Jeff Gallimore: Psychological safety for remote teams

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Can chatter about household appliances contribute positively to digital transformation? Jeff Gallimore thinks so. Here's his take on psychological safety for remote dev teams.

As businesses deal with dramatic people and process changes resulting from the global COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting recession, it's easy to put digital transformation on the back burner. Employees are already stressed with changes to their work-life balance, which limits their ability to accept new ways of working. But when an organization pauses its initiatives, it arguably exposes a business to more risk, as competitors can surpass it.

Software development organizations must not yield on innovation, said Jeff Gallimore, the chief technology and innovation officer at Excella, a Washington D.C.-based consultancy. In this episode of the Test & Release podcast, Gallimore explains how plenty of organizations continue to push their digital transformation initiatives as a means of differentiating within their field. Now is no time to hunker down in preserve-and-protect mode.

"We're not going to get back to whatever the old ways used to be, and we need to start looking forward [to] what 'new' looks like," Gallimore says. "The organizations that can make that shift in their thinking and their mindset and their approach, sooner rather than later, are the ones that are probably going to be more successful in dealing with it and coming out stronger than they were before."

Companies face enormous change. But individual workers are also dealing with an immense amount of change. They might be working remotely and forced to make difficult decisions regarding happiness and health.

The term psychological safety, coined by Harvard University scholar Amy Edmondson and popular in the DevOps community, refers to a worker's ability to show themselves -- frustrations, creativity and all -- without fear of reprisal. That concept informed a people-centric approach that Gallimore uses at Excella and advises for clients: Devote business time to the well-being of workers. In the software development community, burnout has had a troubling effect on programmers. Thus, psychological safety for remote teams deserves attention and a proactive approach.

Now, business leaders face a difficult challenge to identify and improve psychological safety for remote workers. Newly remote teams can no longer rely on cues like body language, tone of voice and other in-person gestures to inform work culture. Attention to detail and empathy are more important leadership characteristics than ever.

Generally speaking, the team is the best to figure out how something needs to get done. The leader needs to be seeking input, and feedback, and information about what needs to get done and maybe why it needs to get done.

"Organizations have to be much more intentional and proactive about making sure that those signals are still coming through, even though they might be coming through in a different way," Gallimore says.

But it's not just about enforcing psychological safety for remote teams. It's also a good time to empower people.

Digital communication can wreak havoc as many businesses adjust to asynchronous communication and schedule deviations. As long as leaders effectively communicate business goals to the organization or team level, it's fine to let teams make consequential decisions -- to a point. Gallimore advises clients that communication and teamwork choices aren't a binary decision, neither strictly top-down nor bottom-up. Assess choices and culture on a situational basis, always with business initiatives in mind.

"Generally speaking, the team is the best to figure out how something needs to get done. The leader needs to be seeking input, and feedback, and information about what needs to get done and maybe why it needs to get done," he says.

Gallimore is also an advisor for IT Revolution, an IT publishing, research and events company. He added some of his takeaways from October's virtual DevOps Enterprise Summit, which featured global examples of digital transformation. These examples, he said, offer a glimmer of hope that innovation can still happen during a recession and a pandemic.

Editor's note: Gallimore spoke with site editor David Carty and assistant site editor Ryan Black. The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

David Carty: Jeff, obviously, the last year or so has thrown us all for a loop as our ways of working change. How is Excella advising clients through their Agile or DevOps transformations right now? Are there some general takeaways that might be helpful to know?

Jeff Gallimore: There's certainly been a lot of disruption this year. This is not the year that I think anybody expected, going into 2020. But it's the year that we have. And I think a lot of what we're talking to organizations about is really the mindset that they're approaching all of this with. And I think there are probably a few different key points in that. Number one is, all of this change is having a real people impact, and that's both at work and outside of work. [We need] people and leaders, in particular, [to] expand their perspective to address the whole person, because the lines between work and home and personal and professional have just been obliterated. You can see these examples. Think about the last time you were on a Zoom call or video call, and somebody's kid walked up and needed mommy or daddy.

Carty: And it was probably my kid in the last one.

Jeff GallimoreJeff Gallimore

Gallimore: Yeah, it happened to me just yesterday. And [there's] dogs barking and doorbells ringing and [other] stuff. Life happens in what used to be the middle of the workday. We have to adjust our expectations that that's just the new normal. And then people are also dealing with things that they didn't have to deal with before necessarily, like when we send our kids to schools, and we went to work, and then our worlds came back together again after the school day or after the work day. Well, that's not happening now. People are having their kids go to school right next to them at the kitchen table. And so I'm taking Zoom calls with people at work or clients or whatever it happens to be, and kids are right next to us having interactions with their schoolmates and teachers. And that's odd. It's certainly unusual; I don't know if that's ever happened before. So taking those kinds of things into consideration as a leader, as a manager, as a professional for our teams is super, super important, because we have to, more so than ever, address the whole person. So that's, I think, thing number one -- the human aspect of all this disruption.

The second part of this is the attitudes that organizations are taking as it relates to what this disruption or what these changes represent, and the approach that they're taking to deal with them. Some organizations [say], 'I'm going to hunker down. I'm going to try and ride it out. I'm going to try to preserve the status quo, hang on by hook or by crook.' That's certainly one approach. And then I think a lot of organizations were in that mode very, very early on, because we didn't know what was going to happen. It was all new. There was nothing to anchor to. Some organizations, probably quite rightly, just said preserving the status quo was okay. But now, as I think all this has developed, we're realizing that this is not going to be a quick recovery. We're not going to get back to whatever the old ways used to be, and we need to start looking forward and what 'new' looks like. The organizations that can make that shift in their thinking and their mindset and their approach, sooner rather than later, are the ones that are probably going to be more successful in dealing with it and coming out stronger than they were before -- and even getting stronger in the middle of it, more so than the organizations that are still in that preserve-and-protect mode. Even to amplify that statement is, with change and disruption also comes opportunities for rethinking things: rethinking whole business models, rethinking of ways that you're working, rethinking of how you're engaging with your clients or your customers. It creates a lot of opportunities to ask and answer questions that may not have occurred to you before, and it creates new possibilities. So organizations that are also engaging in those sorts of discussions in a healthy, constructive sort of way, I think are also going to be the ones that are making progress during all this change versus the ones that might be even regressing.

Carty: That's a great point. And I think that dovetails nicely into another question I wanted to ask you. We hear a lot in the DevOps community about mental well-being and psychological safety, to your first point that you just mentioned. There's a lot going on in the outside world, and quite frankly, noise-cancelling headphones [are] not going to block out a heck of a lot of it. So, do you see this as an opportune time for organizations to rethink how they approach these ideas? And if so, how would you recommend that they do that?

Gallimore: Psychological safety has been a topic that has been near and dear to me for probably about four years now. It was important to me before that -- I just didn't have the term, the language, the terminology to know what to call it. Just to share a little bit of the journey about that, back in probably 2015 [or] 2016, I read the 'State of DevOps Report' for that year, and it talked about culture, in particular. There's this word 'culture,' which means so many different things to so many people. And it's kind of this really amorphous, hard-to-get-ahold-of kind of concept. We all know in our heart of hearts that culture is an important thing, and it matters, and it's meaningful. But we had -- at least for me, I had a really hard time describing what culture really meant, why it was important, and what its connection was to team and to organizational performance. So that 'State of DevOps Report,' in that report was a discussion about the Westrum culture topologies and [it looked] at different kinds of cultures, and how organizations responded to failure, and how they shared information. That [report] just sent me on this whole journey of learning about culture and how it really connects to team and to organizational performance. So I'm very thankful for that, because it was really a meaningful journey. And as a part of that journey, I learned about psychological safety and the research of Dr. Amy Edmondson, [the Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at the Harvard Business School], in particular -- so if anybody hasn't read her book, Fearless Organizations or watched her TED talk, you should absolutely do that; read her research, it's phenomenal. But that term, psychological safety, has now started to become much more part of the common collective consciousness of enterprises and of our industry, because it's really, really important. You acknowledge it when it's there, and appreciate it when it's there, and now you also have the term for when it's not -- when you feel those factors that are contributing to a lack of psychological safety. The feelings that we didn't have really a great way to express before, we now have this term that says, 'Either I have a lot of psychological safety -- and big thumbs up for that, how can we get even more of it -- or I really don't have that psychological safety.' Now we have, as an industry, a much better understanding of what that is, and what that means and why it's important. So that's a really long-winded way of saying that psychological safety now is so important, because of all the things, back to the earlier point about all of the life and the work stuff that's crashing together, and the whole human being, the whole person considerations that organizations need to have today. I mean, think about this, if I don't have a way, if I don't feel safe to bring up a challenge that I'm having at home with my supervisor or my company, I have to deal with that. That's going to be a weight on me, and I'm not going to be the best at home; I'm not going to be the best at work; and that's going to have a real material impact, not only on the human being that's going through that, but it's also going to have an impact on the organization, because they're not necessarily going to get the best from that person. So organizations need to expand their thinking about that, and make sure that their folks do have that psychological safety so that they can not only engage in all of the professional behaviors at work that produce really good outcomes for the team and for the organization, like experimentation and risk taking and all that, but that they also feel safe, that they can bring cares and concerns to their boss or to their team or to the organization so that they can get addressed and they can be more effective.

Carty: Absolutely. And this is a tougher task than ever really, right? I mean, burnout is a big part of this discussion. And you're not having the same kind of face-to-face interactions that you have every day with your teams. So it's that much easier, I would imagine, to miss out on some of the cues or to have something like an IM or an email get misconstrued, right? I imagine vigilance is the key there.

Gallimore: For sure, the nature of the interactions have certainly changed. The tools that we have to use have certainly changed. It's not necessarily that we weren't using video conferences, and we weren't using Slack, and we weren't using instant messengers before, but it's just that they got supplemented with all these other things, because we were oftentimes working together in person. I'd get to go have lunch with somebody or have a coffee with somebody, and now obviously that looks kind of different these days. So one of the transitions that I've seen in a lot of organizations and enterprises is being much more intentional about creating the team-level connections and the individual-to-individual connections to have a cohesive team. As all this stuff shifted and some organizations started to lose the opportunity to be together in person where you picked up a lot of cues -- if it's live and in-person, you picked up a lot of body language; you picked up a lot of intonation in how somebody said something, or whether they weren't saying something was also a cue, or saying too much or a lot, whatever it was -- you just get to see how they were carrying themselves around in the office. We lost a lot of those signals. So now organizations have to be much more intentional and proactive about making sure that those signals are still coming through, even though they might be coming through in a different way. I've seen a lot more emphasis on team-building activities that you can do remotely. I hear about -- some of the things that we're doing at my company, we have virtual happy hours, for sure. We have team lunches where we don't talk about work. We're much more intentional, or thoughtful about the fact that people need to talk about things that are going on in their lives. It might be that the first 5 or 10 minutes of a work meeting is spent talking about the new dishwasher that somebody is getting, or the new washing machine that somebody just got, or this is what's happening with my kids, or this is the vacation that we just got back from, or whatever it happens to be. So creating some more of that space for the talk, the personal chatter within the team is okay. And, to be honest, that's a shift I've had to make a little bit in my interactions with my team. We're a lot of Type A, go-getter personalities. I am too. I remember feeling this, 'I just want to get to the business stuff, the work stuff. We've got things to do and decisions to make and actions to take.' I've had to check myself sometimes, realizing that my team is like that too. If this is the thing that they want to talk about, because this is what they're getting value from, let's do that. Give the team what they need.

Carty: There's fewer personal interactions in their in their day-to-day lives, too.

Gallimore: That's right. We've got to have an outlet for that stuff. We're still human beings, and we still need what we need. And if we can't get the need met one way, we're going to need to get the need met another way. And this is helping. It's helping.

Ryan Black: A lot of IT organizations are, of course, risk- and cost-averse, right now, even when, say, a new process or technology seems to have a lot of promise and maybe fits well within a business process of theirs. But it sounds like, in addition to those risk- and cost-averse factors, it's just like there's almost a psychological thing to it, just in terms of -- there's only so much disruption people can psychologically take right now. I'm wondering if you could maybe speak to those pressures affecting both the organization level, all the way down to the individual level, just when it comes to implementing change. How are you dealing with those pressures?

Gallimore: An organization's capacity to deal with change has always been important. And, in fact, I would argue, and I think there are a lot of people that I know and listen to a lot, that would also say [this]: To the degree that an organization can improve their capacity for change for adapting or adopting or implementing change, [it] is also indicative of how successful they're going to be, both now and in the future. The more capacity for change that you have, in a healthy way, the more successful you're going to be; I think [that's] probably the TL;DR [too long, didn't read] on that statement.

But, that being said, we're now having to deal with changes that we a) didn't anticipate; b) are really significant, not only in the professional sphere, but also in the personal sphere. And that is limiting each individual's capacity to deal with change, and it's also limiting the organization's capacity to deal with change. An organization needs to be, as a result of that, much more thoughtful and intentional about what changes they are going to pursue, because the organizational capacity is limited, and even more limited now. The people that work in that organization only have so much ability to deal with new, because of all the other new that they're dealing with. So the point that you're making is absolutely correct. An organization needs to be really thoughtful about the changes that it is promoting, adopting, instituting within the organization.

Black: You mentioned, of course, an organization during these current times has to be much more flexible in the way it approaches changes. I'm wondering, might that mean pushing down those decisions over whether a change is made or not to the employee, as opposed to them being top-level decisions?

Gallimore: It's interesting that you bring that up. I think it's something that a lot of organizations and a lot of leaders struggle with about what that right balance is. I struggle with that too. It's a constant journey to calibrate correctly between when should I, 'be the leader, and chart the path, and we're going to do this,' versus this is a decision and a path that I want to leave up to the team to figure out. And the answer is, it's certainly not an either/or proposition. It's not always the leader top-down, and it's not always the team bottom-up or a chart-your-own-course kind of thing. I think there has to be both, and it's probably an interaction. I, for one, still ask my team, 'How do we want to approach this problem? Do you want me to -- do you think I should own this decision?' Certainly I have opinions on that. Or, is this something that you want [the team] to run with? We're in this dialogue about a lot of things, about where that is. There are some things I feel pretty strongly [about]; I'm willing to take recommendations and input on things -- I absolutely want to do that. I want to hear what you think. I want to hear perspectives and opinions from as many people as possible. But ultimately, it's going to be -- I'm accountable for the decision, and I'm going to do that, but I want it to be an informed one. Then, other times, it's like, 'Well, here's the outcome that we're trying to shoot for; the team knows best what work needs to get done and the path forward. So, let me know what help you need.' To the point, there's lots of different decisions to be made, lots of different courses to take. Generally speaking, the team is the best to figure out how something needs to get done. The leader needs to be seeking input, and feedback, and information about what needs to get done and maybe why it needs to get done. And then [you have] that dialogue between the leader in the organization [and] the team to calibrate where those things are, and make sure that the expectations are clear. That's, a lot of times, where I see things go off the rails or go sideways, is when the leader and the team aren't clear about where decisions are being made, and who's doing what. As long as that clarity exists, you're on pretty good footing.

Carty: Jeff, I'm sure it was hard for you not to experience the DevOps Enterprise Summit in person, but we still heard some interesting tidbits out of the show this year, as always. [It] particularly seemed like more of an international group of speakers, which is great; I guess that's one of the perks of having a digital show. But I'm curious, if there's a particularly interesting story or innovation that you heard out of the virtual DevOps Enterprise Summit. Anything that's been kind of sticking in your mind from the show, since it ended?

Gallimore: It's more [about] the themes, I think, than any one particular story. I can point to a lot of different stories that exemplify that theme. Maybe there are a couple of themes that I take away from the summit. Number one is, positive change is still happening. Things haven't stopped, for sure. Change is still happening; good change is still happening; positive change is still happening in a lot of places. That's what we see from the leaders and the stories from the stage -- the virtual stage in this case -- they're still talking about things that are happening and progress that they're making. It's really encouraging to know that not everything comes to a screeching halt. There's still some hope for the rest of us, I guess, that good things can still happen. So, I think that's one thing.

The other theme -- and this is one, again, we've been talking about that's important to me, that I really attach to -- is the leadership and the transformation part of this, more so than the technology pieces. I'm a geek. I grew up as a developer and an engineer, that's where I started my career. So I have this natural affinity to technology; I love the new shiny. I love the Kubernetes and the CI/CD pipelines and all the tools and stuff like that as much as anybody. However, what I'm really interested in is how technology can enable some of the changes that are happening in an organization. Those changes are, they start with the leadership, the culture, the mindset, the approach, the thinking and the actions that people are taking to transform how they work, and how they think. That's the stuff, and those are the other themes that I see coming through in the DevOps Enterprise Summit presentations, is the organizational transformation elements. What they're talking about, it's how do you get people to work together? How do you get people to think differently? How do you get people to act or operate differently? How do we rethink what it is that we're doing, and why we're doing it? And, sure, technology is a thread through all of that stuff, but it's those themes: what we do, how we do it, how we think, mindset, approach; those are the things that are really propelling these organizations that are accelerating away from the pack, to being who they are.

Carty: Fingers crossed, that we have the conference in person next year, Jeff, I imagine?

Gallimore: Fingers crossed. The thing that we've learned a lot from the last two DevOps Enterprise Summits [in 2020], the one back in June, and the one that we just had [in October], [is] we've obviously had to do the virtual conference, because of the state of the world and all that, but we've picked up some things that people are really appreciating about the virtual experience, and lessons that we've learned that, even in future summits, we're going to bring some of those lessons forward. Even when we have the opportunity to get together in person, which will be fantastic -- and I think we're all looking forward to that -- there will be elements of that virtual experience that I think will really add to the overall experience that people have with the summit that we're really excited about. So, it should be a lot of fun.

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