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Property 4. Personal Safety

Personal safety is being able to speak when something is bothering you, without fear of reprisal. It may involve telling the manager that the schedule is unrealistic, a colleague that her design needs improvement, or even letting a colleague know that she needs to take a shower more often. Personal safety is important, because with it the team can discover and repair its weaknesses. Without it, people won't speak up, and the weaknesses will continue to damage the team.

Personal safety is an early step toward trust. Trust, which involves giving someone else power over oneself, with accompanying risk of personal damage, is the extent to which one is comfortable with handing that person the power. Some people trust others by default, and wait to be hurt before withdrawing the trust. Others are disinclined to trust others, and wait until they see evidence that they won't be hurt before they give the trust. Presence of trust is positively correlated with team performance (Costa 2002).

The different ways in which one can be hurt lead to different forms of trust and distrust (Mishra 1996). A person lacking open honesty might lie or conceal. One who lacks congruence in actions will be inconsistent. A person lacking either competence or reliability will fail to complete assignments. A person lacking concern for others may act to damage them, including giving away sensitive information.

Accepting exposure to these varied potential damages is using different forms of trust. It is neither realistic nor necessary to ask everyone on a project to trust each other in all forms. It is important that people can speak and act freely—they need to trust each other with respect to damaging actions and betrayal.

When there is no evidence of betrayal or damage, people will reveal information more freely, which will speed the project. Therefore, personal safety is the critical property to attain.

Can you tell your boss you mis-estimated by more than 50 percent, or that you just received a tempting job offer? Can you disagree with your boss about the schedule in a team meeting? Can people end long debates about each other's designs with friendly disagreement?

Establishing trust involves being in a situation where one of those dangers is present and seeing that the other people do not hurt you. In other words, to build trust, there must be exposure.

Three particular exposures are relevant in software development:

  • Revealing one's ignorance

  • Revealing a mistake

  • Revealing one's incapability on an assignment

Skillful leaders expose their team members (and themselves!) to these situations early, and then demonstrate with speed and authenticity that not only will damage not accrue, but also that the leader and the team as a whole will act to support the person.

One project leader2 told me that when a new person joined her team, she would visit that person privately to discuss his work and progress, and wait for the inevitable moment when he had to admit he hadn't done or didn't know something.

This was the crucial moment to her, because until he revealed a weakness, she couldn't demonstrate to him that she would cover for him or get him assistance. She knew she was not going to get both reliable information and full cooperation from him until he understood properly that when he revealed a weakness or mistake, he would actually get assistance. She said that some people got the message after her first visit, while others needed several demonstrations before opening up.

Another project leader told of building cohesion and safety in the team by having the group work together to solve a difficult problem they were facing. In solving the problem together, they learned several things:

  • First, they wouldn't get hurt if they admitted ignorance, even in their own area.

  • Second, they learned how to interpret each other's mannerisms as nonthreatening, even in heavy argument.

  • Finally, they learned that together they could solve things they couldn't solve alone.

Trust is enhanced with frequent delivery. When the software is delivered, people recognize who did their share of the work and who shirked, who told the truth, who damaged or protected whom, and who, despite their superficial manners, could be trusted along which dimensions. With personal safety, they speak from their heart during the reflective improvement sessions.

Personal safety goes hand in hand with amicability, the willingness to listen with goodwill. The project suffers when any one person on the team stops listening with goodwill, or loses the inclination to pass along possibly important information. In addition to personal skill, a project's forward progress relies only on the speed of movement of information across people ("meme-meters per minute," if you will).

Usually one person on the team sets the lead in amicability. On a larger project, it is often crucially the project manager. On a Crystal Clear project, it can be anyone on the team. Unless there is a specific reason countering it, amicability spreads quickly and makes the team more comfortable in exchanging information quickly. Personal safety and amicability together help lead to collaboration across organizational boundaries, the establishment of global lifelines for the project. I set amicability as significant management element on a project, partly as evidence for personal safety.

Once personal safety and amicability are established, a useful, playful dynamic may emerge. People may wage competition with each other. They may argue loudly, even to the verge of fighting, without taking it personally. In the case where someone does take it personally, they sort it out and set things straight again.

Be careful, though, not to confuse personal safety with politeness. Some teams appear to have personal safety in place, but actually are just being polite because they are unwilling to show disagreement.3 Covering their disagreements with politeness and conciliation, they don't detect and repair mistakes that are present. This damages the project in the end, as in the case of overamicability described in Agile Software Development (Cockburn 2002, p. 101).

There is a fair amount of literature on the subject of trust, some of which you may find applicable to your situation. Read more in Hohmann (1997), Kramer (1996), Costa (2002), and Adams (2002).

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