Safe-feeling teams can be brave about risk
Video games as an industry frowns upon “playing it safe”. We are expected to compete on a high level, and the word safe is associated with not being competitive, or not trying new ideas. We’re under enormous pressure to innovate, to create experiences that feel new, while remaining familiar enough that everyone can learn to play.
Ironically: safety, or the psychological perception of safety, is really important to a group’s willingness and capacity to perform well while taking risks.
Building a great video game (as with lots of other creative work that implicates groups of people who have to perform well together) involves risk.
Teams who feel safe with each other will outperform teams that do not.
A “good” normal
The studio where I learned to work in games was a collection of people who felt like friends. Bosses rarely did or said “boss things” and we all felt awkward when it had to happen. We all felt like our ideas were important and could impact the game, and we could all take harsh feedback without feeling personally attacked.
There were problems: we did loads of overtime, the business wasn’t successful, there were layoffs. But I experienced working within a team that cared about its teammates, where hard work would grant you agency. This was my first “normal” in games.
It wasn’t until I had worked in a few other places that I realized that my normal wasn’t normal for a lot of people. As a lead, I got decently-good at creating a good environment for the creators who worked with me, but I didn’t really understand the concept of safety until maybe four years ago, and I’ve been thinking about it ever since.
There are messages that every team needs to hear, and they’re not the ones most leads think about. Busy smart people often feel like “obvious“ messages are not worth delivering. Worse: some leads think that making people feel too safe will undermine performance evaluation and promote laziness.
These are the messages:
You are part of this group.
This group is talented and special.
I believe you can achieve the high standards we set for you.
** full credit: please read “The Culture Code” by Daniel Coyle, because it’s where I learned the above. **
People need to feel safe and included. This doesn’t mean including every teammate on every decision, and it doesn’t mean you can’t give negative feedback. But it does mean that as a lead you should be thinking about how to reinforce these messages, every day.
Be (comfortably) close to people. 1m away might violate somebody’s sense of personal space and be awkward, but have meaningful conversations with your teammates within 3m ish of them.
Eye contact is important (I suck at this because I’m wired to find it exhausting but trust me: it helps).
Have a relaxed, open posture. Don’t beat your hands on the desk (ever). Push away the cell phone and turn your face toward the speaker. Nod. Ask questions. “Tell me more about that.” is the most useful phrase I’ve learned in the last two years.
People are basically like cats. If you can’t make them feel safe, you’re not going to get the best out of the relationship.
But aren’t these manipulation tactics?
No. Really not. But I’m including this note because every young leader on my team has asked me this question at some point.
Putting collaborators within 6m of each other is a technique used all through games and the tech industry. Friday night alcohol is becoming less and less mandatory in games (yay because I can’t keep up any more), but studios do these things because they know that relationships within teams are important.
Using psychology to train yourself to make your teams feel safer at work isn’t manipulation of the team. It’s just making yourself a better leader, because you will do a better job and your teams will feel good, and perform better.
I f**k this up all the time here are my mistakes
I have put together a short list of my common errors which undermine psychological safety. I make mistakes all the time, and you will too… But here’s my shortlist of moments to avoid:
- Interrupting people when you ask them for their input or their ideas. Even if you just wanted clarification, or you think they didn’t understand the question, it can send the message to people that you don’t think they have good ideas, and they will then protect themselves by becoming quiet.
- Complaining about [thing] when someone that you don’t work closely with can hear you. People take criticism well from people they have built trust with. Not every collaborator in your team has the benefit of feeling safe with you after months of trust-building.
- Skipping 1:1 meetings. When work gets busy my calendar is packed and my team will say “it’s okay we can sync later”… but I’m skipping opportunities to ensure my team has a voice, and this is just failure to manage time. My team deserves to know they are always important.
Every week I try to take notes on things that worked/didn’t work, and pretty often when I make a mistake it’s because I did something that interferes with how people think I perceive them. This applies to bosses, direct reports, and people who work on other teams. Make sure that colleagues feel like you want them on your team. Psychological safety is about knowing that your place in the group is secure.