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Volume 23, Issue 50;   December 13, 2023: Contrary Indicators of Psychological Safety: I

Contrary Indicators of Psychological Safety: I


To take the risks that learning and practicing new ways require, we all need a sense that trial-and-error approaches are safe. Organizations seeking to improve processes would do well to begin by assessing their level of psychological safety.
Lifeboats on board the FS Scandinavia, May 2006

Lifeboats on board the FS Scandinavia, May 2006. Passenger vessels are required to fail safely, in the sense that if something goes seriously wrong, the passengers will still be safe, because there are lifeboats with capacity more than enough to carry all souls on board.

The safety of careers in most knowledge-oriented workplaces is much less well protected. In most workplaces, if something goes seriously wrong, rendering important objectives unachievable, one or more careers might very well be jeopardized.

Image (cc) Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported by Brosen, courtesy Wikimedia.

Learning is the process of acquiring knowledge, insight, or skills that are new to us. We learn best when we feel safe enough to disclose that we have indeed learned, and when we feel safe enough to practice what we've just learned. That's why psychological safety is a fundamental requirement for learning. Unless we feel safe enough to disclose to others that what we're hearing is new to us, learning it is difficult. Practicing what we've learned — which inevitably entails trial and error — is even more difficult.

In this series, I describe a number of observable behaviors that indicate low levels of psychological safety. These behaviors are what I refer to as "contrary indicators of psychological safety." Another way of putting it might be that they are "indicators of organizational fear." Recognizing the signs of low levels of psychological safety is a great help to anyone implementing new or revised processes, because creating psychological safety dramatically enhances the chances of successful adoption of new or revised processes.

Psychological safety: what it is and why we care

In the context If adoption of a new process isn't going as
well as you hoped, one cause might be
that people don't feel psychologically
safe enough to take the risks associated
with accepting the new way
of team dynamics, psychological safety is "…a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking." [Edmondson 1999] Or, "Team psychological safety is a shared belief held by members of a team that it's OK to take risks, to express their ideas and concerns, to speak up with questions, and to admit mistakes — all without fear of negative consequences." [Gallo 2023]

When an organization first adopts a new or revised process, such as one of the various flavors of agile development, any team members — or managers — who haven't experienced agile development need to do some learning. So organizations provide training, often in large doses. The trainers tell the team members how the new process works, and what the team members need to do. Too often, though, training isn't enough to meet the need. The hoped-for adoption of the new process turns out to be only superficial, as the team members find ways to continue working as before while maintaining an appearance of having adopted the new process. The benefits that were supposed to result don't actually materialize.

When training alone doesn't meet the need, among the possible causes is absence of psychological safety. Team members just don't feel safe enough to learn or practice the new way in the presence of others. Building psychological safety is a necessary prerequisite for learning and practice.

Three contrary indicators of psychological safety

If adoption of your new process isn't going as well as you hoped, one cause might be that people don't feel psychologically safe. Norm Kerth has developed exercises for measuring, maintaining, and enhancing psychological safety. [Kerth 2001] I can offer nothing better. What I offer in this series of posts are insights that might cause you to consider the possibility that a lack of psychological safety might be a cause of the problem. Those insights are in the form of contrary indicators of psychological safety — indicators that your team is probably experiencing a low level of psychological safety.

For concreteness, I've tailored these indicators to apply to the kinds of activities that occur in team meetings such as daily standups or retrospectives. These indicators are designed to be observable without the team members being aware of either the observations or how the observations are being interpreted. In what follows, I use the term Management to refer to either people who have formal organizational authority over the team, or people whom Management has designated as playing leadership roles. I use the term Members to refer to Members of the team not included in Management.

With those preliminaries, here are three contrary indicators of psychological safety.

Management makes schedule and effort estimates without consulting Members
When facing tight schedule and budget constraints, some managers find difficulty when they must repeatedly press Members to make estimates that meet those constraints. To avoid the necessity of overruling Members' estimates of effort and schedule, Management might resort to one of two strategies.
In one approach, Management assumes responsibility for making all estimates. Later, when the team can't meet the schedule and budget targets, Management attributes this failure to inadequate team performance. This strategy has a fatal flaw: eventually, questions arise about the validity of Management's estimates.
In a more sophisticated approach, Management designates a "technical leadership team" (TLT) to develop the estimates. The TLT includes representatives of Management plus a few Members. One of these Members is designated "Tech Lead" and leads the TLT. The TLT is then responsible for all estimates. The presence of representatives of Management ensures that the TLT produces estimates acceptable to Management. From the vantage point of Management, this approach has the benefit that when the Members cannot deliver within the budget and schedule dictated by the TLT, the TLT is held responsible — not Management.
In neither strategy do the Members who actually do the work create the estimates. This frees Management to produce unrealistic estimates consistent with their wishes. Management can then hold Members responsible when the team fails to meet the unrealistic targets.
Members' sense of psychological safety is eroded when they're held responsible for failing to meet targets in which they played little or no developmental role. Some might experience this arrangement as unfair. A useful measure of psychological safety is the data representing the number of Members' objections to being held accountable for failing to meet targets imposed on them by others.
Management overrules opinions of Members
In ordinary circumstances, Members are called upon to provide professional opinions. For example, they might ordinarily express opinions as to the wisdom of a particular approach to solving a technical problem. Or they might provide a judgment as to the probability of a risk event occurring. In most situations like these, Management would do well not to question such opinions or judgments.
But in organizations in which Management has often rejected or drastically revised the professional opinions of Members, one pattern stands out. It is that the probability of overruling a Member's professional opinion is elevated when that opinion is in tension with an objective Management cares about, or when it conflicts with a previous ruling by Management. The rate of overruling Members' professional opinions is a key indicator of the psychologically unsafe environment. The pattern of overruling "trains" Members to offer observations only if they align with Management preferences.
Members don't speak freely when offered opportunities to comment
In a psychologically unsafe environment, commenting in any way that isn't fully supportive of the current approach to the work entails risk. A second risk is the risk of misinterpreting the boundary between "fully supportive" and anything else. To mitigate the former risk, Members avoid commenting critically. They don't point out alternatives or missed opportunities. To mitigate the latter risk, they refrain from commenting altogether.
But there is another dynamic that leads to Members withholding comment. When the leader of the meeting opens the floor to Members for comment, and a long silence occurs, Members must decide whether or not to risk commenting. Pressure mounts with each passing second. Every Member is aware of the silence. Everyone knows why there is silence: commenting is risky, and everyone is being cautious. The caution builds on itself, because caution is contagious. Members interpret the silence as confirmation that this is not a psychologically safe situation.
If anyone does comment, the silent Members experience relief. They no longer need to risk commenting, because someone already has commented. Silence returns, and the clock starts ticking again.
A relevant metric is the duration of the silence until a Member breaks the silence. Long times probably correlate with greater fear (less safety). A second relevant metric is the duration of the silence until Management surrenders and finally breaks the silence. Longer durations probably correlate with Management's level of frustration with Members' silence.

Last words

Psychologically unsafe environments become unsafe as a result of the actions of both Management and Members. In that way, both groups contribute to the problem. But the two groups differ in at least one important respect. Only Management is empowered to make the changes that can render the environment psychologically safe.

In the next post in this series, I explore three more contrary indicators of psychological safety.  Next in this series Go to top Top  Next issue: Contrary Indicators of Psychological Safety: II  Next Issue

101 Tips for Managing ChangeIs your organization embroiled in Change? Are you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt? Read 101 Tips for Managing Change to learn how to survive, how to plan and how to execute change efforts to inspire real, passionate support. Order Now!


Comprehensive list of all citations from all editions of Point Lookout
[Edmondson 1999]
Amy C. Edmondson. "Psychological Safety and Learning Behavior in Work Teams," Administrative Science Quarterly 44:2 (June 1999), pp. 350-383. Available here. Retrieved 18 November 2023. Back
[Gallo 2023]
Amy Gallo. "What Is Psychological Safety?", Harvard Business Review,February 15, 2023, Available here. Retrieved 24 November 2023. Back
[Kerth 2001]
Norman L. Kerth. Project Retrospectives: A Handbook for Team Reviews. New York: Dorset House, 2001. Order from Amazon.com. Back

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