Innovation Suffers Without Psychological Safety. Here’s How 3 Leaders Build It.

From the WAIT method to the art of humble inquiry and more, here’s how three San Francisco tech companies are making psychological safety a reality on their teams.

Written by Eva Roethler
Published on Jan. 25, 2023
Innovation Suffers Without Psychological Safety. Here’s How 3 Leaders Build It.
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Psychological safety is a trendy business term with a sort-of abstract meaning. It’s been around for a few decades and it started slowly climbing into prominence after 2016, which is when The New York Times published “What Google Learned From Its Quest to Build the Perfect Team” documenting the importance that psychological safety played in the performance of the tech giants’ teams. 

Despite its vagueness, here’s what the concept boils down to: Can you be authentic at work?

At its core, psychological safety offers bumper pads for intellectual risk-taking. Employees need to feel comfortable (respectfully) sharing their true feelings without fear of negative social consequences. This type of culture offers businesses a competitive advantage since innovation itself is an act of risk-taking. According to a McKinsey survey, organizations that create psychological safety “are more likely to innovate quickly, unlock the benefits of diversity and adapt well to change.”

Employees need to feel comfortable (respectfully) sharing their true feelings without fear … since innovation itself is an act of risk-taking.

 

However, creating psychological safety in the workplace is no easy task. So, Built In SF connected with leaders from Bay Area-based companies for insight into their practices to nurture psychological safety in teams. 

At Cruise, Vice President of Strategy, Product and Operations Wei Luo carefully cultivates meeting environments that set the tone for the safe exchange of ideas. She also stresses the importance of benchmarking data through surveys. 

“Simply saying that we care about psychological safety isn’t enough. You can’t improve something unless you measure it,” Luo said. “At Cruise, we set yearly psychological safety goals and measure our progress against them as part of our companywide objectives and key results process. Each year we repeatedly survey employees on all things safety, and we work to increase our net psychological safety score.”

At Domino Data Lab, Human Resources Senior Director Melissa Smith highly recommends Humble Inquiry by Edgar Schein as a guide to reframing relationships with direct reports. Meanwhile, Lob’s Senior Engineering Manager Jonathan Lowsley emphasizes the importance of gratitude to counteract negativity bias, and the “Why Am I Talking?” or WAIT method. 

Read on for more insights from Luo, Smith and Lowsley. 

 

Wei Luo
VP of Strategy, Product and Operations • Cruise

Cruise is building self-driving vehicles to safely connect people with the places, things and experiences they care about.

 

How does Cruise make psychological safety an explicit priority in the workplace? 

Safety is at the core of everything we do here at Cruise. When you’re building something that’s never been built before and has the potential to change how humanity moves, you have to empower employees and engineers to speak up about safety and innovate in a constructive environment. 

We as leaders need to act as role models. We need to stay humble and always be open to being challenged with different opinions and ideas. We need to be not afraid to admit we all have limits and will make mistakes, and therefore cross-checking from a diverse team will help us improve our safety together.

We as leaders need to stay humble and open to being challenged with different opinions and ideas.” 

 

Share your favorite tip for facilitating meetings in which every voice is heard.

A lot of the legwork for effective, psychologically safe meetings can be done before the meeting even begins when you’re in the scheduling phase. 

The larger meetings get in size, the more unstructured they can become. Sometimes a larger meeting can be dominated by a few strong voices. When dropping time on people’s calendars, think critically about who should be involved, and what specific knowledge and point of view you expect them each to bring to the table. In decision-making meetings, I work to ensure all necessary teams — engineering, product, operations, etc. — are represented in the meeting. 

List roles in the meeting description to empower each attendee and encourage them to bring their distinct point of view. When attendees understand what they bring to the table before the meeting even starts, they’ll be much more inclined to speak up! 

Creating this shared responsibility in meetings and decision-making is critical to building psychological safety.

 

How do you create space for risk-taking? And if someone fails, how do you transform the experience into a learning moment?

Psychological safety isn’t just the work of people teams and HR initiatives. Every team, especially engineering, can reinforce a psychologically safe environment.  

Cruise’s engineering team lives between the speed of software and the real-life implications of hardware. We must strike a delicate balance between moving fast and making safe, reasoned updates to vehicles on the road. We invest heavily in validation and testing so we can try out new ideas, but we don’t expose the risk to road users. 

We’ve built tooling to arm engineers with the information they need to push the AV boundaries while ensuring that the code that gets pushed to the road improves ride safety and quality. Tools like Webviz, which is an open-source DataViz platform that lets engineers use road data in experiments. 

 

Related ReadingWhat is WebViz? Inside the Tools that Keep the Engine Humming at Cruise

 

We’ve also developed an automated code-review platform that serves as the glue between all of the tools we use to talk about code — Slack, Jira, Confluence, etc. — and creates auto alerts across tools to give people as much time as they can to review critical updates.

In an experiment-heavy environment, every failure is a learning moment and should be seen as a byproduct of development.

 

Melissa Smith
Senior Director, Human Resources • Domino Data Lab

Domino Data Lab is a data science platform that enables teams to rapidly develop and deploy models that drive innovation.

 

How does Domino Data Lab make psychological safety an explicit priority in the workplace?

One of our primary approaches to creating psychological safety in the workplace is through feedback and open communication. We encourage our managers to practice this at all times and to always be open and honest with their team members. In doing so, it helps to foster an environment where people can voice their thoughts, opinions and concerns without fear. 

To ensure constant communication, every employee has a weekly check-in with their manager that is not only designed to provide updates on current work but to also provide a forum for face-to-face feedback, development conversations and general checking in on an employee's well-being. That constant touch point with our employees is crucial to relationship building and creating a safe space.

 

Share your favorite tip for facilitating meetings in which every voice is heard.

My favorite approach came from a book I read a few years back called Humble Inquiry: The Gentle Art of Asking Instead of Telling. I think too often we volunteer answers or tell employees what we think they need to hear or understand, especially when we are up against deadlines or need to make quick decisions. We don’t often practice asking questions with the intent to learn and understand more from others. 

In team meetings, I try to ask more open-ended questions so that others feel they have a forum to share their thoughts and expertise, as opposed to me just saying, “Here's what I think we should do.” When you are genuine in your approach, it’s easy to see how much you can learn from those around you, which strengthens team dynamics and partnerships.

When you are genuine in your approach, it's easy to see how much you can learn from those around you, which strengthens team dynamics and partnerships.”

 

How do you create space for risk-taking? And if someone fails, how do you transform the experience into a learning moment?

Too often we may find ourselves in an environment where others are quick to place blame when things go wrong. But all that the finger-pointing ends up doing is creating distrust and fear in your employees, which leads to less risk-taking and less innovation. 

Creating a safe space for risk-taking means that we don’t look to place blame when things go wrong. Rather, as a team, our focus should be on why something didn’t work and what can be done differently next time to drive a more favorable outcome. Each time something doesn’t work out, we regroup as a team and figure out the next steps together.

 

 

Jonathan Lowsley
Senior Engineering Manager • Lob

Lob is a simple toolkit for enterprise developers to automate the offline world.

 

How does Lob make psychological safety an explicit priority in the workplace? 

Vulnerability precedes trust in relationships. By fostering activities that allow people to take small steps of vulnerability, we build trust and psychological safety into our teams. I use connection questions at the start of every meeting to invite people to connect with each other and share a piece of themselves.

Due to negativity bias, humans perceive negative feedback with much more intensity than positive feedback. High-trust teams counteract this by sharing a lot of authentic gratitude and appreciation for each other’s actions. One of our daily standup questions is: “Please share any kudos you have for any of your team members.” We also have a #props channel where people can share public appreciation and praise for someone else, and how it impacted them personally.

 

What is Negativity Bias?

Negativity bias is the propensity to attend to, learn from and use negative information far more than positive information. In short, it’s a tendency to focus on negative feedback rather than positive feedback.

 

Share your favorite tip for facilitating meetings in which every voice is heard.

Our team says “pass” to indicate that they are opting out of answering a question posed to them. As part of the team working agreement, anyone can pass for any reason at any time, and won’t be asked for an explanation. Just knowing that participation is optional encourages sharing and leads to better questions and more creativity.

In a role with positional power, use a lot of silence and space in group settings. I encourage myself and my team to think of the acronym WAIT — “Why Am I Talking?” — and the concept of “speak only when you can improve on silence.” Leaving a lot of silence lends more space to introverts and those who take longer to reflect and process. If there is already high trust in the group and people know that they can pass, you can directly invite voices into the conversation.

Leaving a lot of silence lends more space to introverts and those who take longer to reflect and process.”

 

How do you create space for risk-taking? And if someone fails, how do you transform the experience into a learning moment?

I encourage others to move past simply identifying the reasons for a failure to asking forward-thinking questions like, “What might you do differently to improve next time?” As a leader, I like to call out my own mistakes and identify what I have learned from my failure in order to be more successful next time.

Our blameless postmortem process is entirely focused on learning, starting with the belief that people did their best at the time given the information they had. We lean into curiosity, which allows us to identify things that went wrong and how we can mitigate those scenarios for the future. Keeping the focus on the future communicates that it is ok to fail or make mistakes in service of innovation.

 

Responses have been edited for length and clarity. Photos courtesy of listed companies and Shutterstock.

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