No transparency without safety
One of my core principles (and indeed Hyperact’s) is “transparency over preservation”. This means striving to be open. To share rather than to hoard. To go out of your way to make everything accessible to everyone. To proliferate knowledge and enthusiasm and positivity. The why just as much as the what and the how - perhaps even more so.
I’ve seen a very broad spectrum of this across the many teams and organisations I’ve worked in, which has left me in no doubt that:
1️⃣ psychological safety breeds transparency, and
2️⃣ transparency is a good thing, as it:
- makes teams more agile 🏃♂️
- reduces dependency pain 🔗
- motivates people and therefore reduces attrition 💪
- helps new starters get going 🚀
- strengthens the bond between teams and users 🤝
- reassures and keeps leaders in the loop 🙌
Those in executive and senior leadership positions are probably in a better position to build up safety and encourage transparency but don’t make the mistake of thinking it’s all on them. If you’re an individual contributor working in a product team, you too can play a big part.
Here are 10 tips for fostering psychological safety and burning through the fog of obscurity that surrounds your team’s day-to-day:
Be professional and respectful
This should be a given, but astonishingly it still isn’t. Don’t be a jerk. Be courteous. Be considerate. Don’t apportion blame. Strive to give everyone a voice. Don’t accept unprofessional and disrespectful behaviour - call it out. Don’t undermine your colleagues. Don’t put your personal gain before the team.
This doesn’t mean you can’t disagree - you absolutely can and should. Just do it professionally and respectfully.
If you can’t do this as an absolute minimum, then how can you expect others to? And why would the best people want to come and work with you?
Observe and listen
This works on two fronts. First, by consciously holding your tongue you are giving others licence to open up. Second, you will learn a lot more by actively listening to what others have to say. You can gauge safety and transparency, and likely spot areas where you think you and others can raise the bar.
Demonstrate humility and vulnerability
This is such an underutilised behaviour across the board, primarily because of how counterintuitive it is at face value, but I’m glad to say that I see this more and more in our industry now: Practitioners and even some leaders who are starting to open up about their insecurities. More conversations about imposter syndrome. More normalisation of learning by making mistakes.
A great step forwards for so many reasons, it is also an excellent vehicle for encouraging those around you to open up. It’s okay to say “I don’t know”. It’s okay to be wrong. Write your mistakes down. Share them. Selfishly, this is one of the best ways for you yourself to learn and develop.
Reassure people that it’s okay
The best leaders I’ve worked with - and probably individual contributors too come to think of it - are those who go out of their way to instil psychological safety. They regularly check in on teammates. They encourage people to take it easy on themselves, even if those higher up or the organisation as a whole does not.
Practical examples (which all should be given but often aren’t):
- Flexibility - it’s okay to finish early so you can go and play football, or take an hour out at 3pm to pick the kids up. It's okay if you would rather work from home or a coffee shop or on the train
- Headspace - it’s okay to decline a meeting or leave early, or say no to an ask because you're maxed out
- Over-communicating - it’s okay to post in the general channel if you want to tell everybody something. It’s okay to go straight to users or straight to the CPO
- Wellness - it’s okay to take time off. It’s okay to rest up. It's okay to stop and play your guitar for 10 minutes between calls
- Pragmatism - it’s okay if that thing isn’t done as a priority
- Working collaboratively - it’s okay to interrupt me and ask questions
This one builds on the previous point about reassurance, but I feel it's more than that. As much as I try and steer clear of the word culture, it’s definitely in that territory. It’s something that doesn’t tend to emerge organically and usually needs some very concerted and multilateral effort.
To quote the great man on failure: “This is where you find yourself. This is where you understand who you are when this happens. What education and training you've had in the past won't help you. Confront it, don't accept it. The next day is important."
Be open about this on all levels. Personally, as a team, as a product, as an organisation. This can take a lot of courage initially, but it can be so beneficial to strive to normalise this. To create a platform for your peers to learn from one another.
It also has the added bonus that it emboldens. It makes even the most inexperienced of practitioners feel that little bit braver when considering giving something new a try.
Engineer safety and transparency
Perhaps a little crude, but there are some very simple mechanisms you can employ to tease these out and give them the airtime they deserve, such as:
- Run a retro or workshop with a focus on safety. Try Switch to Eleven's Team Psychological Safety Miro canvas
- Define your team principles, keeping transparency or safety in mind. You could use Alex Ivanov's Miro team canvas
- Create a staff handbook to make this all tangible and explicit. Check out GitLab's handbook if you're in need of inspiration
- Watch and share content in this space. Radical candor is a good example of something that sets the tone, as is the aforementioned GitLab handbook. This HBR article is also in my bookmarks
- Make a nod to all of this during onboarding. Set the scene early, ideally from several directions
- Anonymous voting to get a true picture. Too often - and increasingly so in remote organisations - there is a silent, unempowered majority. Use tools like Miro to break this anti-pattern
- Solicit and encourage anonymous feedback. Everything you play back to others, ask for their feedback. Provide mechanisms to capture this anonymously, such as Google Forms. Do this as early as you can - ideally before you drop significant things like visions and OKRs and policies. Host regular Ask Me Anything sessions (AMAs) and use tools like Slido to encourage anonymous contributions and to prioritise the questions that matter to most
- Ensure regular 1-2-1 feedback and coaching. If you are a line manager then it is your responsibility to ensure this happens. If you are being line managed and this isn't happening, remind your manager of this. Assuming that a regular cadence is in place, have you consciously and explicitly called out transparency and psychological safety in your 1-2-1s? Could you do more here? Could you ask your report to score themself on how safe they feel? On how safe they make others feel? As someone being line managed, could you tell your manager that you and your team don't feel safe? Could you give your manager reassurance that radical candour is okay - encouraged even?
Avoid estimates and deadlines
Obviously much easier said than done, but the most productive places I’ve worked at have given product teams the time and space they need to do the blend of discovery and delivery that the team thinks gives them the best shot of achieving the desired outcome. If roadmaps beyond now-next-later do exist, everybody knows they’re indicative and most know better than to use them as sticks to bash one another over the head with. If there are external dependencies or commitments that the team need to make, they’re approached with grace and precision and, again, the team are afforded the time and space to consider this as fully as possible.
Chasing people down is a last resort. The default stance is “they have it in hand and they’ll let me know when there is something worthy of mention”.
Lead by example
This is kind of implicit in all that you’ve read so far, but just having one person that exhibits one or more of the behaviours or installs one or more of the mechanisms mentioned above can be transformational. Having multiple has a compounding effect, especially if it is an organisational leader or a figurehead within the team.
Look no further than this 1995 classic from Steve Jobs to see the epitome of this.
Make no mistake: Unless you just happen to be “one of those people”, all of the above probably takes a lot of conscious effort. Likely a big slice of the pie chart (a third maybe?). It is not easy, and it requires rigour. There is no right answer here, but I’ve found it definitely helps to block out time in your calendar every few weeks to take stock of these behaviours and activities and would encourage you to do the same.
Dogfood: could your org open itself up to the wider world?
I reference Giles Turnbull’s Agile Comms Handbook regularly (because it's awesome), and there are two quotes I’d like to call out here explicitly.
First, and something I feel a strong affinity with having started writing more prominently over the last few months, there is an ocean of positivity out there - not just for you personally, but for your team. For your organisation:
Opening up about your work might feel terrifying to start with, but think about the benefits it will bring. Think about the sea of goodwill. Giles Turnbull, Agile Comms Handbook (2021)
Second, on the prospect of your organisation opening up to the world:
A blog is a terrific way (and in my experience, the best way) of making your organisation more appealing to newcomers. If you want to hire, start blogging. The more you open up about how things work, the more people will want to come and work with you. I say that with some justification. Quite a few people who applied for jobs at the Government Digital Service were directly influenced by the blog posts that organisation published over a number of years. The blog was a powerful recruitment tool. Giles Turnbull, Agile Comms Handbook (2021)
Not only can your organisation’s transparency set the tone for your peers to follow suit, but it can also help to differentiate you from all of the others with whom you do battle in the recruitment space.
Transparency and psychological safety may appear easily achievable at face value - maybe even a given - but sometimes one or both can prove incredibly difficult to come by and even harder to maintain.
Whilst not all of the behaviours and techniques described above may be applicable to your own circumstances, hopefully these give you at least some food for thought.