Operating in an environment that fosters and champions psychological safety is a fundamental requirement for an effective and successful team. Here, HubSpot Engineering Lead Matt Sumner provides some practical tips on how we can all take ownership in driving psychological safety in a hybrid world.

What is your role, what team are you on, and how long have you been at HubSpot?

I joined HubSpot on April 21st of 2020, a little after a month since we started working from home and adapting to life in a global pandemic. I’m an Engineering Lead in the Conversations group.

High psychological safety is a feature of teams that allows me to do my best work.Why do you want to work on a team with high psychological safety?

The reason I want to foster high psychological safety is a selfish one. High psychological safety is a feature of teams that allows me to do my best work. In my experience, success has always followed from teams that say the hard things, trust each other, and believe in working together in service of something apart from them. When I look back at projects that have not felt satisfactory, the atmosphere has been fearful or disengaged. It’s teams where we can’t point out the seemingly obvious problems and talk about them. It’s environments where nobody knows why we’re so focused on delivering that one feature. Cutthroat competition rules, and not showing weakness is sometimes more important than showing strength.

Conversely, teams with high psychological safety identify challenges earlier, deliver value consistently, and adapt quickly to changes external to their environment. Our biggest asset is each other. “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts” and we need to start talking to each other to get stuff done.

We've moved our default communication with each other from vocalizing to Slack messages.

Are there any particular psychological safety challenges you observed while working remotely?

The biggest one I’ve noticed is it’s so much easier to become isolated from each other. The energy we need to input to build and maintain connections is higher, and there are fewer chance encounters to make new connections. The work we do can be hard and lonely. Most of the habits and practices I focus on are to make the work less hard and less lonely.

We’ve moved our default communication with each other from vocalizing to Slack messages. When we’re physically together, I’m likely to ask “silly questions” before being able to give it a second thought. I want to work somewhere where I can display vulnerability, but there’s something in the fact that Slack messages are permanent and that we need to go through the process of authoring them that allows doubt and uncertainty to creep in.

Being remote means I don’t have context clues about my team. Are they at their desks and working? Are they deep in a technical problem or chatting about some feature? To help with that, when I @mention someone on Slack I’ve found myself adding the suffix “of the future” to broadcast that I’m not expecting an answer immediately, but asynchronously (e.g. “@matt of the future, I’ve sent this ticket your way if you wouldn’t mind leaving a comment”).

We’ve also started using group @mentions a lot. Often I’m not looking to talk with someone in particular, but any team member. Maybe it’s to brainstorm solutions or maybe it’s a sentry error I’m struggling to reason about. By using a group handle I’m inviting anyone interested and available to participate.

Direct messages are by their very nature, not inclusiveWhat are your top tips and tools for fostering psychological safety?

My first tip is a Slack one. There is an insidious little feature known as direct messages. I imagine that everyone here is intimately familiar with direct messages because a staggering 89% of messages at HubSpot are sent in direct messages. Of the remainder, 2% are sent in private channels and 9% are sent in public channels.

If there is one idea I want everyone to take away from this list it’s this: direct messages are by their very nature, not inclusive. Nine out of ten messages are exclusive, only for a choice few. If we're serious about building inclusive places to work, then we need to start talking in the open. I’ll share a thought experiment I use to determine if what I’m about to send belongs in a DM. If I were in the office and about to say this out loud to someone, would I first invite them into a private space? If the answer is no then try posting your message in a public channel. You may be pleasantly surprised with the resulting conversation.

My next tip is for Zoom: turn off self view. There is a phenomenon known as Zoom face, which comes from having a tile of yourself in the gallery view. You are able to check in on your own facial expression all the time. This could be happening subconsciously and allows us to present a “perfect poker face,” effectively hiding what we may have projected otherwise. Turning this off is a way to lower your guard, display vulnerability, and communicate your thoughts and feelings more effectively. After I started hiding my self view, I caught myself scanning the gallery for my face, confirming that I had been doing this. This takes some getting used to and is hard, but stick with it! You could start with 1:1s or or daily stand ups to see how this feels.

My last tip is another practice our team adopted a few months ago. We regularly set time aside to do something non-work related together. However, at first we found execution was lackluster. Sometimes someone would take charge and we’d have an awesome time together and other times we just chatted for a bit and left.

We needed someone to take charge and decide. The solution was to assign a Chief Fun Officer — CFO. I have been blown away by the activities people have organized, from virtual puzzles together to scavenger hunts in our homes. At the end of these hangouts, the final responsibility of the CFO is to nominate their successor.

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