Platform engineering

Deploying psychological safety for your platform engineering initiative

Mallory Haigh
Director of Customer Success @ Humanitec

Platform engineers build systems that make rewarding developer experiences attainable. They create Internal Developer Platforms (IDPs) and tooling geared toward productivity, leaving developers free to create without getting caught up in the incidental processes or burning out. 

In other words, platform teams rise to one of the toughest challenges of the modern workforce: Engineering highly optimized work environments that developers find fulfilling. But what distinguishes a good job from a bad one? And how can we build platforms that promote the good? We got answers from Mallory Haigh, Humanitec’s Director of Customer Success and Platform Therapist.

Mallory shared an important concept that should take center stage in your platform engineering initiatives: Psychological safety. Whether you’re a veteran or new to the field, these insights can help imbue your IDP efforts with genuine purpose. 

Characterizing the way we work: Good vs. bad

Workplaces are evolving faster than ever, especially in software engineering land. Developers often iterate at breakneck speed and face extremely high expectations. In such a high-stress environment, it’s often expected that human compassion might fall by the wayside—but it shouldn’t.

Mallory started by asking the audience for personal examples of bad job experiences. Everyone’s had one, which is obviously problematic, but the problems manifest differently.

One prevailing issue with bad jobs is how they make employees feel undervalued or afraid to offer suggestions. It’s almost as if what you say doesn’t matter to your bosses or the team. 

Now consider a good job you’ve held. Did the team value people’s opinions equally? Did the organization welcome creative thinking and encourage those who pushed the status quo? 

Workplace experts commonly refer to these differences in terms of psychological safety. The good ones have it, and the rest need to catch up.

An intro to psychological safety

According to the Harvard Business Review, psychological safety revolves around the belief that taking risks is OK. Not only that, but it also entails the reasonable expectation that you won’t be punished for speaking up. If you have concerns, new ideas, questions, or even mistakes to report, you can do so without worrying about negative consequences, such as ostracism, censure, or ridicule. 

Mallory pointed out that psychological safety doesn’t just apply to workplaces. It’s also found in sports, and anywhere else people have to work together. The tech industry may just be catching up to the idea, but people have recognized the importance of the concept for decades.

No matter where it applies, psychological safety demands leaders foster the right kind of environment. Contributors shouldn’t have to tread lightly for fear of being judged. They shouldn’t face prejudice if they go against the grain. 

Every last member of your team should know they’re contributing to the greater organizational good, no matter whether their ideas are accepted. In other words, you need to welcome candor, not kill the messengers.

Who reaps the rewards? Psychological safety for all

The advantages of psychological safety may seem pretty obvious if you’re a contributor—but organizations also benefit.

Psychological safety for individual contributors

  • Recognition becomes a reality: Those who work in environments that promote psychological safety feel valued and appreciated.
  • Interpersonal empathy rises: When you talk to a manager or leader, you’ll feel empathetic to the feedback you receive, not as if you’re being talked down to or criticized unfairly by someone who has it out for you. Not only does empathy exist between direct colleagues but also across different levels of the organization, enhancing cooperation.
  • Failures promote learning: Safe environments don’t carry the constant fear of failure that characterizes many jobs. This comes from the fact that organizations with psychological safety view failures as learning opportunities.
  • Growth comes naturally: Feeling that you’re valued, knowing you can count on empathy, and being comfortable learning all promote individual growth.

Psychological safety for organizations

  • Diversity becomes more likely: Teams with psychological safety tend to be more diverse because people know they can bring their whole selves to work without being judged for their identity. This caters to building companies with different backgrounds and wider skill sets. 
  • Time-to-market decreases: People who feel safe collaborating face fewer hurdles when working together to realize higher goals. 
  • Employees are more engaged and satisfied: Psychological safety contributes to job happiness. Gallup reports that letting employees know their opinion counts can significantly reduce turnover and boost productivity.
  • Flexibility increases: Getting comfortable with making mistakes goes a long way. Your team members will be more adaptive and less fearful of change. 

Delivering fast at all costs isn’t the only way; more often than not, it burns people out. Fostering psychological safety is a superior alternative. Taking the holistic approach lets you achieve great things without doing so at the cost of your most valuable assets, your people.

Implement psychological safety by thinking like a platform engineering team

Take a major hint from how experts develop successful IDPs. View psychological safety as a product you need to build and improve rigorously. 

Here are some of Mallory’s pointers in more depth to get you started:

1. Engage empathetically with your team members

What do you do when you develop products for users? You seek feedback. 

Remember that surveys and other formal inputs aren’t the whole story. Getting in touch with your own humanity is the foundational step: Acting with empathy and relating to others are the keys to building a psychologically safe environment.

2. Acknowledge your fallibility

Admitting mistakes is tough but essential, and owning up to yours isn’t a sign of weakness. It’s a mark of real leadership that shows you accept criticism and new ideas.

3. Iterate on policies and procedures 

Trying to transform everything right away is extremely difficult. Fortunately, the product development mindset comes in handy here too. 

Instead of trying to revolutionize your organizational culture overnight, Mallory advised starting small. Focus on ways to enhance psychological safety gradually. Build slowly to make the changes more palatable.

4. Gather feedback

Want to understand how to improve psychological safety? Kick off regular discussions where you’re open to hearing how your team members feel.

No effort is too minor to be worthwhile. Mallory said being willing to ask for honest feedback is itself a step in the right direction. Solicit your team’s opinion on whether you’re doing a good job of promoting psychological safety. Even if you haven’t quite hit your stride yet, you’ll demonstrate you’re committed.

5. Lead by example

Mistakes aren’t the only events you should view as productive learning opportunities. Every experience offers chances for insight, and being open to this attitude can radically change your perspective on learning. 

Consider what you can learn today to be better tomorrow, and investigate what you can ask to drive improvement. In the process, you’ll set a more positive tone encouraging your team to follow suit.

Gauging your performance

Judging your progress can be tricky in uncharted territory. Mallory advised a four-stage model derived from Timothy R. Clark’s appropriately titled book, 4 Stages of Psychological Safety: Defining the Path to Inclusion and Innovation

There’s no boolean approach here; this is deeper than merely ticking boxes. Following rote recipes for “good” workplaces might even be missing the point. 

Psychological safety exists on a spectrum, so don’t forget the uniquely human elements that make your team special! With that out of the way, you can approach these stages any way you find productive:

Inclusion safety

At this stage, people feel like they’re a part of the team as a whole. Inclusion safety goes beyond just diversity and acceptance, however. It’s about feeling valued as a contributor who uplifts the greater unit. 

Learner safety

Many people are afraid to take this step, but it’s worth it. Learner safety happens when people can explore potentially vulnerable learning opportunities without fear: They feel good about asking questions and raising concerns related to features and workflows. 

Good leaders respond to these concerns by providing helpful learning resources and insights. They also encourage people to learn from their colleagues and other teams.

Contributor safety

At this stage, people recognize that sharing their ideas is accepted and encouraged. They know their input is valuable regardless of whether it’s polished and ready for presentation. 

As Mallory put it, no idea is a “bad” idea, even the most half-baked come from some form of inspiration. Cultivating ideas, whether they relate to products, workflows, or even team dynamics, opens you up to new, useful modes of thought.

Challenger safety

Challenger safety can be one of the biggest struggles for leader-driven organizations and involves individuals challenging the norm without fear of retribution. 

The status quo is often tied to egos, but most challenger suggestions come from a good place. Your people want to make their teams stronger and improve your organization. Their ideas might not perfectly align with the current standard, but there’s always a better way to do something: Be willing to explore the options.

Putting the lessons into action

The four-stage model works best when you ask your staff where you fit and how to improve. Tapping into your team’s feedback, prompting them to ask questions, and encouraging them to learn from each other lets you leverage the power of innovation and drive faster growth.

The tech industry is full of stories of people feeling used and spit out. That needs to change, and it starts with you. Everyone can get better at promoting psychological safety, so remember, someone is always behind the computer screen. 

Everyone benefits from feeling empowered, knowing they can be creative, and having the tools to engage in evolving processes. Fostering practices that hit these three high notes can make your work environment healthier and more productive.

Change takes time and hard work, and this recap only addresses some of the challenges you’ll encounter along the path to psychological safety. Mallory shared much more knowledge in this webinar’s extra-length Q&A, so be sure to watch the full recorded stream.