This Month’s Agile Interview Corner Features Alexander Frumkin Talking About Psychological Safety

This interview was conducted and written by SVPM Scrum Team program volunteers, Katie Karp and Meghana Panth.

Executive Editor, Donald Stringari.

The pandemic has most of us learning how to work in a new way, it’s like the whole world is working on this experiment and learning from it. With a lot of teams opting for working remotely or in hybrid workspaces there is a need to freely communicate what is working, what is not working, what can change to improve team dynamics. For this experiment to work well we need a conducive environment that values courage, commitment, openness, respect and focus. These are the values Agile Scrum teams embrace. We spoke with Alexander Frumkin, who is an Agile and Scrum coach and an expert in building psychologically safe environments, to learn what Psychological Safety means, why it matters, and how to create it.

Here is the interview:

What is psychological safety? How is it important to Agile and Scrum teams? 

There are many definitions to describe this complex problem and each definition addresses one aspect of this problem. A classical definition of psychological safety is the shared belief that a team is safe for personal risk-taking…that the team will not embarrass, reject or punish someone for speaking up. When a person feels psychologically safe he/she can speak his or her mind without a fear of retaliation. I would say it is the ability to be yourself around your team. Neuroscientifically speaking, it’s a state when your prefrontal cortex can function in full capacity. The prefrontal cortex is responsible for creative thinking, logical thinking. In stressful situations, we are in a fight or flight mode and the amygdala takes over and blocks communications to the prefrontal cortex and impedes logical thinking. 

How do you measure psychological safety? How do you assess this environment is safe to speak up and be yourself?

This is a complex problem and there is no simple answer. Usually it’s a gut feeling, but there are a few things you can observe about the environment that can help you assess. 

  1. How is everyone’s body language? Is it relaxed or is everyone a little tense? 
  2. Is it ok to make mistakes?
  3. Is the team empowered to make decisions? Or are you being directed to someone not in the team for decision making? 

It’s all about sensing behavior, body language and tone. I would also encourage you to ask questions about their risk appetite and autonomy. My favorite tool is the elephant in the room (shows an elephant stuffed toy), oftentimes we know we have a problem, everyone sees the problem but no-one wants to talk about it. This is a clear sign of lack of psychological safety. 

Are there any best practices in the industry for high performing teams to create a psychologically safe environment?

As discussed earlier this is a complex problem and for complex problems there is no best practice or good practice like we see in the Cynefin making sense model. The best practices are emerging from experiments. What I have found to be extremely powerful is a strong message from above. One instance that comes to mind is when I was working with a cybersecurity team at a bank. This team was hesitant to make any decision for fear of making mistakes. I asked the CTO to make a small mistake in front of the 80 people in the room and then take a “failure bow”. “I made a mistake, how fascinating! Let’s celebrate the mistake and see what I can learn from this mistake”. There were a lot of jaws on the floor. 

I am a big fan of David Marquet, “Turn the Ship a Around” book author, and his talks about intentional leadership. I must say in this case it’s all about the leadership and what message they send to the team. However, this is a double edged sword as some people see it as lack of responsibility and abuse it. It is actually a fine balance. 

As a scrum master what are the things I can do to create an encouraging environment? 

I would suggest scrum master to do these things. 

  1. Talk about this openly.
  2. Tell the team and leadership about how important this is. Demonstrate to the team that it’s ok to make mistakes, use the failure bow as a tool.
  3. See every project as an experiment, what does success look like? What does failure look like? What can we learn from this?

What happens when teams don’t experience psychological safety? 

Let’s take a look back on when the term psychological safety was re-discovered. The term was coined in the 70s, but gained a second life after a Google study named Aristotle was published. The purpose of the Aristotle project was to identify the attributes/patterns of high performing teams. The study found that PS is essential for a team to be high performing. There are several reasons for this. First of all, when humans feel unsafe, the amygdala in the brain disables the frontal lobes and activates the fight-or-flight response. Without the frontal lobes, humans can’t think clearly, make rational decisions, or control their responses. Secondly, the Agile world and the world of scrum address continuous improvement in the complex world using the tools of transparency, inspection, and adaptation. The process is to experiment, collect data, analyze the data, and make a course correction, if needed. If you don’t have PS you won’t have data. If you don’t have data, you don’t have the information needed to continuously improve. A typical example of this is what is known as a watermelon project – the project is green, green, green and then red. This happens when no one wants to deliver bad news to management. There is no transparency, there is no trust, there is no PS. When this situation occurs, there is a very powerful question that you want to ask your leadership team: would you like me to deliver a bad piece of news today or 3 months from now? If I have PS to deliver a bad piece of news today we can create a mediation plan. If I deliver this news 3 months later, it’s too late.  

Do you have an example of where a team had the psychological safety to let management know that a project was red in time for a mediation plan to be developed?

A gaming company was working on the next version of one of their games. Management made a promise to make an announcement about the next version of the game at the next trade show. They had ordered TV ads and other marketing collateral and everything was set up for the launch. Three weeks before the trade show the development team discovered a fundamental limitation in the 3rd party API that would prevent the product to be customer ready by the already scheduled announcement date. Once informed of the issue, the 3rd party API said they could fix the problem in 3 months, which was after the proposed announcement date. If there had been no PS, no one would have been notified and the company would have started selling a defective product. Instead, the teams started brainstorming how they could fix the problem. The most important point in this story is that the teams and management had the conversation.

What can impede psychological safety? 

Fear of retaliation by leadership, fear of failure, when someone on the team has a strong personality that overwhelms others, when people ask for help and others don’t respond. It’s important to be aware of cultural differences. The book “The Culture Map” explains how patterns of behaviors differ across cultures.  

How do you help your teams feel psychologically safe?

When I begin with a new team, I start my introduction by stating that I believe in the importance of PS. I let them know that when I am in the room I want them to speak freely, to speak their mind. I advise them that as their coach I am not here to fix them, I am not here to judge them because, I believe, they are all smart and instrumental people. My job is to help them better understand their problems, to help the system to reveal itself; as if I am bringing a mirror. 

My favorite definition of coach is someone who can tell you what you don’t want to hear and show you what you don’t want to see so that you can be a better version of yourself.

Do you find that you need to remind new teams about psychological safety a fair amount?

Yes, but it’s not enough. You must live by these rules. There is an exercise I practice and invite managers to practice as well. It goes like this: make a mistake, identify that you have made a mistake, celebrate it, learn from it. This is very powerful because it helps others feel that it is okay to make mistakes. 

Do you need to have a discussion with Leadership as well so that they help create the right environment?

Absolutely. It doesn’t matter if the team has created an environment of PS if a member of the leadership team could come and destroy our PS in a heartbeat. During this interview we have talked about team PS, but people in leadership need and deserve PS as well. Their future promotion depends on the performance of their teams and if they think something is not going right, the natural reaction is to put pressure on the team. This creates team stress and negatively impacts performance. If we establish the culture of experimentation, if there is an agreement between the scrum team and the leadership team, these are powerful tools. We need to figure out how together we make this work and product awesome.

I tell my son, who is 11, that it’s okay if he makes mistakes because he will learn from making mistakes.  Do you see a difference between how generations adjust to psychological safety?

This is difficult for me to judge because I grew up in a different country, different culture where everything had to be done perfectly. There was no space for mistakes.  

How do we build a buffer for failure?  How do you let leadership know it is okay to fail?

Neuroscience helps explain why PS is important for leaders. I have an example from my personal life. I lead an online user group, one of the first created for Agile Practitioners. Usually open up Zoom 15 minutes in advance to check that everything is working properly and the guest speakers can call in early so that when people begin to call in everything is set up. For one meeting, where I had two very respectful people invited to speak, I was in back to back meetings and couldn’t sign in until the time of the meeting. I signed in to realize that the link was broken. I panicked. It took me 7-8 minutes to update the meetup page, re-create the invite, and send out the participant invite. The next day when I was calmer I conducted an experiment where I re-created the meeting again. It took me 1-2 minutes to do. This example speaks for itself. 

I’ve heard a lot about the Cynefin sense making model for identifying how to address a problem based upon relative level of complexity.  Can you explain how it works?

I am a big fan of the Cynefin sense making model for identifying, based upon the complexity of the problem, what types of methods should be used to address the problem. Depending upon who I am talking to I can pull it out and use very simple examples to explain how it is used: replace a lightbulb, it is an obvious problem where you can use a best practice. If you have to do an engine overhaul on your car, it is complicated. Most people cannot overhaul an engine themselves, they need to have an auto mechanic do it. Auto mechanics can figure it out – they are trained and have tools for that. This is a situation where good practices would be used. If you are dealing with something unpredictable where you don’t know upfront what to expect, like developing a vaccine for Covid-19, it is a complex problem. This is a case where you can’t use best or good practices, you need to use exaptive or emergent (older version of the model) practices. You need to probe, sense, and respond; you need to probe and experiment. What would happen if you tried to use your best or good practices and apply it for the complex domain, which is what management asks you to do often? You will most likely “fall over the cliff” into a Chaos. I show this model to leadership teams and they ask why we are discussing Cynefin? Then when I give them examples, they have the aha that for a complex problem you can’t use good or best practices, one must use emergent practices and experiment.

What resources would you suggest if we want to learn more about psychological safety?

  •  “The 4 Stages of PS” by Timothy R. Clark 
  • “Turn the Ship Around” by David Marquet  
  • “Drive” by Daniel Pink

My website: under Resources and Videos



3 thoughts on “This Month’s Agile Interview Corner Features Alexander Frumkin Talking About Psychological Safety”

  1. This article addresses a very important concept. Psychology in the workplace is becoming more relevant and psychological safety is an excellent example. There is a lot of focus on what it means to be a “good leader” but other factors within a team also play a huge role and light should shine on those areas as well. In the case of this article, having a good environment is a major key in a team to get work done effectively.

    My experience with psychological safety:
    I am on a new team and I do not feel connected to them versus my last team. We might be working remotely but I can tell through meetings that my ideas of change are not always welcomed so I decided that I would stop trying to change the process. It is also discouraging that I feel like I cannot rely on my team. For example, I typically take minutes but I was not feeling well and asked the group if someone will do it for the day. I did not get a response and when the meeting came up it was I asked if I was taking notes. Another example is when I learned that one seasoned coworker threw a newer coworker under the bus. This tells me there is no protection in this team. In these examples, you can see that my team does not necessarily allow for psychological safety. Compared to my last team where my coworkers had my back and we were there for each other. We made sure that we protected each other and if we did feel heat then we would put in a control. It is a very hard transition to go from one polar to the opposite.

    While reading this article “eureka” came to mind when Anju was talking about making mistakes with a bow. Sometimes it feels like as adults we have lost our natural curiosity. If we apply the curiosity then mistakes can be looked at as a grand find and maybe some of the negativity will be removed.

    What I mentioned is just a few of many things to reflect on in this article.

  2. Great article. Thank you Anju Bala Bala for sharing . I got so impressed after reading this and super helpful article. I’ always believe that failure does not mean you are not winning but is an opportunity to improve in your learning skills’

  3. Great article. Thanks for sharing Anju Bala Bala. I got so impressed after reading the interview question:’ how do you as a team help your team to be psychologically safe’. All the explanations about creating a psychological safety environment are super helpful to me. Thank you much.

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