Psychological Safety and Purpose

The connection between Agile and Psychological Safety makes immediate and persistent sense. If people aren't secure and established as a resilient, emotionally intelligent, curious and passionate team, they stand a poor chance of sustaining the rhythm Agile brings, while facing the discomfort needed to remain intensely flexible. 

While working on the questions in our Psychological Safety pack for People Not Tech we wondered what role does "Purpose" play in Psychological Safety? 

"Purpose" as a concept is slowly but surely making its way out of the "dirty word" category to something worth the investigative attention.

It's no wonder hard-working realists everywhere have trouble examining it without dismissing it as one of the many fluffy concepts that float about in the trendy universe of hipsterish and millennial discontent, after all, there is no practice of having thought under the terms of having to believe in something when it comes to working. 

Last week I had a conversation with a real Agile Superhero. One of those rara-avis bankers who not only talked the transformation talk but walked the walk. He's truly legendary and taught me a lot. We're hoping he will one day join us in the Courage, Knowledge and Passion Warriors Tribe and he was kindly listening to me explaining how far we have gone into establishing the value of Psychological Safety to the business in hard dollar signs once we apply the behavioural dimension to our dataset. 

After a while I realized that his interjections, questions and even objections, were centered around evaluating if people feel emotionally connected and that I too have a bias against mentioning "purpose" when we talk about hardcore dev and project management teams. It then dawned on me that this consummate technologist's persistence is not stemming from how he attended some Yoga retreat but having lived through the Agile transformation and having realized first hand what the real conditions of success are and that having people truly understanding and, crucially, undersigning the purpose of what they do, is essential.

Rose by any other name...

We can spend massive amounts of time lost in semantics - "Engagement"; "Investment"; "Involvement" and then "Goal"; "Mission"; "Vision, etc. While I am usually a firm advocate of words being important and of calling a spade a spade, in this particular instance deciding if "purpose" is the right term is as irrelevant as arguing whether "satisfaction" or "happiness" are the right measurement of employee morale when whatever you call it, not having it disallows you from winning like GAFA where they live by deep cultural goals such as "making Google the happiest and most productive place to work". 

Purpose and Money

A 2016 LinkedIn survey found people would literally pay money to gain purpose. That they would trade a portion of their salary to add more purpose to their work. That's the measure of how thirsty we are for higher goal in our work life and yet companies we work for think the yearly shareholder press release should motivate us enough. Multiple other studies before it showed that there is only a certain amount of motivation that can be affected monetarily and after a certain cut off point, the only differentiator in adding and retaining talent is how good companies are at establishing and reinforcing a higher sense of purpose. 

Work for Purpose

Even for the best-intentioned organizations, attaining it is not easy. It often requires a deep cultural change for the term to be taken seriously before it can become a serious objective and, for the "woke CxOs"- a Management Epic

Harder still, once defined, it has to be reinforced and the spark has to be reignited and that's no easy card to have "Jointly define purpose, and ensure every employee has it ingrained, that they are truly, in their heart of hearts, and at all times, emotionally invested" but it's important to say that the flames of the fired should be fawned not only by leadership but personal responsibility too and that is why smart companies invest in employee's own voices.

Purposeful Work

To gain or reinforce purpose employees have to have a firm eye on the goal for the end consumer. This is so often sorely missing from our work. How will what we make better anyone's life? How will it play into the end client's day-to-day? 

With the advent of Human Centered Design customers are regaining their central role in the proposition creation beyond the empty rethorics of "customer centricity" of yesteryear, but if we want to let them take their rightful place as purpose drivers we must find ways to democratize the impetus behind HCD and ensure it trickles through the entire organization. 

Shared Purpose

This is where it all falls into place in the concept of Psychological Safety - once the team believes the collection of individual purposes rhymes and that they share the ultimate vision, mission or goal they truly work "from the same Backlog" in the emotional sense as well as the in the process and that's when team magic happens and in case anyone here lost sight of that, it's team magic that makes money for the company.

These days, whenever I spot eye rolls from executives and technologists alike when I mention how they have to find ways to bring every one of their people on the same journey and get them emotionally invested in a common purpose, I usually jump straight into the JFK-Nasa-Janitor anecdote as it illustrates the point most effectively. In short, the president asks a janitor he meets on the hallways of NASA what he does and the man answers "I help put a man on the moon". 

So if any employee of a bank -from tellers to developers, compliance officers, and CROs- doesn't think to themselves "I help people lead better financial lives" then the bank is failing. 

It doesn't matter what one does or how far down the line you are, if you don't feel you help put people on the road when you book meetings in the automotive industry; you're not in ensuring people's lives are safe when you design an obscure backend of the ERP system of an insurer; and you're not keeping the world running when you're in oil & gas, you don't have purpose and if you don't, you likely aren't doing your best.

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