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The (Psychological) Safety Dance

Published: October 18, 2017

Overused? Abused? Why are we obsessed with psychological safety?

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I say we can act if want to if we don’t nobody will And you can act real rude and totally removed And i can act like an imbecile I say we can dance, we can dance everything out control We can dance, we can dance we’re doing it wall to wall We can dance, we can dance everybody look at your hands We can dance, we can dance everybody takin’ the chance Safety dance Oh well the safety dancePsychological safety is important.

When I talk with teams (and managers, and executives) about psychological safety, I invariably see nods of approval. The “brutal honesty” junky nods. The neurodiversity advocate nods. Introverts and extroverts nod, in their own unique ways. The micromanager nods. Everyone gets it … even (unsurprisingly) the brilliant jerks.

It all makes sense. The concept of psychological safety is very human. We have a strong need to feel acknowledged, respected, listened to, taken seriously, supported, protected, trusted, and dare I say loved. But let’s step back and look at psychological safety in the context of plain-old software product development (not saving lives as a nurse, disarming IEDs, crewing a nuclear sub, etc.)

A senior leader recently contacted me about instituting a “program to build and maintain psychological safety on teams”. The executive was “fully bought in” and “understood that [they] couldn’t have high performing teams without psychological safety.” Apparently, not-his-real-name Dan had recently returned from a c-level “retreat” where “the whole community was talking about psych safety.”

I started to dig in by doing some interviews. The place turned out to be an absolute pressure cooker. Teams were overloaded — teetering right on the edge of cognitive overload and collapse. Working “insane hours”, type-AAA individuals drove themselves to “routinely go above and beyond for customers” and “push past technical limitations.” The whole atmosphere was perpetually ratcheted up, and highly charged. Just like Google, Dan wanted to leave no stone unturned on his quest for high performing teams. And everyone — from ICs on up — thought it was a great idea…because, you know, everyone can relate to psychological safety.

But something was missing. When people there talked to me about psychological safety, they talked about it only in relationship to their needs, their desire to speak up, their desire push the limits of their career, and their desire for safety. Or… they talked in broad sweeping terms about “not being complacent” and “keeping it real.” There wasn’t a great deal of self-awareness. And almost no one mentioned the impact of the late hours, constant reorgs, and hyper-competitive alpha-dog slugfests on the psychological well-being of the team. It was as if psychological safety had become a kind of proxy battlefield for something else.

N=1, in my opinion, in many cases psychological safety has become a proxy discussion for finding meaning and purpose in our work… in environments which are feeling increasingly transient, hyper (internally) competitive, manipulative, incoherent, incomprehensible, stressed-out, and soulless. We want something that “feels real”, and that turns into being able to “get real”. The individual contributor class — the passionate problem solvers — arrive in the belly of the for-profit tech beast only to realize how deeply fucked-up these orgs can be. Our response is to latch onto what feels genuine and humane.

Contrast this with a humble, coherent, curious, honest, and thoughtful org…where there’s a manageable level of tension/stress AND people have a sincere interest in making work “safe” for others (not just themselves or the bottom-line). Sometimes I wish we’d swap “psychological safety” for words like decency, respect, being a good listener, and sustainability. Are those words too fluffy? I hope not.

I hear about orgs doing actual training on the team level to improve psychological safety — or at least appeal to our innate need for it — while blaringly obvious bad behavior is tacitly accepted among “high performing” executives, and folks are maxed out intellectually/emotionally, and even physically. What kind of message does that send?

Knowledge work is complex. It is in your face. It is a team sport. It attracts passionate problem solvers who crave a level of coherence, a sense of agency, and the opportunity to create impact. We can intellectualize psych safety as much as we want…but a lot of this boils down to having the guts to be present, not be an ass, chill out, consider the needs of those around you, and give people room to do good work.