By Julie Forsythe, VP of Engineering, Auvik, shortlisted for Best SaaS Product for IT Management category at The SaaS Awards 2022
While we often associate burnout with the medical industry, the fact is this affliction has touched almost every industry – and tech and IT are no exception. In fact, recent research has shown that 68% of tech workers feel more burned out than they did when they worked at an office. One key way to address burnout and employee satisfaction is through building and creating psychological safety in the workplace.
Psychological safety, defined by Harvard Business School’s Amy C. Edmonson as “the confidence that candor and vulnerability are welcome,” is key to building teams that are as innovative as they are productive. In order to build psychologically safe work environments, businesses must create a space where employees feel confident showing up as their most unedited self – this creates a bigger sense of community and it’s been proven that when employees feel psychologically safe in their work environment, it leads to increased employee satisfaction and engagement.
When employees feel safe and are set up for success, they are less afraid to throw out innovative ideas, leading to employee and company growth and innovation. In fact, psychological safety has been shown to improve business success. An internal Google study found that Google sales teams with the highest levels of psychological safety outperformed revenue targets by an average of 17%. Meanwhile, the company’s sales teams that had the lowest psychological safety underperformed by an average of 19%.
Between burnout and the Great Resignation, it’s more important than ever for employers to build psychological safety and help their employees feel welcome and unafraid to speak their minds and be themselves. While starting the path to psychological safety in any workplace can seem daunting, here are a few key tips to kick start this concept.
Communication: The First Key to Psychological Safety
While psychological safety consists of multiple principles, one of the key pillars of the concept is about simply making people feel welcome. Many of us learned the Golden Rule in childhood, “treat others the way you want to be treated,” and as an employee, and employer, this concept still rings true, but only to an extent. The problem with the Golden Rule is that it assumes that other people want to be treated the same way as you do.
If we instead switch the rule to “treat others the way THEY want to be treated,” we create a more inclusive and welcoming workplace. We don’t want employees to feel like they have to show up in a certain way, but instead be confident that they can show up the way that they truly are.
Beyond simply treating others with this new modern rule in mind, we also have to acknowledge different styles of communication. There are a variety of ways to give and receive communications including visual learners, auditory learners, kinesthetic/tactile learners, and reading/writing learners, all of which we tend to see in the workplace. By broadening our approach to communication and accommodating all styles of learning, we create a more inclusive and psychologically safe environment.
There are simple ways for managers to make these accommodations without having to greatly invest in new processes or applications. For example, if your team is full of visual learners you can put closed captioning on your Zoom meetings. If you have auditory learners on your team you can record presentations and send them the recorded audio along with the slide decks afterward. For tactile learners mastering a new skill, managers can set up practice sessions before moving on to the real thing.
Communicating frequently, transparently, and in the manner that people best receive information will ultimately serve employees the best. It’s all about communicating with them the way they want to be communicated with.
Encouraging Innovation & Identifying Purpose
Beyond encouraging employees to be their unedited selves, psychological safety also creates a safe space for employees to creatively ideate. If an employee has an idea that is not the norm, it’s important to encourage them to express their idea and strive to break the mold, even if it doesn’t necessarily get implemented.
When it comes to engineering specifically, some of the planning strategies that I have implemented with my team have proven to be conducive to building psychologically safe teams. When employees (and in this case engineering teams) are involved in the planning process, they naturally feel like a part of the team and have a safe space to voice these innovative ideas and opinions. Rather than a product manager simply telling an engineering team to go build five specifications, the product manager now comes to the team and they build the outcomes together – creating a welcoming environment with more ownership over the work. Due to this simple shift in dialogue and approach, the team is more focused on collaboratively choosing where they need to go.
All that being said, breaking the mold comes with a balance. There is, of course, a business to run, there is still code that must be written, and there are still products that have to be delivered. But it’s important to bring differing viewpoints to the table and experiment with evaluating new, different, and better ways to do things. When you involve the full team and put the brain trust to work at experimenting with new ideas, everyone needs to feel comfortable expressing their ideas without fear of failure.
When employees have more ownership over their work, it can lead to increased passion where each person is able to understand how their work fits into the greater whole. As an employee, we want to know that the blood, sweat, and tears that we put into our work makes a difference and contributes to a bigger picture. But this isn’t always easy to explain, especially in a technical environment like the network management world.
Knowing your purpose in a company goes beyond psychological safety and into employee satisfaction. Mapping the mission and vision of the company is directly correlated to the engagement of people around us. On the engineering side, we rely on our product management organization to tell the stories that help us understand why we’re doing the work that we do. But it’s ultimately the responsibility of a leader to make sure that their teammates understand that their work and ideas matter and more importantly, that they belong.
Creating a psychologically safe environment where people feel safe and therefore are productive is beneficial not only for employees but employers as well. In fact, implementing this approach more often than not leads to positive gains for the entire team. The ROI of psychological safety is practically guaranteed to produce healthier teams, longer retention, increased productivity, and ultimately, better results.