Scrum and Psychological Safety

I first came across the idea of Psychological Safety in 2017 when I attended Joshua Kerievsky’s talk on Psychological Safety at Oredev.

Psychological Safety is “‘a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject or punish someone for speaking up”.

Two years later it’s a concept that still stays with me and I try to keep it in mind when I interact with people or am in group situations. I know that I can sometimes be a louder-than-usual presence in a group setting, or that I can be a bit too direct, so I do my best to keep it in check for the following two reasons:

Even before I came across the idea of Psychological Safety, I remember thinking consciously about how I acted could affect other peoples’ future actions.

For example: If I were to roll my eyes or constantly openly disagree and put down someone’s ideas in a group setting then MAYBE that person wouldn’t be so inclined to raise their concerns or put their ideas forward in the future. My theory is that some people can be more easily affected by the actions etc of others. Some people are more inclined to keep on speaking up regardless; others back down after one or two times of speaking up in a group setting where they were either a) not supported or b) put down. These are my observations on projects I have been on. Now lately, I’ve started to think about the relationship between Psychological Safety and Agile - more specifically Scrum. The fact I’ll be going on maternity leave soon has given me a chance to reflect on what I’ve learned since I started work both in my current team and what I’ve learned since I’ve started as a Test Consultant. One thought keeps creeping back into my mind:

It’s not possible to reap the benefits of Agile, more specifically Scrum, if you don’t have Psychological Safety.

There are three ways in which I think a lack of Psychological Safety can negatively impact a team doing Scrum:

Daily Stand-ups We have daily stand-ups so that everyone can let everyone else know what they are working on; what they need help with or if they are blocked with something. It’s an opportunity for everyone to touch base frequently and to be on the same page - by having this short meeting daily, the hope is that people don't get misaligned and if someone needs help with something, then that can be quickly addressed. Without Psychological Safety, a person may not be inclined to reach out for help when they need it because they don’t want to look bad in front of others or they may not want to admit their mistakes, in an effort to save face.

Sprint Planning At the start of each sprint, we have a day-long sprint planning. Here we are introduced to the new features/rollouts of the upcoming sprint and then as a team write the stories and come up with estimates to see which features/rollouts we commit to and to plan out, together, how we’ll approach building each feature. Without Psychological Safety, a person may be less inclined to challenge estimates or team commitments that they are worried won't be achievable within the sprint; they may be less inclined to disagree.

Retrospectives For me, this is the big one. My understanding of the value of retrospectives is so that we can learn about what we did well (and not so well) in the previous sprint. Ideally we can express ourselves openly (according to the above picture, we would ideally “be ourselves” in the retro) so that everyone can learn from everyone else’s thoughts, experiences and feelings. But if the team doesn’t feel safe enough to fully express themselves and vocalise what they think went well, and what they personally struggled with/what they think the team struggled with - then I think you’re just going through the motions of having a retrospective, its benefit is probably out of reach.

The effects of an effective Scrum Master on Psychological Safety

Looking back, there are three things that I think our previous Scrum Master did, which improved the Psychological Safety in the team. (She did heaps more, these are just the two, that came to mind). Firstly, she scheduled 1 on 1s to catch up with us/ touch base - I think this was done in an effort for us to feel more comfortable expressing our opinions around her and hopefully around group situations as well. Second, she adjusted retrospectives so that everyone could feel more comfortable saying what they thought - she noticed that some people would “dampen” the thoughts expressed by others, so she worked to address it so that everyone could feel heard and were comfortable enough to say something. Third, she made it clear that each sprint is like an experiment, sometimes we would try something as a team for a sprint or two, to see if it works. I think this resulted in people not being as afraid to fail or speak up - because after all, we agreed it was an experiment.

Looking forward Currently our team does not have a Scrum Master. And to be honest, I’m not entirely sure what everyone in my team thinks about psychological safety. I don’t know if some people haven’t raised their concerns because they don’t feel comfortable expressing their opinions or because they don’t have anything to say. There’s one small thing that I’ve talked about to a few people I’m closer with in our team and will vocalise it more in my last two weeks.

Back each other up, vocally. (if you agree, of course). You might’ve heard about the concept of “there’s no such thing as silent disagreement”. But what about silent agreement? If someone raises their concern etc and you agree with them, why not show your support and say something? If someone puts a good idea forward, and you also think that this idea is worth pursuing, why not show your support and say something? If nobody else says something, the person speaking up may think they are the only person thinking this way, and may back down (in an effort to not cause any trouble).