Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 23, Issue 51;   December 20, 2023: Contrary Indicators of Psychological Safety: II

Contrary Indicators of Psychological Safety: II


When we begin using new tools or processes, we make mistakes. Practice is the cure, but practice can be scary if the grace period for early mistakes is too short. For teams adopting new methods, psychological safety is a fundamental component of success.
A beekeeper at work, wearing safety equipment

A beekeeper at work, wearing all necessary safety equipment. The necessity of taking steps to ensure workplace safety is more obvious when the risks are physical and immediate. When risks threaten the worker's career and when the risks are less immediate, we're more likely to overlook them. We don't always realize that failure to provide for psychological safety can interfere with the employee's ability to do the job. Image by Anete Lusina courtesy pexels.com.

When we set about improving how we approach the work we do, we sometimes overlook the importance — and value — of safely practicing the new ways of doing things. Too often, the standard of performance is applying those new techniques without error shortly after they are introduced, with too short an intervening period of "safe" practice. When errors do occur, we regard them as unacceptable.

In these situations, the root cause of the errors is the denial of opportunities to practice in safety without risking harm to careers. We must acknowledge that people using techniques for the first time need to practice in a psychologically safe environment.

Contrary indicators of psychological safety are helpful because they reveal to Management the absence of psychological safety. Management can then act to address the problem.

Three more contrary indicators of psychological safety

As I The most useful contrary indicators of
psychological safety are those that don't
require people to report the problem,
because reporting problems
requires psychological safety
noted last time, psychological safety is "…a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking." [Edmondson 1999]. Methods for creating and maintaining psychological safety are well known. See, for example, the work of Kerth. [Kerth 2001] Less well known, perhaps, are contrary indicators of psychological safety — indicators that psychological safety is in need of attention or repair. The most useful contrary indicators of psychological safety are those that don't require team members to report the problem, because reporting problems requires psychological safety. Last time, I described three such contrary indicators, in the form of observable behaviors. Below are three more.

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.

Some Members enjoy "favored" status with Management
In evaluating employee performance, favoritism occurs when, "…evaluators act on personal preferences toward subordinates to favor some employees over others." [Prendergast 1996] When favoritism exists, it's unlikely to be acknowledged openly, in large part, because it's so costly to organizations. Nevertheless, it does occur, because both the manager and subordinate usually derive political advantage. The favored Members obviously benefit from Management trust and attention. Management benefits — or rather, believes it benefits — from having a "truth teller" convey information about both the other Members and the status of the work.
One component of the costs of favoritism is the bias it introduces into the decision process. Instead of deciding issues on their merits, decision-makers affected by the favoritism bias tend to consider the identities of the advocates for or against various positions. Although this exposes the organization to elevated risk of bad decisions, there are two cost sources that are even more significant. One is the corrosion of trust Members might otherwise have in Management. Another is the eruption of petty jealousies among Members. Both of these phenomena compromise psychological safety. Teamwork suffers.
An open secret: Management regards some Members as pariahs
Just as some Members enjoy favored status, some other Members experience disfavored status. They are pariahs who seemingly can do nothing right. Even when their work is satisfactory, Management openly criticizes it for whatever tiny shortcomings it might contain. If supervisors can find no shortcomings in the work, they manufacture some; if they cannot do even that, they don't comment at all.
Work life for pariahs is an uninterrupted stream of insults and professional pain. As intense as their suffering might be, it is by design not intense enough to motivate pariahs to leave the organization, because Management finds pariahs useful. Pariahs serve as examples of what can happen to any Member who fails to support Management in the ways Management requires. The treatment of pariahs reminds all Members that there is no psychological safety within the team. Because obsequious support for management is the only pathway around trouble, and because that pathway isn't always clearly defined, Members experience a severely limited sense of psychological safety.
There is mysterious secrecy about some work
Work related to national security might be — probably will be — conducted in a secure manner. But when other work is conducted in secret, the secrecy can contribute to a low level of psychological safety. Task names, effort expended, status — anything about the work, really — might be reported as what it is not, so as to conceal its true purpose, cost, and status. And the people who carry out this work must meet as a group with a manager, excluding some others who normally would attend ex officio, such as the project manager or scrum master. The mere existence of such secret work is an indicator of a psychologically unsafe environment.
The need for such secrecy can develop in a variety of ways. One of the more common sources of this need is concealment of management malpractice. Management malpractice can include inappropriate risk acceptance, intentional policy violations, and negligence, to mention just three types.
In the presence of mysterious secrecy, the people who are excluded from the secreted activity tend to experience the exclusion as an early warning that they are less important, less trusted, and less valued than are the people who are working in secret. And this experience contributes to their lower level of psychological safety.
Oddly, this dynamic might also affect those who are working in secret. They sense that although they're safe for now, as soon as their part of the secret work ends, they could be at risk. In what might be a form of anticipatory grief, that sense lowers their perceived level of psychological safety even though they still have plenty of work. [Sweeting 1990]

Last words

These three contrary indicators of psychological safety each contribute to creating divisions within the team, albeit in different ways. One kind of division is defining some Members as favored, and others as pariahs. A second kind of division is due to creating a secret team-within-a-team. Many other kinds of division are possible, of course. The divisions that erode psychological safety most are those that have no purpose driven by the nature of the work. Look about and see what divisions you can find in your organization. Do they serve a purpose driven by the work?  Contrary Indicators of Psychological Safety: I First issue in this series   Contrary Indicators of Psychological Safety: III Next issue in this series  Go to top Top  Next issue: Contrary Indicators of Psychological Safety: III  Next Issue

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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
[Kerth 2001]
Norman L. Kerth. Project Retrospectives: A Handbook for Team Reviews. New York: Dorset House, 2001. Order from Amazon.com. Back
[Prendergast 1996]
Canice Prendergast and Robert H. Topel. "Favoritism in organizations," Journal of Political Economy 104:5 (1996),pp. 958-978. Available here. Retrieved 20 November 2023. Back
[Sweeting 1990]
Helen N. Sweeting and Mary LM Gilhooly. "Anticipatory grief: A review," Social science and medicine 30:10 (1990) , pp. 1073-1080. Available here. Retrieved 20 November 2023. Back

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