Developer growth, Practice Empathy

Leading teams with Empathy -Providing Psychological Safety

As a technical team lead, you are in a unique position to facilitate the growth of your team or watch it spin out of control. You can run it with an iron fist or meekly get overrun by strong forces. You can encourage psychological safety or allow watch things fall apart in a toxic environment.

What makes or breaks a team? How can you bring out the best in the people around you? What can you do as a technical team lead to ensure the success of your team, and as an extension your product?

The #1 most important trait — Psychological safety

According to Google’s recently published research, the most important trait for predicting a team’s success is Psychological Safety. Followed by Dependability, Structure & Clarity, Meaning, Impact.

Defining Psychological Safety — Team members feel safe to take risks and be vulnerable in front of each other.

Psychological safety was far and away the most important of the five dynamics we found — it’s the underpinning of the other four.

Filling the marble jar


In her book “Daring Greatly”, Dr. Brené Brown uses the metaphor of a jar of marbles that fills up based on level of trust. Each positive interaction between people adds to the jar and each negative subtracts.

The level of the jar indicates the strength (trust) of the relationship and how resilient it is to external forces. The more you invest into a relationship, the higher the level of trust. This can’t be one-way though, as lack of positive interaction can also experienced as negative.

Building Trust

Teams don’t magically acquire a sense of trust between its team members. Like the marble glass example, trust gradually grows over time. There are no guarantees that a team’s safety will evolve beyond a certain point. Any number of personal, technical or organisational factors can play a part of destabilising a team.

So what can you do, to encourage an environment of psychological safety?

Communicate with Candor

Being honest and direct is not easy, especially when you need to tackle difficult topics. Radical Candor is a framework that serves as an aid to defining types of feedback, and placing Radical Candor as the greatest type.

In a nutshell, Radical Candor is honest, contextual, kind, direct and considerate. You seek to praise in public and critique in private. It takes courage to communicate candidly and tackle those difficult problems

Read more about Radical Candor and examples.

Listen to understand

To be able to communicate your thoughts, desires and wishes, you must first stop and listen. Listen to the needs behind your teammates voices. Understand where they are in the process, and frame your communication accordingly.

Are they really against a certain technology or process, or is there some experience coloring their opinions?

To answer any of these questions you have to be truly curious about where they are coming from. You need to listen to understand, not to respond. You need to show empathy. Perhaps you need to accept that you suck at listening and approach it from a beginners mind?

Accept the individual

It’s easy to judge and expect excellence from others, but to truly be able to make a connection and build trust, you need to look beyond the individual performance of a team member. You need to be curious about what that member may or may not be going through.

Move passed the ego around the “I” and focus on the ego rooted in the mission of delivering something with others.

Read more about accepting that every team member is doing the best they can.

Be vulnerable

Vulnerability is a double-edged sword. Too much and you may not be taken seriously. Too little and you avoid building strong relationships.

“Trust is a product of vulnerability that grows over time and requires work, attention, and full engagement. Trust isn’t a grand gesture — it’s a growing marble collection.” — Brené Brown

As you build up trust, you also enable deeper levels of vulnerability. Vulnerability is the true key to moving a team dynamic of mutual respect and professional courtesies to a team that truly can trust each other.

“Remember, teamwork begins by building trust. And the only way to do that is to overcome our need for invulnerability.” — Patrick Lencioni

Empathy – the secret ingredient?

All of the points above can be done to a certain degree with techniques, experience and practice. But to truly be able to communicate on a deeper level, see each team member for who they are and drive together towards the goal is to root yourself in empathy.

I truly believe that empathy is an essential skill for software development teams.

It begins with you

Photo credit: Phil Dragash via / CC BY-NC-SA

You may not be a formal leader, but leadership is not a title, it’s a role. As a leader, you play a natural part in building trust in your team. You need to take the steps to make a connection with each team member, even when they don’t reach out to you.

Communicate candidly, listen understandingly, accept each members actions, and be open to vulnerability.

Look out for those small, rare moments when a team member is opening up and sharing just a little more than usual. That is where the growth is. Cherish those moments and build upon them.

I accept I am barely scratching the surface of what you can do to encourage an environment of psychological safety, but with empathy at the core, I believe the rest will follow.

Resources to explore

Here are some resources I have found useful in my journey so far. I’m sure I’ll have more to share as I go.

I would love to hear your thoughts on team leadership and creating an environment of psychological safety. Reach out to me directly if you have any thoughts, questions or criticisms. Or leave a comment below.

Cover image via Visual Hunt