On Psychological Safety

More and more work involves collaboration. Multiple people working in a team on the same thing that is becoming ever more complex. What does this mean for an organization? Information and knowledge, especially in the technology domain, is becoming a commodity. All the best technical tools to build your next Google is just a Google search away. In the age of digital products, market access is getting cheaper every day. This increases the importance of the team and their effectiveness as it becomes a company’s unique selling point.

The way people in a team collaborate is a key competitive advantage over other participants in the market. It is not just about execution. If the best execution would be a valid concept, you could just get the best backend engineer from A, frontend engineer from B, GraphQL service from C, and security engineer from D. But none of this really matters. Russel Ackoff says it best:

Performance of a system depends on how the parts interact, not on how they act taken separately.

The Aluminum Company of America

Alcoa is a company founded in 1886 producing aluminum, among other things. In 1987 Paul H. O’Neil took the role of CEO and gave a famous first speech to Wall Street investors of the then troubling company. In it, he announced he would mainly focus his efforts towards improving worker safety. The investors where shocked and advised their clients to sell ASAP. How would that impact the failed product lines?

Some time after that, an 18 year old kid got killed at one of the plants. One larger production part blocked a machine from operating and the kid decided to jump on it in order to remove the part. Not a great idea as the kid died when the machine started to work again. O’Neil got the whole management board on stage at the plant declaring it was their fault and ultimately they helped create the environment in which the kid thought that this was a good idea.

The company lost 1.87 workdays per 100 workers to work injuries in 1887. By 2012 this number reduced to 0.2 workdays. One year after this speech the company’s profits were on a record high.

The Andon Cord

Toyota is a car company you probably know. It is famous for its high quality cars, and in other circles for the Toyota Way and the Toyota Production System. The Toyota Way and the Production System are the first incarnations of what we today know as “lean”: lean management, lean product management, lean project management, lean startup. John Krafcik created the term in his article Triumph of the Lean Production System in 1988.

One critical piece in the Production System is the Andon Cord. At every work station in a production line there is a cord hanging from the top. Pulling this cord signals an issue or problem to the colleagues and the supervisor. The key difference is that pulling the cord is a positive act. When you pull it, you not only raise a problem, instead you raise awareness for a potential improvement. A chance for everyone to learn.

Project Aristotle

In 2012 researchers working at Google started a journey. They wanted to find out how one can build the perfect team. What are its ingredients or properties? This is now known as project Aristotle.

After analyzing 180 teams from across the company they could not identify a pattern for the perfect team. Add more skills? The wrong personality types? Non-matching background? What they did find was that a team of experts in each area they operated in was just as successful as the team that seemingly had too much fun.

The researchers eventually concluded that what distinguished the ‘‘good’’ teams from the dysfunctional groups was how teammates treated one another.1

The one thing the researchers identified was the role of group norms. The exact shape of the norms however was not important. There is such a thing as the perfect group norm you can simply push to the team and everything will be great. What is does mean is that every member of the group accepts the norms of the group. One norm however stood out, both in the data and the psychological research: the role of psychological safety.

What is Psychological Safety?

These are just the important examples of where psychological safety had a positive impact. This is more than just the environment in which people feel safe to ask questions. The way the person asking is treated and what happens to the question and potential answers is what defines safety.

Amy Edmondson wrote The Fearless Organization about psychological safety and defines it as

a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject or punish someone for speaking up. It describes a team climate characterized by interpersonal trust and mutual respect in which people are comfortable being themselves.

If this is so important to successful teams the question is of course how we can build psychological safety? This leads to building trust and vulnerability-based trust beginning with the boss. My bookshelf is probably too small to get all titles on building a trustful and safe environment. Besides the aforementioned book by Amy Edmondson I want to mention the classic Five Dysfunctions of a Team.

Another interesting angle is how fragile safety really is. How even small interactions that look innocent at first sight, can quickly destroy it. And finally, how safety is not just about an environment where it is safe to ask questions, but where those questions lead to a better team and organization.

Destroying Psychological Safety

The most simple way to destroy safety is of course the obvious one: being the a**hole in the room, claiming all wins for you and all defeats to others in the team. If this person is also the boss, the situation is helpless. If you find yourself in it, just run.

Far too often, the one raising an issue is the trouble maker. It is the boss’s behavior in this situation that separates success from failure. The most simple way is to neglect and marginalize the issue. Maybe this person has raised a lot of issues lately and never presents solutions. Why bother with yet another false claim?! Not treating those occasions as what they deserve to be, pulling the andon cord, is not only a missed opportunity. In the long term it will lead to people not caring anymore. In this hypothetical example there can be two issues really: 1/ the person is new to the team and their expectations do not match those of the boss, and 2/ they are too junior in their role and need more coaching and guidance. For both cases there are great insights to gain that will make the team and organization better in the future.

Take the example of a new manager joining a team. Often times a manager joins in order to bring knowledge and experience from organization A to organization B. Bespoke manager can now tell everyone exactly what to do. But this misses the point of creating an environment where people feel safe to speak up. Even if the domain is the same, the solutions the organization came up with before are likely different from the manager’s previous gig. When joining a new organization, the best way to create this environment is to give context to people on how you solved the issue before, what were the constraints in this other team, what decisions have you taken. Then ask how one would go about this in this new organization. This transports knowledge and experience and invites others to think for themselves.

A fragile construct

Safety is a fragile construct and does not happen over night. Yet it is one of the key advantages when building successful teams. Building safety takes time and effort, but when you were successful, when you are part of this safe team, you will instantly know it and it will be a work experience to remember. In that case: pay attention to it, don’t destroy it accidentally, you might loose your advantage.

I personally have had this experience twice in my career so far. To every single team member I still have contact and we frequently talk to each other. Not every week, or every month. But hardly any quarter passes by in which we don’t interact at least shortly.


  1. See the NYT article ↩︎