Blog· 5min October 18, 2022
Psychological safety is the concept that an individual is in an environment in which they are comfortable making mistakes, learning from them, and sharing ideas. A psychologically safe environment fosters these ideas and creates a framework for positive and collaborative contribution from all team members.
Aleksandra Wozniak, Andrea Rosa, and Elliot Williams, three members from different areas of the Form3 engineering team, recently discussed the concept of psychological safety as part of an internal round-table discussion.
Together we examined what Form3 does to promote a psychologically safe environment for our highly performing engineering team members to succeed in and documented our discussion and findings in this post.
Trust by default
Our engineering team is remote-first, distributed across the world, and spans multiple different time zones from Argentina to Bulgaria. We do not do any sort of clocking in or time tracking, and some of our teams have even moved to primarily async communication.
Nonetheless we can trust our engineers to manage their time effectively and flexibly to suit their daily structure. Key to this is to set our standards high, keep expectations clear about what needs to be delivered from the outset, and provide prompt and targeted feedback whenever there is room for improvement.
Trusting our team by default facilitates remote working and gives them the confidence that they are delivering what is expected of them.
Our engineering Investment Time initiative provides an avenue for engineers to work on something new and outside their usual responsibilities every Wednesday afternoon. No meetings can be scheduled, and no regular work is expected during this time. Instead, we encourage our engineers to form new pairs or groups with new collaborators to tackle a problem that has been bothering them or would otherwise improve the lives of our engineering team.
This gives our engineers the opportunity to try something new, remove any pain points, and solve different problems in a self-organised and cross-team way.
Our Learning Days initiative allows engineers to book paid leave to attend courses, workshops, and exams, with the only condition being that the subject matter is relevant to them and to the engineering team’s goals. This ensures they can keep their skills sharp without the risk of burning out working on certifications over the weekends.
On a day-to-day basis we also involve engineers in the design process wherever we can, encouraging them to contribute new ideas for how to solve our business needs.
Set up a blameless environment
At Form3 we try to create a culture where no one is afraid to admit being wrong. This enables us to collectively find better solutions and increases trust between colleagues.
We recognise the fact that tolerating failure is a key ingredient to high psychological safety. Mistakes happen; going down the wrong path is sometimes a part of the process. In stressful situations it’s very easy to start pointing fingers – and often counterproductive. When things don’t go as expected, it’s the whole team’s responsibility to find a solution. Attributing blame, putting people under pressure or increasing tension between colleagues won’t help with clearing a path forward.
That’s why during postmortem investigations we consciously avoid blaming anyone for what have happened. The important part is to identify the cause and learn from it, not to find a culprit. Moreover, if no one is ever blamed for their actions, people are more comfortable to openly share their mistakes. This, again, increases trust between colleagues and contributes to higher team morale.
Leaders are not afraid to be vulnerable
The basic principle of psychological safety, not being afraid to make mistakes, also applies to team leads and managers. Like everyone else, they are encouraged to try out new things, experiment and learn from their experiences – even if it means “failing” in front of their teams. Leaders set great examples for their teams by demonstrating vulnerability. When they share their learnings openly, are not afraid to apologise when they messed up, others are motivated to do the same.
For example, it is not unusual to hear “I don’t know, let’s find out” from our engineering leaders. No one is expected to know everything, regardless of their seniority level. Leaders are not pretending to know all the answers and are always happy to redirect the question to a better-informed colleague or find it themselves. We often see examples of this behaviour during incident investigations: if an engineering leader is called out and doesn’t know the solution straightaway, they often ask a more knowledgeable colleague for guidance. It doesn’t matter if this person happens to be more junior. There is no shame in saying “I don’t know, but I think Joe/Carl/Susan will”.
Celebrate achievements and give recognition
Another important practice contributing to high psychological safety is celebrating successes and giving recognition in a timely manner. At Form3 we have a dedicated Slack channel where employees can give shoutouts to their colleagues for achieving something awesome. Promotions are not the only reasons to celebrate: completing a major piece of work, solving a pending problem, taking a new responsibility or helping someone in their daily tasks are all valid reasons to appreciate someone’s work. Public shoutouts are always generously endorsed with emojis and follow-up congratulations.
We’ve enjoyed sharing a little of how we create a safe environment at Form3, but we’d also love to hear what works well for other businesses out there!
Elliot Williams is Lead Engineer (SWIFT) International Team at Form3, based in the UK.
Aleksandra Woźniak is the Head of Engineering - R&D Ops at Form3, based in Germany.