What is Psychological Safety and Servant Leadership and Why it’s Important

In the past two years I’ve learned about the importance of these two values for engineering culture and high-performing teams, and I’ve found that like me, many great leaders and engineers practice these values or aspire to work in an environment that embodies them, but aren’t familiar with the terms. So what do they mean?

Psychological Safety

  • An environment where people feel safe to be themselves (keeping a code of conduct and respect for others) and share their professional opinions, and aren’t afraid of being dismissed or diminished afterward.
  • Creating a high-trust, low-stress work environment, that allows people to focus on delivery and innovation, as opposed to being in survival mode, continuously managing conflicts, unclear expectations, or hurtful communication.

Here are a few examples of how we created it in the Patient Area at Kry:

  • We held “team health checks” every half a year, where we went through a presentation with 10 terms that describe how we want the team members to feel: Purpose and Mission, Impact, Speed, Autonomy, Continuously Improve, Sustainable Pace, Balance, Togetherness, Psychological Safety, Fun. This list was collaboratively created in a workshop of the leaders of our department, before I joined. For each statement we had a paragraph describing a positive state and a negative state, and team members voted if they agree with one of them or are in the middle, and then discussed it together. Here’s the statement for Psychological Safety:

What happened after these workshops is that people took action items to 1:1s and retrospectives of the team, and iterated to improve areas the team was weak at. At one of my teams it led to splitting it eventually, to create focus.

  • Leaders led by example by being vulnerable and sharing insecurity, for example at our Area’s bi-weekly all hands, where my colleague shared about feeling insecure about public speaking and encouraged people to present even if they don’t have a shiny presentation. We then saw more people presenting and sharing that they felt more confident about presenting.
  • We encouraged people to share if they have some personal issue hindering their full focus for the sprint, at the sprint plannings or standups, and often had a check-in section at the beginning or retrospective where people who wanted could share a bit (while keeping their boundaries). When people shared, the team gave them support through encouraging and kind comments, and sometimes adjusted to work to remove stress. Every employee has times when personal issues make it harder to give their best, it’s natural and unavoidable. Being able to share it with the team can help moving through those periods with ease.
  • We encouraged a feedback culture where all team members continuously share feedback with one another, in 1:1s, retros, and performance reviews.

I was very happy to encounter this term, because it describes a culture that feels good to me, but also because it’s a way to talk about making workplaces good for women without talking about the controversial topic of gender.

Servant Leadership

This way of working goes hand in hand with autonomous teams where the team chooses the way of working and iterates on it with the goal to reach agility and high performance. The manager is there to coach them to be better and help them achieve their personal goals, and as a team to define and achieve the right delivery goals.

Some examples of how working with servant leadership looked like for me at Kry:

  • Helping an engineer who wanted a promotion to find the right opportunities to prove leadership and build their promotion case, and mentoring them through the process to achieve maximum impact.
  • Helping an engineer to find a way to prioritize big tech debt reduction investment that competed with product deliveries.
  • Helping a team to find processes that create flow, speed and focus, by allowing team members to experiment and take lead on meetings and initiatives, and giving them feedback on it, instead of telling them how to do things (for example, what ceremonies the team will have), which makes them lean back and feel less ownership of the ways of working of the team.
Source: http://www.servantleadership.it/the-characteristics-of-a-servant-leader/

You can find here an article from Forbes about servant leadership.

Conclusion

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Dafna Rosenblum

Engineering Manager at Kry. Co-Founder of extend-tech.com. Podcasting @extend_podcast. Twitting @dafnaros.