In a recent webcast (1) I mentioned that Scrum by its nature, assumes psychological safety exists in order for Scrum as a practice to function. Furthermore I would assert that for Scrum to be truly successful Scrum absolutely requires psychological safety to be established both inside and outside of the Scrum Team.


My feeling is that within the Scrum Guide, psychological safety is an implied practice, not explicitly mentioned nor referenced as an essential element. But without psychological safety Scrum and the essential people who enact the framework, may function, but cant’t flourish.


Before I go there any further, lets delve into a definition of what psychological safety is, and more importantly what it is not.

Psychological safety

Amy Edmondson, organisational behavioural therapist at Harvard University, first introduced the construct of “team psychological safety” here in a 1999 journal, Psychological Safety and Learning Behavior in Work Teams (2).

In the journal Amy defined psychological safety as “a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking.”

In later definitions, psychological safety is the creation of a team culture that fosters critical and sometimes conflicting feedback, a freedom to express ideas and thoughts in order to enhance the teams ability to learn, adapt, and overcome challenges. A psychological safe environment allows people to make errors or mistakes  and to take interpersonal risks, most importantly without the fear of being punished, resented, pushed aside, embarrassed, harassed, or made to feel someway inferior for speaking up.

We are talking about providing an environment in which a critical and positive narrative is an inherent cultural trait throughout out an entire organisation.

I also ought to add that feeling or being psychologically safe is not a excuse from professional accountability both for the team and the individual when it comes to efficacy. Individuals should be aware that in pursuing a psychologically safe environment, you may still be triggered by critical feedback, taking comments personally as a slight on your performance. Obviously there are many factors which determine how feedback is delivered and the context; that being said, while psychologically safety isn’t about having to or forcing ones self to be nice, neither is it directing people to become rude and disrespectful to be critical in the pursuit of performance driven feedback.

Having experienced a significant misunderstanding of psychological safety at a client, I can attest the impact on learning and critical feedback was astounding. Employee groups were trained, but not nurtured or supported in pursuing psychological safety. In some instances when work became arguably difficult, questions became challenging, employees pushed a psychological safety alarm button, that allowed them to feel excused accountability due to the impact on their well-being.

Just to be clear… I am a Mental Health First Aider and I am currently studying for a post grad in ‘Psychology in the Workplace’. I am not for one second dismissing the need for organisations to establish a workplace culture where people and teams can flourish and their wellbeing and mental health understood and looked after. However I am asserting there is a need for clarity as to what psychological safety is and what it is not in your teams and organisation. Establishing this grounding, creates the necessary balance between safety and performance excellence for the team.

In a Psychology Today article Amy Edminson calls out the fact that “Psychological safety is not the same as a safe space. It is not the same as a trigger-free space. It is not a space where you will always feel comfortable and not have your views challenged. It is almost the opposite. It’s a brave space, really—an environment in which people do not feel they have to hold back with a concern or question for fear of recrimination or humiliation.” (3)

To see this in practice, I would encourage you to watch this video (4) or even better login to Disney+ and watch the preview for the latest Lightyear film. In the preview they capture part of a brain trust meeting and talk about why they are so useful in pursuing the right outcome and establishing team and self efficacy.


Scrum and psychological safety

Scrum as defined in the Scrum Guide ( has created clear accountabilities for success. Scrum requires a small self managing team of people all focused on one objective at a time, the Product Goal. There are no sub-teams or hierarchies, and within the Scrum Team specific accountabilities are defined. Excusing yourself from being accountable at any level, especially within Scrum is unprofessional.

“Psychological safety means treating you with respect, but no more than the next person. There is no preferential treatment. You get no special dispensation. If you think about it, psychological safety is actually an equalizing force that creates a culturally flat organization in the midst of hierarchy and positional power. Psychological safety means respecting your humanity, not increasing your fragility” (6) Timothy R. Clark Forbes 2021 article.

At the top of this post I proposed that for Scrum to be truly successful, Scrum requires psychological safety to be established. To tease this assertion further I’m going to borrow a couple paragraphs from the Scrum Theory section of the 2020 Scrum Guide:

“Scrum is founded on empiricism and lean thinking. Empiricism asserts that knowledge comes from experience and making decisions based on what is observed. Lean thinking reduces waste and focuses on the essentials.” 2022

“Scrum combines four formal events for inspection and adaptation within a containing event, the Sprint. These events work because they implement the empirical Scrum pillars of transparency, inspection, and adaptation.” 2022


Trust is not quite enough

Scrum states that the empirical pillars of transparency, inspection, and adaptation, combined with the Scrum values creates trust. However I believe that Scrum should be pursuing psychological safety for the Scrum Team through the pillars and values, and subsequently establishing trust as a nuanced definition at the accountabilities level.

Trust is established between a person to person relationship, or single entity. Do I trust my friend to hold the nail still, while I hit it with the hammer? Psychological safety is building the culture through shared understanding, behaviours and values throughout a team and organisation in order for you to feel supported when you do takingt a risk. My friend knows that I will do my best with this hammer, and we are close to the first aid box if it goes wrong!

To put this together in a Scrum context, lets propose a typical scenario. A senior manager approaches the Scrum Team as wants to know when the latest release will be ready.

What would the Scrum Team say, how would they answer this?

The more learned teams would use a form of empirical metrics driven forecasting, and an outcome based derivative to show where they are and where they could be. However even with the best metrics a complete lack of safety can still exist in a organisational relationship.

Without establishing critical and safe feedback mechanisms and therefore building psychological safety, perhaps you wouldn’t be as candid and transparent with the truth as Scrum theory suggests. Furthermore communication as to the current state of the increment, its progress, its likelihood of completion for the next release, would also fall into the pattern of “green washing”. (8)

This isnt a Scrum Problem per-sae, but Scrum amplifies the need to build safety into feedback, else we fall into a detrimental pattern of one way status reports and fear.

“Psychological safety is more than a currently-fashionable buzz-phrase. Its import and goal are to make uncomfortable things discussable, all of them, fearlessly – with a shared appreciation of our humanity, signaled by displays of kindness and respect. Otherwise, we remain fearfully stalled.” (3) Amy Edminson Psychology Today

If we can’t honestly communicate the current state, where else might we be hiding the truth and covering up potential issues? The current status of an increment is just one example of many more typical scenarios in Scrum where a test for critical feedback and honesty, would be very revealing for you and the team regarding safety.

Take any of the Scrum Events, think about what each event would look like with or without establishing psychological safety.

What questions can you think of and ask in order test the psychological safety in each of those events?

When I look through the Scrum Guide and look at the definition of psychological safety, for me its clear, Scrum requires psychological safety to be established, not only to make Scrum function well but to establish excellence culture both personally and for the team to flourish in.


Tools for establishing psychological saftey

Genuinely thank you for reading this far, I wanted to end with some ideas of practical interventions or tools that you can use with your teams around establishing psychological safety.

In this TEDx talk (7), Amy Edmondson offers three simple things individuals can do to foster team psychological safety, I’ve added some thoughts into where these fit within Scrum.

Frame the work as a learning problem, not an execution problem. – Treat every opportunity as an experiment, I often talk about Scrum as a hypothesis driven framework, or a conversation framework. The outcome of the Sprint shouldn’t focus on the output, we know it should be outcome focussed, however it must also drive change and learning how perform better next time.

Think how this is behaviour could be encouraged in Sprint planning, the Daily Scrum, Sprint reviews and the Sprint Retrospective?

Acknowledge your own fallibility. Vulnerability is a super power. By admitting when you make mistakes or don’t know the answer, you create space for courage and openness. It aims to impact established fear culture, so that others may be encouraged to do the same. This behaviour is just as powerful utilised by those outside of the Scrum Team as stakeholders and leaders within the wider organisation.

Think how this is behaviour could be demonstrated in the Daily Scrum, Sprint reviews and the Sprint Retrospective?

Model curiosity and ask lots of questions. Be curious, ask other people what they think, how they feel about any changes made, encourage others to contribute their thoughts and ideas to a problem or event, if you think you know the answer. By asking questions and asking for help, you’re again creating a space for other voices, and establishing a need for help, therefore encouraging others in the team to speak up and have a voice.

Think how this is behaviour could be encouraged in Sprint planning, the Daily Scrum, Sprint reviews and the Sprint Retrospective?

I will go bit further and add some extra strategies:

Setting team norms – Create a team working agreement, and more specifically “rules of engagement” for team meetings of both inside and outside of the team.
Establish a wellbeing check-in system – Tools like Loopin (9) can really help here and provide insight into a team well-being
Retrospectives that foster safety and idea creation – Chris Stone’s website (10) for retrospectives, Retromat (11) and Easy Retro (12) are all offering different perspectives on bringing a team together for critical feedback and action.


Final words… for now

Thank you for reading this. There is a wealth of knowledge around psychological safety, google (whatever your opinion of them) has been doing a lot of work in this space, likewise Pixar and a whole host of large organisations are now taking psychological safety seriously.

Scrum should be pioneering psychological safety, without it we really don’t have feedback, we have reporting mechanisms.

Good luck out there, I hope you found this an interesting read.



References and links to more information









8) Green washing is a term for project reporting where Red, Amber and Green are used as indicators for project health. Green washing essentially means whenever a question is asked as to the status of the release, Green, meaning good and fine is used to hide all the churn and issues from the management team.







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