Psychological Safety - What it is NOT

< Before you read some of these musings be sure to go read what the original thinker behind the concept the brilliant Dr. Amy Edmondson has written about it - an article I only discovered after posting this but which -thankfully!- says the same things, if better articulated. And of course, go buy her book "The Fearless Organization">

Over the past year while we have been hard at work making teams’ lives better by diagnosing and improving Psychological Safety through what we're building at but more importantly, by advocating that it counts, and that it can be correlated with the success or failure of any team effort in any enterprise but in particular that of Agile teams, we have seen all of the eye-rolls, the dismissive comments and, at best, incredulous looks of the disbelievers.

A lot of the objections regarding psychological safety center around one or several of these topics and some are not even formulated as such in the minds of those offering the “yes but…” but more of a cloudy feeling of the many organizations have when we talk about the fact that it’s about the humans not the tech. If anyone reading this has been on the same crusade of showing the transformational value of the concept and has heard or experienced other objections please leave them in the comments. We won’t ever be an effective team unless we learn together :)

A fluffy concept fit for charity shops

This is perhaps the most infuriating misconception regarding the applicability of the concept.

Anyone who has looked into the subject knows that to coin the term, professor Amy Edmondson started her research in the medical community.

Much of the subsequent foray in the data comes from that same health care industry and aviation and it wasn’t until Google’s project Aristotle that the concept has even been applied to teams that work in less critical environments so it is anything but a side note to do with smiley faces and offering free hipster beard oiling classes.

A ticket to Lazy-town and complacency

Psychological Safety is in no way a license to take the work or the team for granted and slack. In fact, in teams that are secure and invested, it is far less likely members will be tempted to resort to subterfuge and eschew the actual work.

Moreover, this is particularly applicable to working in Agile teams and, while a little discussed benefit, Agile is an absolute anti-dote to laziness in any form due to the visible nature of the process.

Guaranteed employment

We’ve all heard horror stories of how in some Nordic countries it is notoriously impossible to discard useless employees and private companies find themselves trapped in endless loops of politically correct retraining cycles.

Psychological Safety is not advocating instilling a sense of guaranteed employment in teams. In fact, while the above stories may be gravely exaggerated there is a grain of truth in the social safety valves in place in some Scandinavian countries where it is indeed much harder to demonstrate the need to let someone go and despite this, there is no evidence that their teams are more daring, open for risk and criticism, willing to learn and be vulnerable together.

In fact, according to critics, the opposite seems to at times be true which would make for an interesting research position I wish some organizational design students would undertake in the region.

The death of performance reviews and any other measurements

Turning a blind eye to how the team is performing is never a good idea and it is certainly not what advocates of Psychological Safety preach in particular seeing how our main driver is better productivity which of course, can not be tested in the absence of reviews.

Of the few places innovative enough to actively concern themselves with this topic, some have adopted a concept called The Just Culture Model which has been introduced in 2001 by David Marx and which advocates searching for the root cause of the various possible types of mistakes and mishaps which of course in itself involves an openness to admit to them and discuss them but also encompasses an implicit review of performance.

Additionally, Agile has intensely clear and blissfully easy to measure outputs so judging performance is nearly impossible to avoid and furthermore, paradoxically the more psychologically secure a team are the more likely it is that they are comfortable with personal (team) responsibility so it’s reviews and measurements are actually welcomed and often initiated by the teams themselves.

A mandatory pair of proverbial gloves

There is a fair amount of confusion between individual psychological safety and team psychological safety. While both desirable, and evidently to a degree interconnected, they are two different concepts with different sets of drivers.

An individual’s sense of emotional safety hinges on many things and the way they get on with their team at work is but one. It has to do with a series of factors most of which are personal and out of which work and its nature are an arguably small proportion depending on where it sits in the individual’s self-definition and actualisation mechanisms.

The intersection lies in the team’s spirit of interpersonal knowledge and respective ability to exercise empathy but the team’s overall psychological safety is not a collection of the individual senses of security of the team members, but an independent construct so while human decency and deep knowledge of one’s colleagues can only make for better interactions it doesn’t follow that they exclusively translate into teams willing to take risks and debate.

A license to forgo all morality filters

This one is hard. To have any hope of instilling psychological safety in teams we must first and foremost ensure they feel they have freedom of speech. Dialogue is paramount and being able to speak up without the fear of judgment or repercussion is the key. This of course invites the age-old questions around morality constraints on said freedom.

When this dialogue is at a certain sized team level, it is visible and submits itself to the same moral accountability norms individuals employ in their day to day lives. In other words a team is as biased or bigoted as its weakest member and when everyone is permitted and encouraged to speak up that is evident and regulated through normal group dynamics.

Nonetheless, critics rightfully point out that, in some enterprises, -Google is no exception to this if you look at some of the recent scandals of employees extreme behavior and intensely politically incorrect opinions or even prejudice-, the eagerness to create forums for utterly free dialogue has led to insufficient consideration being given to the modality of doing so, and anonymous extreme feedback has been encouraged in lieu of human decency and personal accountability.

The intention is not to build an internal 4Chan where each team member takes turns showing their worst sides and tries to outdo each other in an adolescence enfant terrible mode for mere shock value but to open the floor for dialogue within the expected moral boundaries of grown-ups so they learn and grow together.

These are the things Psychological Safety is not

It is not about making people feel that no matter what they do, or worse, do not do, they are meant to remain employed. It is not about having to mollycoddle teams ad infinitum. It is not about a set of individual definitions of wellbeing. It isn’t a cute little side employee engagement and well being lever with no direct correlation to the enterprise’s success. It isn’t about dissolving common sense and decency to create a safety net.

None of those. 

It is about telling teams it’s ok to make mistakes, it’s fine to not know everything, it’s good to open up and be vulnerable, it’s right to have a passionate common purpose.

It’s about a team feeling like they own a shared license to be human and a chance at making magic together thanks to it.

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