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Employees across industries are burnt out. The problems of “hustle culture” have been bubbling for years. Now, people are leaving their jobs in droves and demanding more balance from their employers.
As the world becomes increasingly digitally powered, business leaders are faced with the challenge of driving urgently needed new innovations for customers while managing the risks of transformation.
Some of these risks, like outages, can be catastrophic to businesses. Events like the British Airways IT failure, for example, grounded all the airline’s planes and left thousands of passengers stranded. These hectic events can be so disruptive that many companies have fallen into aggressive policies to avoid even the remote possibility of an outage. But this extreme caution and aversion to risk places a lot of weight on employees’ shoulders and high barriers to their ability to creatively problem-solve.
My team recently conducted a survey of developers that provides an important glimpse into how a healthy relationship with risk, with forward-looking policies and processes, can greatly increase a team’s performance and overall value for the business. To sum up the findings: Having a culture with sensible guardrails so employees feel psychologically safe is the only way to sustain innovation and retain top talent, especially in a software-powered world.
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What exactly is “psychological safety?”
Psychological safety is the notion that team members are free to make mistakes and freely communicate their thoughts in the workplace without fear of being punished or humiliated. To create a psychologically safe environment, company leaders need to recognize that each team member is much more than their job title, and build a culture that encourages innovation and recognizes that success can be measured in many different ways.
Psychological safety is critical for job performance and happiness — especially for tech workers
On developer teams, in particular, operating from a place of avoiding mistakes rather than promoting innovation leads to an environment built on fear and stress. This is not only an unsustainable workplace, it’s also bad for business. Software developers report high levels of stress and pressure, with 67% saying that either they or someone they know has left a company due to pressure to minimize mistakes. In a field with a shortage of skilled workers, developers need to feel empowered to do their jobs and innovate effectively, without the constant fear of failure, or else teams will be scrambling to replace them.
Losing talent due to increased pressure and stress has a domino effect across the organization, leading to recurring lost cost from less productive and motivated teams and added operational costs for recruitment and retention. As many organizations seek to dramatically increase their developer workforce, these costs only accelerate, creating urgency to address these issues before they explode.
By building an environment of psychological safety, you’ll foster innovation and creativity and encourage team members to feel more inspired to meet their goals and produce quality work, all while being more happy and fulfilled in their work lives.
How to build a psychologically safe work environment
Realizing that there is a need for change is the first step in creating a psychologically safe work environment. While there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to psychological safety that will work for every organization, there are things you can do as a leader to build a more productive and creative workplace that meets the unique needs of your team.
Take a hard look at your processes
Leadership teams often revert to how things have always been done. While there’s merit in “doing what works,” internal processes need to be regularly evaluated to make sure they’re the most effective and efficient for your current team.
When processes are outdated or don’t reflect the needs of the team, they can actually be barriers to success, causing teams to move less efficiently to meet their goals. This is incredibly frustrating for teams that are trying to work creatively. For example, we found that a majority of software developers (61%) actually believe that their company processes are hindering their ability to innovate.
As a leader, if you want to create a healthier and more successful working environment for teams, look at how updated processes can both support overall business goals and give teams the necessary freedom to quickly solve problems. New approaches and technologies can help your teams manage the risk that comes from high-velocity software development. These advancements offer fresh opportunities to reevaluate the policies and processes that are holding back your teams’ engagement and productivity.
Reassess your expectations of what constitutes great work
Another piece of the puzzle is reassessing your expectations. Asking your teams to never fail, and create perfect work requiring absolutely zero changes, is unrealistic at best, and destructive to your company’s culture at worst.
True success is a result of many mini-failures, and risk-taking is a requirement for innovation. If your team is taking risks, there is a chance that they will fail, and this should be encouraged. A mere 11% of developers reported that they felt encouraged by leadership to take risks. A lack of such encouragement has a huge detrimental impact on developers’ ability to innovate.
If you want to innovate, you need to establish trust with your teams and encourage them to take risks. This will not only improve your company’s culture, it will lead to more creativity across the board. Trust that your team is skilled enough not only to innovate, but to learn from their mistakes and find a positive outcome from any mistakes that occur.
For too long, workers — especially those on tech teams across industries — have been burdened with pressure to work fast without making any mistakes. But this isn’t sustainable.
By focusing on building a psychologically safe environment where tech workers are encouraged to test their limits and innovate comfortably, you will create happier teams, and in the long run your entire business will reap the benefits.
Ravi Tharisayi is senior director of product marketing at LaunchDarkly.
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