Psychological Safety, Risk Tolerance and High Functioning Software Teams by@dareobasanjo

Psychological Safety, Risk Tolerance and High Functioning Software Teams

Dare Obasanjo HackerNoon profile picture

Dare Obasanjo

A few years ago, Google decided to research what was the key ingredient that made some software teams at the company more successful than others. Much to their surprise the key trait that was most correlated with successful teams wasn’t technical prowess, personalities or the educational background of the team members. Instead it was the notion of psychological safety — “ a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.’’

Psychological Safety and Tech Culture at Odds

Google’s research showed that members of a high functioning software team share a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject or punish someone for sharing their ideas or speaking their mind. This ability to take risks and try out of the box ideas without fear or embarrassment leads to more innovative ideas and approaches which may sound strange or even silly at first (anyone remember the Chrome comic book?).

However tech culture especially as defined by the software legends that came of age in the 1980s and 1990s is the inverse. Shaming people for ideas that one believes are subpar as a way to inspire them is a familiar approach. We have examples such as Steve Jobs calling engineering teams “f**ing dickless a**holes”, Bill Gates as with his favorite infamous line “that’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard” and off course, Linus Torvalds whose legendary rants include telling Linux kernel maintainers to “shut the f**k up” for submitting a bad patch.

A work environment where your boss belittles you in public is literally the opposite of psychological safety. Unfortunately given the success of Apple, Microsoft and Linux our industry has existence proofs that you can build immensely successful products and companies in a toxic work environment.

The High Cost of Lack of Psychological Safety

There is now a large body of research that shows the impact of organizations where a toxic and stressful work environment rule. Below are a few excerpts from the Harvard Business Review article Proof That Positive Cultures Are More Productive

First, health care expenditures at high-pressure companies are nearly 50% greater than at other organizations. The American Psychological Association estimates that more than $500 billion is siphoned off from the U.S. economy because of workplace stress, and 550 million workdays are lost each year due to stress on the job. Sixty percent to 80% of workplace accidents are attributed to stress, and it’s estimated that more than 80% of doctor visits are due to stress. Workplace stress has been linked to health problems ranging from metabolic syndrome to cardiovascular disease and mortality.

The stress of belonging to hierarchies itself is linked to disease and death. One study showed that, the lower someone’s rank in a hierarchy, the higher their chances of cardiovascular disease and death from heart attacks. In a large-scale study of over 3,000 employees conducted by Anna Nyberg at the Karolinska Institute, results showed a strong link between leadership behavior and heart disease in employees. Stress-producing bosses are literally bad for the heart.

There are a number of other shortcomings of not creating an environment of psychological safety in the workplace in the article but I thought the last sentence above really drives the point home. A boss that thrives on creating a high pressure work environment is literally sending his employees to an early grave.

Dismantling Structures that Work Against Psychological Safety

Among teams there are formal and informal structures that get in the way of people feeling completely safe to trust and share all their ideas with the team regardless of how inane they might seem at first. At many companies, the biggest formal structure which works against this sense of trust is a performance review system that use some form of forced ranking.

Forced ranking is when managers required to group employees into a fixed quota of high performing workers who are well rewarded, medium performers who receive less rewards and poor performers who are given little to no rewards or fired. Since there is a fixed set of say 10% bottom performers or 20% top performers then employees are basically competing against each other for their raises instead of working together towards joint success. No one wants to give their manager fodder to put them in the bottom 10% by sharing a seemingly dumb idea even though that may end up being sheer genius if pursued.

Informal structures that reduce trust among members of a team are harder to notice but just as limiting to unrestricted collaboration. It is easy to say one should reduce snark, image management or ensuring particular people don’t dominate others in discussions but harder to pull off. Here are a few techniques that can help teams get better at being inclusive

  1. Amplification: Recognize and amplify the source of contributions in discussions. This serves the dual purpose of increasing the visibility of a coworker’s idea and ensuring their idea doesn’t get hijacked by a more dominant personality in the discussion. This technique is discussed in more detail in the article The simple trick women in the White House use to stop getting interrupted.
  2. Drawing Out Voices: Work to ensure everyone on the team gets a chance to share their perspective on key decisions. At technology companies we tend to hire smart, capable people then never let them speak while the same set of folks dominate conversations. Quite often the people who haven’t spoken up have a point of view about the problem that is worthy of discussion and can bring new insight. This practice needs to be balanced such that people don’t end up getting put on the spot. In person you can read their body language to tell if they’re engaged and want to chime in while digitally (e.g. in a Slack channel) you can informally ask if folks who haven’t shared an opinion have one.
  3. Check-in Before Finalizing Decisions: Often key decisions end up being made by a subset of the team who are most passionate about the topic. It is often a good idea to check-in with the rest of the team before closing the topic because some people may have something important to add but not the energy to engage in a full on debate. Getting their take on the decision when the key stakeholders have come to consensus, allows other members of the team to feel ownership for the decision while being mindful to not reopen discussions without just cause.

Psychological Safety and the Paradox of Tolerance

One theme I’ve seen repeated online is how the concept of psychological safety while working on a team brushes against the Paradox of Tolerance. If you are unfamiliar with this paradox, here’s a brief excerpt from the Wikipedia entry

Less well known is the paradox of tolerance: Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance. If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them.

There are people like James Damore in his Anti-Diversity Manifesto and Sam Altman in his post E Pur Si Muove who argue that some talented employees can’t feel psychological safety if they are enable to express forms of bigotry such as sexism or homophobia. These arguments ignore the psychological safety of talented women and LGBTQ members of such teams.

The recommendation is straightforward; be intolerant of intolerance. There is no room for brilliant jerks on high functioning teams. In the words of Reed Hastings, CEO of Netflix, the cost to effective teamwork is too high.

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