Small, Attentive Courtesies

The little things like saying “thank you” or holding an elevator door might seem trivial, but they’re tokens of respect and appreciation. They show a culture of care that goes beyond work tasks.

By keeping an eye out for these behaviors, we’re not trying to force a sense of psychological safety. Instead, we’re learning to recognize its presence. Like tracking animal prints in the wild, these clues can guide us to the natural habitats where psychological safety thrives.

So, let’s turn our workplace into a discovery zone, observing and appreciating the signs that tell us we’re creating a space where everyone feels safe to be their most creative, authentic selves.

Turning Observations into Metrics

Now that we’ve explored the telltale signs of a psychologically safe team, let’s get down to business: How do we measure these observations? While the essence of psychological safety isn’t something you can always quantify, there are creative ways to capture its presence and track progress over time.

KPI: Laughs per hour (by Mei Lin Fung & ChatGPT)

Laughter as a Litmus Test

Laughter isn’t just medicine; it’s also a metric. The sound of laughter in an office or during a video call signals more than just joy—it indicates comfort and safety among team members. While counting laughs might seem over the top, noting the presence or absence of laughter in meetings can give leaders a quick pulse on team morale. It’s not about hitting a “laughter quota” but recognizing that teams who laugh together are likely more comfortable and open with each other.

The Dynamics of Proximity and Engagement

Physical proximity, eye contact, and gestures of camaraderie are easily noted in an in-person setting, painting a picture of how team members relate. In the digital realm, tools that track engagement levels during video calls can offer insights. Are people turning their cameras on, making eye contact through the lens, and appearing engaged? These digital cues, while not a perfect substitute, help gauge the level of connection and attentiveness in remote teams.

The Pace of Conversations

Short, energetic exchanges are the heartbeat of a vibrant team. By observing or using AI tools on video calls to analyze the flow of conversation, we can assess the health of team dynamics. Is the dialogue dominated by long monologues or is it a lively back-and-forth? Teams that engage in rapid, inclusive conversations tend to be more open and psychologically safe.

The Mix of Voices

High levels of mixing, where it’s hard to discern the hierarchy because everyone interacts freely, are indicative of low power distance—a hallmark of psychological safety. Observing who talks to whom and how often can provide valuable insights. Teams where the “captain” blends in, as David Marquet would say, show signs of mutual respect and safety.

Counting Questions

The frequency of questions asked within a team can reveal much about its psychological safety. More questions typically mean more curiosity and comfort in admitting what one doesn’t know. Tracking the number of questions in meetings, either manually or through AI, can provide concrete data on the team’s openness to exploration and vulnerability.

Surveys: Handle with Care

Amy Edmondson’s simple survey provides a straightforward method to assess psychological safety through team members’ perceptions. However, caution is warranted. Honest survey responses presuppose a degree of psychological safety, and individuals’ answers are often influenced by their personal baseline of what’s “normal.” Despite these limitations, surveys can complement observational metrics, offering a multifaceted view of a team’s psychological landscape.

Here is Edmondson’s simple survey:

  • If you make a mistake on this team, it is not held against you.
  • Members of this team are able to bring up problems and tough issues.
  • People on this team sometimes accept others for being different.
  • It is safe to take a risk on this team.
  • It isn’t difficult to ask other members of this team for help.
  • No one on this team would deliberately act in a way that undermines my efforts.
  • Working with members of this team, my unique skills and talents are valued and utilized.

Incorporating these methods, from intuitive observations to tech-assisted analysis and surveys, can help leaders and coaches not just sense but systematically track the presence and growth of psychological safety in their teams. Remember, these metrics are tools, not targets. The goal isn’t to score perfectly but to foster an environment where everyone feels safe to share, ask, and innovate—together.

Harnessing Metrics with Purpose

Again, it’s crucial to anchor ourselves in why we’re doing this. It’s not about stamping teams with “safe” or “unsafe” labels or pitting them against each other in some psychological safety league table. The heart of the matter is twofold: to pinpoint where we need to pour more effort into fostering a safe environment and to gauge the effectiveness of our strategies to nurture psychological safety.

Beyond the Numbers: Saving Values and Lives

Reflecting on the Boeing debacle reminds us of the high stakes involved. Voices that went unheard and a culture of silence cost not just billions in financial value but, tragically, human lives. It starkly illustrates the real-world impact of psychological safety—or the lack thereof. Listening and creating a culture where pointing out problems is encouraged can be the difference between thriving and disaster.

The Transformational Power of Psychological Safety

I’ve witnessed firsthand teams labeled as “dysfunctional” morph into powerhouses of productivity and innovation. The transformation was not about changing the people but about changing the environment they operated in. These individuals were always capable of high performance; it was the fear that shackled them. Removing these chains unleashed their true potential, turning “wrong battles” into collaborative victories.

Purpose-Driven Metrics: Guiding, Not Grading

As we deploy the metrics derived from laughter, conversational dynamics, and the myriad other signs of psychological safety we’ve discussed, remember—the goal is not to keep score but to guide. It’s about identifying teams that need support to break free from the grips of fear and silence, and understanding what actions truly make a difference in our unique environments.

Every organization has its own baseline for what “safe to speak up” looks like. What’s critical is recognizing that the behaviors we’re tracking are intertwined with high performance and innovation. These aren’t just arbitrary indicators; they’re the early signs of a culture where people feel secure to share, challenge, and innovate.

Moving Towards a Culture of Safety and Innovation

As leaders and coaches, our mission is to cultivate these signs of psychological safety, nurturing an environment where every team member can flourish. This is not about quick fixes or ticking boxes. It’s a continuous journey towards building teams that not only perform at their best but also feel at their best. Remember, the ultimate aim of observing and fostering these behaviors is to enable our teams to become not just functional but exceptional, turning potential into reality.

By keeping our focus on the deeper purpose behind these metrics, we can steer our efforts towards truly meaningful outcomes. It’s about laying the groundwork for an organizational culture that not only values but embodies psychological safety. In doing so, we not only enhance our teams’ performance but also contribute to a more humane, resilient, and innovative workplace.

Conclusion: Cultivating a Culture of Safety and Success

As we wrap up our exploration of measuring psychological safety, it’s clear that this journey is about much more than numbers and observations. It’s about understanding the heartbeat of our teams, recognizing the environment that allows individuals to thrive, and actively nurturing the conditions for innovation and high performance to flourish.

Psychological safety stands as the foundation upon which high-performing teams are built. Through the lens of laughter, engagement, and the free exchange of ideas, we’ve seen how psychological safety manifests in the wild. These metrics—whether they’re captured by AI or noted through keen observation—serve as our compass, guiding us toward creating teams that are not just productive but deeply connected and creatively empowered.

However, the true power of these insights lies in our approach. We’re not just tracking metrics for the sake of tracking. We’re on a mission to identify where we can make a difference, to recognize the efforts that genuinely contribute to a safer, more open work environment, and to adjust our course based on what we learn.

Your Call to Action

Now, armed with these insights and tools, the next steps are yours to take: – Begin by observing your team through this new lens, noting the signs of psychological safety or its absence. – Use these observations to spark conversations about how you can collectively foster a more open and supportive team culture. – Remember, creating a psychologically safe environment is an ongoing process. Be patient, be persistent, and be open to learning from your team about what works and what doesn’t.

As you embark on this journey, keep in mind that the goal is not perfection but progress. Each step towards a more psychologically safe workplace is a step towards unlocking the full potential of your team. The transformation you’ll witness—teams evolving from silence and fear to openness and innovation—will be your most significant indicator of success.

So, take the leap. Start today. You can find some strategies for psychological safety in [Unlocking Innovation and Autonomy: The Critical Role of Psychological Safety in Agile Teams] and [Assuming Positive Intent: The secret sauce in the agile playbook]. And remember, in the world of agility and beyond, the bravest thing we can do is create spaces where everyone feels safe to bring their whole selves to the table. Let’s make that our mission.

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