Identifying Phrases for Psychological Safety on a Workplace Design Team

Author: ORCID icon
Campbell, Jennifer, Civil Engineering - School of Engineering and Applied Science, University of Virginia
Klotz, Leidy, EN-CEE, University of Virginia

Psychological safety, or the “shared belief that a team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking,” (Edmondson, 1999, p. 354) is linked to effective team learning, creativity, innovation, and team performance. Despite the central relevance of these factors to design in engineering and other fields, there is limited understanding of psychological safety in these fields. For example, no work to date has empirically identified concrete things that people on professional design teams might say to enhance psychological safety on these teams.

Responding to this gap in understanding, I studied 21 meetings of a 27-member design team developing an app for a client. With this research, I sought to identify things people said which align with theoretical definitions of psychological safety. To achieve this goal, I triangulated between several ethnographic methods including observations, interviews, and a survey of a team in the software development industry throughout the course of a project. I used thematic analysis to code transcribed recordings from meetings and interviews to identify and categorize phrases for psychological safety on this design team.

Five main categories of phrases (themes) emerged from the data: phrases to support others on the team, ask for help or support, model accountability, display vulnerability, and add structure. These include 7 sub-categories and 28 groups of phrases that team members used in these meetings that may correlate with psychological safety, such as phrases for offering to help team members with their tasks, validating team members and their contributions, inviting feedback or pushback, and admitting a mistake. Within each of these themes, I document specific observed phrases for psychological safety that team members used.

This work suggests other implications for influencing psychological safety in conversation on design teams. Some of the components of psychological safety, for example, were supported by a wider range of phrases than other components. Being able to take risks was supported by the widest variety of phrases, whereas being able to make a mistake or feeling like your unique skills are valued were supported by the smallest variety of phrases. This suggests that there may be an opportunity for design team members to incorporate phrases that link to these less supported aspects of psychological safety. This work also suggests that design teams may benefit simply from members avoiding conversational behaviors that may be detrimental to psychological safety, like those that belittle team members, interrupt others, or show a lack of follow-through on promised actions.

For practitioners, this research suggests categories of phrases and natural-language examples that individuals on engineering teams may already be saying to contribute to psychological safety on design teams while also identifying areas for growth, such as expanding conversational contributions that show that team members’ skills are valued and that people can make mistakes without negative consequences. It also suggests things to avoid doing and saying. These findings can be used both by design team members looking to foster psychological safety from the ground up as well as for engineering managers and leaders aiming to enhance psychological safety on their teams more broadly.

Theoretically, this work begins to fill a gap in the literature on psychological safety and engineering by exploring what professionals actually do and say that may link to team psychological safety. This work uncovers areas for further research, such as identifying the relationship between identified phrases and psychological safety, studying how the absence of certain behaviors and phrases may impact psychological safety, exploring the potential impact of client interactions on psychological safety, and considering the potential impacts of psychological safety on design projects.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Engineering design, Team dynamics, Psychological safety, Design teams
All rights reserved (no additional license for public reuse)
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