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Psychological Safety and Norm Clarity in Software Engineering Teams
Team norm clarity is a stronger predictor of performance and satisfaction than psychological safety, but both concepts are important.
This is the latest issue of my newsletter. Each week I cover the latest research and perspectives on developer productivity.
This week I read Psychological Safety and Norm Clarity in Software Engineering Teams by researchers at the Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden. This paper examined whether the concepts of psychological safety and team norm clarity affect engineering team effectiveness.
My summary of the paper
To increase engineering productivity, we must understand the factors affecting it. Researchers have long understood this notion, with many studies having explored the tool and process-related factors impacting productivity. More recently, researchers have begun exploring the human-related factors impacting productivity as well. This trend has caused two concepts to rise in popularity: psychological safety and social norms. However, prior to this study, few studies had explored these two concepts within the context of engineering productivity.
This study looked at whether psychological safety and team norm clarity associate positively with team performance and job satisfaction. To achieve this, researchers collected data from five organizations using surveys. The data was then analyzed using multiple linear regression analyses.
Here’s how the researchers defined and measured the concepts in this study:
Psychological safety is defined as a shared belief among team members that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking. The researchers used the seven items defined by Edmondson to measure psychological safety (this is a commonly used measurement approach).
Norms are defined as public or latent principles shared among the team members and that regulate and govern behavior. The researchers here focused on team norm clarity because of the importance of making the norms known and understood by the team members.
The image above shows the survey items used to measure team performance (PR), job satisfaction (JS), team norm clarity (NC), and psychological safety (PS). If a question ends with (R), the response is to be inverted when creating the index variable.
Here’s what the study found:
Both concepts are predictors of performance and satisfaction
The researchers used two separate standard multiple linear regression analyses to examine if psychological safety and team norm clarity could predict team performance and job satisfaction.
The analysis showed that the regression models for both team performance and job satisfaction were statistically significant. This means that all variables have a significant result: psychological safety and team norm clarity both predict performance and satisfaction. Additionally, team performance is shown to impact job satisfaction.
This analysis also suggests that team norm clarity has a more significant impact on both performance and satisfaction than psychological safety.
These findings suggest that it is worthwhile for leaders to work with their teams to describe their existing norms (“what is”) and their ideal norms (“what could be”). These descriptions could include anything from how quickly teams respond to each others’ messages to standards around how code reviews are conducted. The important part, according to this study, is the process: team members should leave with a better understanding of what acceptable behavior is.
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