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Fostering Psychological Safety & Constant Improvement as a Product Manager

Tucker Sauer-Pivonka
July 20, 2020

Product managers know – or a have likely heard – that psychological safety is an important element to their jobs. The concept has risen in popularity over the past several years as organizations are focusing ever more intently on culture and the work environment. But what does it mean or look like in practice for product managers? What’s the real value of psychological safety?


Aside from the necessity of creating an environment where team members feel secure and accepted, psychological safety allows for a myriad of additional benefits for product teams (and really any kind of team for that matter). One of the most significant being that it gives teams the encouragement and space to continually improve in their craft.


So, what is psychological safety?

Before going any further, let’s take a look at the original meaning of the phrase, coined by Amy Edmondson, the Novartis Professor of Leadership at Harvard Business School. In her research, Edmondson describes psychological safety as, “a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking.”


It’s about whether you feel safe enough to ask potentially “silly” questions. Or if you feel comfortable to ever fail or admit a mistake. Ultimately, it’s about making sure there is a healthy level of comfort for everyone on the team to thrive.


Edmondson’s definition proposes that psychological safety is experienced at a team level rather than individual, which presents an opportunity for product mangers. Because PdMs (product managers) oversee, protect, and advocate for all the members of the team, they are in a unique position which allows them to lead the charge for a more psychologically safe team dynamic.



Fostering psychological safety on your team

It starts with you as the product manager! Or the person on the team who has taken on the initiative to cultivate this type of environment. There are many tactical boxes you can check for psychological safety on teams, but how you actually interact with others is what will set the expectation for the entire team.


This could mean starting every conversation with a perspective of empathy and understanding that the team member you’re working with has things going on in their own life. If you can create a safe environment, then everyone can move forward together regardless of what else is happening outside of work.


You can hope and encourage others to push for a healthier team dynamic, but you serve as an example that others on your team will take from. Don’t be afraid to admit failure yourself. It will show the rest of the group that small mistakes are okay. They actually often lead to learning!


Encourage and assist others on your team to continually improve

Once a team climate of mutual respect and acceptance has been established, each of the individuals of the team can bring their fully authentic selves. This puts the team in a position most conducive to learning, as there is less risk or fear of judgement. When the team isn’t afraid of failure, real growth and innovation happens!


Imagine a work environment where you can ask all of the questions you have, confide in others about the mistakes you’ve made, and pitch your wildest ideas without the risk of reproof. Imagine the possibilities for breakthroughs and overall team improvement.


It also becomes easier to encourage your teammates to invest time and effort into specific areas for improvement. As a product manager, you are in a special position to open up respectful, helpful dialogue to assist them in finding opportunities to learn. You’re not their manager or an equal in their field, but you are working with them regularly managing the product they work on. This presents an incredible opportunity to present feedback in a non-threatening way.


Take on the role of being their cheerleader! Others generally know where they need to improve or the path they want to go in terms of professional development. It’s not only valuable for that team member, but for the whole team to get closer together and figure out new ways to collaborate.



Prepare for difficult conversations to protect and advocate for a psychologically safe environment

It’s going to happen at some point in your career as a PdM. You, or someone on your team will unknowingly create friction or discomfort for others by their actions. It might be a client, another team member, an outside vendor, etc. that says or does something that comes across in a harmful manner. Assume that it’s going to happen, but also work to assume the best intent in others.


This is not to say that feelings and issues are to be ignored. Sometimes it does take an apology which can be extremely difficult, but necessary. Addressing the issue is the best thing you can do to help everyone move past it and ensure that it won’t happen again. Have the conversation with your team and do your best to create an environment that is psychologically safe.



Check out the Product Manager Round Table live video for a more detailed discussion on this topic and more.

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