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Psychological Safety and The Scrum Master

Let us start off with a quick scenario around Psychological Safety.

New team member: "But why don't we use X as our new tool?"

Senior team member: *scoffs* "Why would you ask that? You should know that X won't mesh well with our current system."

In the above scenario, the new team member has asked a question. The senior team member audibly scoffs and questions why they would ask that question. By scoffing out loud and questioning them in return, the senior team member has started creating a hostile environment. This environment is not Psychologically Safe.

Psychological Safety is a term that you may have heard floating around. More and more companies are trying to make their environments Psychologically Safe. So what does that mean? Furthermore, what does that mean for a Scrum Master?


What is Psychological Safety?

In a nutshell, Psychological Safety means a person or persons feels safe from being reprimanded or teased for speaking up, asking questions, sharing ideas, or asking for help. Members of the team feel like they can ask any question without the question being deemed “stupid” or “silly” in a Psychologically Safe environment. Another characteristic can be people do not have to worry about being reprimanded for speaking up or disagreeing with someone else.


What does this mean for a Scrum Master?

For a Scrum Master, this means actively pursuing Psychological Safety. Reading this post alone will not make you an expert in all things related to Psychological Safety. You will need to foster a psychologically safe environment for your team. It will be necessary to get everyone on board. From engineers to managers of the team, they all need to be on board for the pursuit of Psychological Safety.


How can a Scrum Master foster a Psychologically Safe environment?


Lead by example – be an advocate for psychological safety

If Psychological Safety is not a topic that your team is familiar with, help them become familiar. You will find yourself in a “Teaching Stance” most of the time when educating your team. Once you have taught your team about you can mention that this is a psychologically safe environment when meetings begin. If a team member says “I have a silly question” or you see them cower from asking, help them out. You can say things like “there are no silly questions” or if they are shying away from asking you can ask them for their opinion on the topic at hand.


Leverage retrospectives to help find the pain points

This one has a caveat. For a retrospective to help the retrospective itself needs to be Psychologically Safe. When setting the stage be sure to mention that it is a space for expressing concerns and sharing thoughts. Team members may need reminding that your retrospectives are a safe space.

A retrospective can be tough as it can sometimes be a place where hot-button topics can get brought up. Be sure you are ready to intervene if necessary. Leverage your powerful questions to look for clarity or defuse the situation.


Watch out for issues

Retrospectives are not the only place where Psychological Safety is necessary. It can be harder to spot in other spaces. For instance, a standup may seem like a place where it may not be common. But using a keen eye you may see body language that suggests otherwise. Eye rolling when someone asks a question could be a sign that someone does not have Psychological Safety on their mind. It may seem like a minor gesture but doing so to a junior developer asking a simple question can be quite exasperating.


This is not a comprehensive list of ways a Scrum Master can help a team with Psychological Safety. If anything, this can be a launching point in a Scrum Master’s journey to create safe environments for their teams.

Lastly remember, not all of the responsibility falls on the Scrum Master alone. Gaining and maintaining a Psychologically Safe environment takes work from everyone.

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