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"The key is to be trustworthy and like people.": Interview with Petra Horova on building psychologically safe teams

Written by
Femme Palette
Published on
February 6, 2024

Meet Petra Horova, Tribe Lead for IT Risk Solutions at Česká spořitelna, as she shares insights into her leadership journey and experiences in the male-dominated IT sector. Petra highlights the advantages of diversity and discusses strategies for building psychological safety within her team, emphasizing open communication, active feedback, and the crucial role of trust. 

Can you tell us about your career journey and how you became Tribe Lead for IT Risk Solutions at Česká spoitelna?

I have been with Ceska sporitelna for 20 years. Different positions, or areas, always somewhere between IT and business. Prior to CS, I was a consultant primarily implementing SAP R/3 in utility industry companies. And SAP implementation projects brought me also to the bank where I have used the opportunity to be insourced. I have managed IT teams that supported the corporate banking division, financial markets, or provided solutions for document management services. After a major agile transformation I became a Tribe Lead in the area of Risk management and responsible for development and operation of related IT solutions. 

As a female manager in IT, have you faced any unique challenges or opportunities? How has your experience been in navigating the tech world, and what advice would you give to aspiring female leaders in male-dominated environments?

I started my professional career at consulting company Accenture (Andersen Consulting), and I must say that at that time, nobody really cared about gender. We were all consultants with the same rights, responsibilities, benefits, etc. So I just never thought that there may be a difference related to the fact that I am a woman and most of my colleagues were men. And I must say that when I joined Ceska sporitelna, this feeling did not change for me. The IT environment in the biggest bank in the Czech Republic is very complex and dynamic. It gives everybody the unique opportunity to learn and grow. Yes, it is male dominated, but I guess I like this pragmatic and mostly straight forward way of cooperation. Of course, I am still a woman, and sometimes it is quite challenging for me to be part of a “battle” as the sense and need for competition is all around, but I must say that a high EQ and intuitive approach can be a big benefit. This is a huge advantage of a diverse environment, not only from gender, but also from age, or nationality perspective.

From your experience, what can a leader do to support women in male-dominated work environments to help them thrive?

As I have never experienced discrimination, or feeling of just “not having a chance” in comparison with men, I must say that I am thinking a lot recently about diversity topics. I guess I was very lucky and my bosses were always very respectful and created a safe environment for me. And this is important. Women should not have a reason to believe that they are not good enough just based on their gender. Leaders should create a supportive, safe environment where they have the same conditions and where they can be successful if they want. Of course, the IT area is quite technical and some women just do not find it interesting. Maybe there will never really be a 50/50 ratio of men and women. I have many very capable female IT specialists in my team. Of course, I have heard in past arguments about young women not being prospective because of potential pregnancy, but this is a really short sighted approach. From my experience the highest fluctuation was always with young men when looking for more competitive salaries, being able to leave from one day to another. Also, of course, caused by the fact that they  have to ensure the family income when their wife is on maternity leave. They also search for new topics and changes of job content more often. On the other hand, if woman is treated well and gets back to work after parenting responsibilities are over, they are very loyal and committed (my personal experience 😊)

Building psychological safety in a team is crucial for fostering innovation and collaboration. How do you approach this as a leader, and what strategies have you found effective in creating a psychologically safe environment in your team?

Yes, psychological safety has become a really important topic recently. Especially when dealing with the fact that the economic environment is not very stable. I also find the young generation a little bit more vulnerable. What works for me – I try to be open and authentic as much as possible, so they can trust me. I sit with my team with the door open and ready to solve issues when needed. I use the opportunity for 1:1 sessions as much as I can.  I also try to encourage active feedback from my people. Sometimes we all have professional blindness after so many years, so listening is a real MUST.

Can you share a specific example of a challenging situation where your team's psychological safety played a key role in finding a solution and overcoming obstacles?

Maybe I would say that the most challenging situation for me is when I must let some people go. Different reasons – organized layoffs, or caused by low performance, it is always very hard and to play it with psychological safety in mind, it is even harder. And, again, the only way for me is to be open and communicate as clearly and openly as I can. 

Communication is vital in ensuring psychological safety. What communication strategies do you employ to encourage open and honest dialogue among team members, and how do you handle conflicts or disagreements?

Communication is very important. I always try to be open and honest. I am ready for questions, encourage the team to come to me when they need support, advice, explanations. We have regular tribe and team meetings, and also 1:1 sessions. I think that the crucial thing is that my people know what is expected from them, just be clear. For me it’s a bit challenging to balance this communication without being too directive. After the agile transformation we try to give more responsibilities to teams themselves. I cannot do micromanagement as this would demotivate people from being active and innovative. The right level of trust must be ensured. The same applies to conflicts and disagreements. I try to give them the time to solve difficult situations by themselves. Sometimes we use an independent mediator – agile coach. And if nothing helps, I must step in and decide. 

Last but not least, do you have any best practices or tips to share for managers who would like to start building more psychologically safe teams?

I would like to say that the key is to be trustworthy and like people. It is good to know them individually, to show that you care. That they are not just inventories in your company. It is very true that people’s efficiency and performance is very much influenced by the fact how they feel, what motivates them. So, just ask. And the motivation is very individual, somebody likes more money, somebody more free time. I am true believer in positive motivation, as this also works best for me. And, the psychologically safe environment is not created only by manager or leader. It is the whole team that takes part in that. So, teambuilding activities should not be underestimated. I am not a big fan of survivor or adrenalin games, as the main point is just to be together, talk, share, get to know each other better. 

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