Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 23, Issue 52;   December 27, 2023: Contrary Indicators of Psychological Safety: III

Contrary Indicators of Psychological Safety: III


When we first perform actions or play roles unfamiliar to us, we make mistakes. We learn new ways not only by reading or being told, but also by practicing. Unless we feel that making mistakes at first is acceptable, learning might never occur.
Orchestra musicians performing

Orchestra musicians performing. During an orchestra performance, we sometimes forget that all musicians begin their musical careers as beginners, making flurries of mistakes. We forgive those beginner mistakes because we know and accept that learning to play these instruments well takes many years. So it is with the skills required in most professions. When people take up new responsibilities, they need time to practice and we must forgive mistakes while they learn those skills. Photo by Roxanne Minnish, courtesy Pexels.com.

Psychological safety is an attribute of a social environment, usually in the context of groups or teams. It is "…a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking." [Edmondson 1999]. Psychological safety is important, because most of us must take risks to do our jobs, especially if we work in environments subject to episodes of change. Taking risks is necessary because 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. We must provide psychological safety to teams when we provide new tools or processes to them.

Methods for creating and maintaining psychological safety are well known. See, for example, the work of Kerth. [Kerth 2001] More important, perhaps, are skills for recognizing psychologically unsafe environments. And that's when contrary indicators of psychological safety become most valuable. These indicators signal the possibility that psychological safety is insufficient.

In the past two posts, I've offered six examples of contrary indicators of psychological safety. In this last post of the series, I offer eight more examples.

Eight more contrary indicators of psychological safety

In Contrary indicators of psychological safety are valuable
because they give early signals of the possibility that the
work environment might not be psychologically safe
what follows, as in previous posts, 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 that, here are eight more indicators of psychologically unsafe work environments.

Management's assessment of the team's status differs from Members' own
One factor contributing to depressed levels of psychological safety is a disparity between Management's descriptions of the team's status and the Members' perceptions of the team's status. Management has a conflict of interest with respect to reporting team status, because team status is a factor in evaluating Management's performance as managers.
Members understandably feel that they have an accurate perception of the team's status. In periods when the team is facing difficult challenges, if Management describes the team's status as something it is not, Members' trust in Management reports could be eroded, thereby depressing their sense of psychological safety.
When this variance is combined with Management overruling Members' opinions, the effects on psychological safety are especially corrosive.
Team learning is inhibited
Open expression of professional opinions is important for individual learning. But Members of groups must be free to express their views openly. If they cannot, then Members can't exchange with each other honest reports of what they know and don't know, which are essential for team learning. And psychological safety is essential to free expression in groups.
An indicator of lack of psychological safety is reluctance to speak freely about ignorance or points of confusion. When Members speak only about what they already understand they can't disclose that they have just now learned something. That inability inhibits disclosure of changes in viewpoints.
To assess the effects of this dynamic on psychological safety indirectly, watch for open disclosure of changes in viewpoints. If such disclosures are rare (or declining), the level of psychological safety is likely to be low (or declining).
Members express opinions with Management response in mind
When Members perceive a low level of psychological safety, some try to mitigate the risk of expressing opinions by framing their statements with Management response in mind. To gain some protection, they moderate their opinions with ambiguity, or they adjust them to align them more closely with what they believe Management favors.
To detect trends in this effect, measure the relative frequencies of opinions expressed in three categories: (a) Supportive of Management opinion; (b) Contradicting Management opinion; and (c) Neither supporting nor contradicting Management opinion. Watch for increases in the ratio a/c. That ratio can be a leading contrary indicator of psychological safety. Similarly, declines in b/a can also indicate erosion of psychological safety.
Members are reluctant to declare a task "blocked" when Management intervention would be required
From time to time, progress on a given task is impossible because a resource or asset on which the task depends is unavailable. When resolving this condition is beyond the political control of the team, we say that the task is "blocked." Often, this situation can be corrected with appropriate attention from Management. However, some managers seek to prevent tasks being declared as blocked as a means of limiting their own personal obligations.
By lowering the throughput of Members, this behavior by Management has the effect of concealing the backlog of items awaiting Management intervention. Members know this, and it contributes to their perception that psychological safety is low. An indicator that this practice is in place would be an unusually elevated — or growing — number of tasks "on hold" but not declared "blocked." Another indicator would be Management-directed suppression of reports of tasks on hold or blocked.
Members don't ask questions
Members don't ask appropriate questions about their work assignments. Even when they encounter ambiguity with respect to the definition of the objective, or how to reach it, they don't ask clarifying questions.
Devising metrics for behaviors that don't occur can be tricky. In this case, a proxy might serve. To estimate the frequency of questions not asked, measure the occurrence of misunderstandings and confusion. Count as an occurrence any misunderstanding that could have been avoided by someone asking a clarifying question.
Members are required to attend and contribute to retrospectives
Retrospectives in healthy organizations provide Members opportunities to reflect on a piece of work recently completed. They can reveal what worked, what didn't work, and what might have worked instead of what was tried. These three categories are sometimes referred to as Keep/Change/Add or Keep/Stop/Start. Typically, in healthy organizations, Members easily generate contributions in all three categories.
But in psychologically unsafe environments, Management decides not only what should be done, but how it should be done. Consequently, Members have difficulty with "Change" and "Add" because suggestions in those categories inherently constitute criticism of Management's previous directives. To avoid this lose-lose situation, Members who attend retrospectives offer few comments. Others decline to attend.
This reticence causes Management to order that Members must contribute comments during retrospectives. Fearing the consequences of criticizing Management, Members offer only pale imitations of "Change" or "Add" comments. But to Management, the lack of substantive "Change" or "Add" comments is a problem to be solved. From Management's perspective, one commonly hypothesized cause of this problem is that contributions aren't anonymous. Management "solves" the problem by summarizing the retrospective results in "anonymized" form. In this form, the contributions are collected, and possibly edited, but the identities of the contributors are removed.
The hope is that because anonymization provides protection to contributors, Members will then be more forthcoming. Rarely does this work, because Members recognize that the identities of contributors are generally deducible from the content of the contribution.
Absenteeism rates are elevated
The absenteeism rates that are most significant are those that apply to the portions of the meetings in which there is an expectation that Members will be contributing in open conversation. By comparing absenteeism rates for such meetings to the rates for other kinds of meetings, we can derive an indicator of the fear of commenting in open conversation.
Voluntary turnover rates are elevated
Consider first voluntary turnover involving people who are joining or leaving the larger organization. The rate of team Members leaving the team voluntarily because they're exiting the organization is more closely correlated with lack of psychological safety than is the rate of people joining the team as new hires. One reason for this difference is that new hires probably lack information about the level of psychological safety in the team, and therefore they are less likely to base entry decisions on it.
Internal voluntary turnover is perhaps more relevant for assessing psychological safety. Internal turnover has at least two observable components: transfers in and transfers out. When levels of psychological safety are low, and alternative assignments become available, people don't remain with the team for long. As soon as they find an acceptable alternative, they depart. Transfers in are similarly affected: when levels of psychological safety are low, transfers in are less likely, because people considering internal transfer tend to have access to information about levels of psychological safety, at least in a qualitative sense.

Last words

These eight indicators do contraindicate psychological safety, but deriving meaning from the absolute levels of the measurements is extraordinarily difficult. Although absolute comparisons of measurements for two teams might not be meaningful, interpreting trends in measurements for one team, over a three- to six-month period can be useful. First in this series  Next in this series Go to top Top  Next issue: Six Traps in Email or Text: I  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
[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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