The Death of Psychological Safety?

Oh no, she just touched my keyboard! Now I have to clean it again. I hate her!

– Anonymous Spouse

My daughter recently completed her university classes virtually in the final year of a post graduate program. Over breakfast one morning, I asked her to reflect on her marathon of Zoom lectures and what stood out for her. She noted a feeling of not only physical but also emotional distancing from her classmates and professors. A general feeling of lack of connection. Here’s how she summarized her feelings:

“With cameras and mics off it’s easier to isolate yourself or choose to be isolated and not feel that collaborative, connected sense of community.”

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs suggests that basic needs such as water, food, shelter and safety must be met before an individual will even consider pursuing psychological needs such as a sense of belonging, social intimacy, connection.

How do you feel about the need for physical safety at this moment during the pandemic? What about post pandemic?

Here’s how some Canadians feel:

Sixty-six per cent of respondents to (a) poll, conducted by Leger and the Association for Canadian Studies, said two metres should remain the safe distance kept between people, as recommended by Canada’s public health authorities.

And even if they were relaxed, a strong majority wouldn’t be comfortable taking part in activities that would bring them closer to other people, like going to a movie theatre.

Or participating in-person at a daily stand-up?

So, if most of us feel physical distancing needs to continue to be honoured, what will that mean as our workplaces start to slowly open back up?

How will physical safety impact and affect the psychological safety equity built up over time within our collocated Agile teams?

I had a chance to ask these questions and more at a recent virtual Toronto Open Space. I proposed a session titled “The Death of Psychological Safety”. We started off the session with the following question:

In this pandemic age, how will physical safety impact psychological safety?

Reading the above question, what’s the first thought that comes to your mind?

Here’s what the session participants thought of:

  • Thoughts on the impact to transparency
    • “How is transparency possible?”
    • “How to ensure transparency”
  • Thoughts on the benefits of psychological safety
    • “Catalyst for improvement”
    • “Permission to experiment”
  • “How going remote effects [sic] Psycology [sic] of people when they work from home all the times [sic]?”
  • “’Safety is baked fresh daily’ – quote from The Culture Game book”

What else?

Here are some additional thoughts I’ve had:

  • Will psychological safety become a casualty of physical safety?
  • In our brain, will stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisone negate or overrun the happy hormones like dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin and endorphins?
  • What will happen to our open office concepts? Our innovation spaces? Our co-located Agile team rooms?
  • How will physical distancing prey on less trusting managers and undermine psychological safety?

Depending on where people were in their journey towards psychological safety, the pandemic and need for physical safety will lead to a wide range of possible responses for each person. I can imagine some typical responses.

  1. Those who were looking for a way out from bonding with or trusting the team, have found it.
  2. Those who weren’t looking for a way out are now paused. What will their journey look like after the pause?
  3. Those who held strong bonds and high psychological safety will be unfazed.

Here’s a picture to illustrate some possible trajectories.

Psychological Safety Tranjectories
Psychological Safety Trajectories

What is Psychological Safety?

The term psychological safety was defined by William A. Kahn in his 1990 paper, “Psychological Conditions of Personal Engagement and Disengagement at Work” as,

Feeling able to show and employ one’s self without fear of negative consequences to self-image, status, or career

Amy Edmondson further popularized the term psychological safety in her 1994 paper, “Psychological Safety and Learning Behaviour in Work Teams” and her subsequent books. She defined the term as,

A shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking

In the session we explored two models of psychological safety.

One introduced by Timothy R. Clark in his 2020 book, “The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety: Defining the Path to Inclusion and Innovation”. He introduces four stages of psychological safety. The stages remind me of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs with each stage needing and building upon the previous stage. The four stages are:

  1. Inclusion Safety – to feel included
  2. Learner Safety – to feel safe to learn
  3. Contributor Safety – to feel safe to contribute
  4. Challenger Safety – to feel safe to challenge the status quo

The second model was introduced by Ray Immelman in his 2003 book, “Great Boss, Dead Boss”. We explored his 2×2 Safety/Security Model. The interesting aspect of that model is the interplay between safety/security for the individual and the tribe or team. When tribal/team security is threatened,

  • those individuals who feel safe or secure will willingly make the personal sacrifices necessary to strengthen the tribe’s safety
  • those individuals who don’t feel safe or secure may leave

What can we do about it?

Having discussed the potential impact of physical safety on psychological safety and having explored definitions and models of psychological safety, it was time to share ideas on what we could do to mitigate the potential damage to psychological safety.

Here’s some ideas the session participants shared:

  • Share your new office space 🙂 home tour”
  • “Lead by example”
  • “Model the behaviour”
  • “Encourage leaders to show their vulnerability”
  • “Virtual coffee / lunch”
  • “Break the ‘Scrum’ rule 🙂 #unpopularopinion”
  • “Ask questions that invite dissent (challenges)”
  • “Promote more F2F meeting connection”
  • “Improve feedback loops”
  • “Encourage the use of video for all virtual interactions”
  • “Visualize the work”
  • “Explicit agreements/policies”
  • “team charters”
  • “per meeting agreements”
  • “Reach out to others – to check in with them and also when you need contact from others”
  • “user manual to me”
  • “Teach techniques for awareness/moderation of responses, meaning-making (EI, essentially)

What else could we do?

Here are some additional ideas I’ve had. I found Timothy R. Clark’s 4 stages of psychological safety were helpful for brainstorming ideas.

Inclusion Safety

  • Change the Scenery: Attend video chats or meetings from a different location at home or outside.
  • Team or 1:1 Breakouts: Use Zoom Breakout rooms, MS Teams Channels or WebEx Breakout sessions to create more inclusive and intimate conversations.

Learner Safety

  • Remote Pairing or Mobbing: For those who learn best by seeing or doing – without the worry of sharing a communal keyboard!
  • Virtual Learning Sessions: Build a backlog of interesting topics and create time and space for people to share and learn.

Contributor Safety

  • Opportunity Signals: Agree as a team on when everyone could have their webcams on to simulate looking across the table or room for opportunities to help or ask for help.

Challenger Safety

  • Communicate > 7%: Dr. Albert Mehrabian’s communications research suggests that only 7% of communications occurs through the spoken words. The remaining 93% is made up of voice, tone and body language. If you’re going to challenge the status quo, you want to receive 100% of the status quo message. Simply turning on video can make a big difference.

Thanks to all the right people who showed up at the session to contribute their thoughts and co-create the artifacts. Lots of great food for thought.

Pyschological Safety Canvas

What will be the fate of psychological safety once our teams start reconvening physically?

I am hoping that any rumours of the death of psychological safety will be greatly exaggerated.

My favourite quote shared by a session participant was,

“Safety is baked fresh daily”

Judging by the many ideas shared during the session, we’ll have lots of baking ingredients and supplies.

I for one, will be watching, listening and cheering for psychological safety post pandemic.

In the meantime, there may be a silver lining appearing out of this safety dilemma. At a recent webinar on “How to Approach the Echo Pandemic of Workforce Mental Health”, HR leaders discussed the mental health implications arising from remote work across a variety of different industry verticals. One key insight I took away was that the pandemic has been

“A game changer for mental health creating a higher and different level of dialogue around mental health at all levels”

And that is a great thing!

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