Psychological Safety and the Only Pyramid Scheme That Works

A lot of my job is about safety. Safety prevents errors from happening but, more importantly, when people feel safe, things become safer.

It’s a strange phenomenon that I’ve seen time and time again where if you lay out processes and tools that make things like software deployments safer, the effects continue to compound long after the change has happened. As people feel more and more secure in doing deployments, raising issues and speaking confidently in a company, the amount of failure goes down.

Conversely, the more unsafe an environment, the more failure compounds. When people feel ridiculed or judged for raising their hand to call out an error or a bug they think might be happening, they will raise their hand less and less. As people feel less confident about speaking out, more and more failure goes unmonitored until it’s too late.

Not to mention, people in safer environments are happier. Which environment would you rather work in: a technically brilliant project dictated by one or two people with no room for opinion or discussion; or a project outlined by a senior colleague who asked for feedback regularly and gave your opinion serious consideration and discussion even if it didn’t make it into the final product? A lot of feeling safe is about feeling valued.

Maslow’s Hierarchy Of Needs

I’ve said the word “safety” a lot there but I should probably explain what that means. In terms of safety when it comes to the workplace, I subscribe to the idea of Maslow’s Hierarchy Of Needs - which I first learned about back in secondary school.

The basic idea is that you have a pyramid of requirements, where fulfilling each level requires you have fulfilled the level below it, until eventually you’ve reached the top level of “self-actualisation” which is this idealised view of achieving one’s full potential.

In reality, things aren’t as cut and dry and you can certainly achieve certain levels without having its predecessor fully solidified or secure but it’s a good mental model of understanding what people need. In terms of what I want to talk about, self-actualisation can also be viewed as “feeling safe”.

The hierarchy breaks itself down into 3 categories and 5 levels. I’m going to tackle them top-down.

At the top, we have the end goal of reaching our full, happy potential which is it’s own category of Self-Fulfillment Needs. That is, these are the things that drive us, professionally or creatively, and give us satisfaction in life.

To reach self-fulfillment, you need to have your Psychological Needs met. Esteem Needs covers things like respect and prestige in life or just a general feeling of accomplishment. This can come from regular reviews, praise and a feeling of responsibility in your work. And to fulfil your esteem needs, you need to have your Love & Belonging Needs. These come from intimate or close relationships (romantic or platonic) and are born out of a sense of community and togetherness.

To reach your psychological needs, you need to have your Basic Needs met. Personal Safety Needs are things like your home as well as security in your job or financial status. These are things that give you predictability for the foreseeable future. Finally, to achieve all of the above you have to meet your Physical Needs. Things like food, warmth, water and sleep. All those pesky things you need to keep track of to keep living.

Maslow’s Hierarchy is important here because, although it may not be your job to meet these needs, if someone doesn’t have these building blocks then they are not going to feel totally safe in their work. For example, if someone’s working on a rolling monthly contract, they might be more worried about “am I going to be let go this month” rather than “is this code ready to deploy right now” as they hit the big red button and scurry off to make a comforting meal.

If you are in charge of a company, it’s important to reduce as much cognitive load on your employees as possible. If someone is anxious about setting up a pension or worried about moving next month or is having issues with a colleague, those are all things that will distract them from their job. You should be looking for ways to help people feel safe and happy in their work. From a capitalist point of view: happy people are more productive and more productivity means more money. Investing in your employees’ wellbeing (with opt-in offers, don’t force anything on people) will probably be a net benefit for you for many reasons.

What’s important for us right now, though, is that people who feel safer, act safer, concentrate more as they make and deploy things, and reduce failure significantly.

The Toyota Kata And The Andon Cord

I love talking to new teams about the story of the Andon Cord in the Toyota manufacturing factories in the late 1900’s cause it’s such a great example of 1) how to treat failure positively; and 2) how to reduce failure by empowering people and making them feel safe.

Between 1950 and 1990, Toyota’s factories added this physical rope, called the Andon Cord, that followed along the assembly line. If you pulled the cord, the manufacturing line would stop nearly immediately. Now, most people I’ve met start thinking that this is a safety switch - that in an emergency you can pull it to prevent harm - but it’s not!

Mike Rother authored a book called “Toyota Kata” which is where the West first learned about this concept (I think, don’t quote me on that) but what he says in that book is that the cord is a tool to install autonomic behaviour in the people on the assembly line. He called this “kata”. When someone pulled the cord , everything stopped and an “andon” (most commonly a flashing light) would light up above the workstation.

The team-lead for that section would then physically go to that station and see what the issue was. Toyota lives by a “Show Me” culture which aims to eliminate any of the bias related to the problem because both parties are present at the issue and can only work with the facts of what’s wrong.

Something very important to the psychological safety we’re discussing is that when the team-lead arrived, the first thing they always did was thank the team member for pulling the cord. This reinforced the feeling of safety; you were not judged for pulling the cord, it was always a good thing because it was always a good thing to prevent an issue or defect. You may have added time in the moment to the process but in the long-run, you were saving the company the money and time involved in processing the results of that defect.

No matter how small the issue or if the cord was tugged mistakenly, there were never any repercussions and it was always treated as a positive thing. Toyota, at their core, believed that failure created learning opportunities and that it wasn’t a negative thing.

If you’d like to read more about the Toyota Kata, check out this great post by John Willis.

Making Failure A Positive Experience

The idea that we learn from failure is a tale as old as time but it’s a crucial part of psychological safety and my day-to-day job. Workplaces should feel challenging but not threatening. Modern teams' success often builds off the ability to take risks while still being vulnerable in front of our peers.

In Site Reliability Engineering, being Blameless is a core tenet of our approach to learning from failure. We try to instill a culture where every “mistake” is seen as an opportunity to strengthen the overall team/project/system.

When something negative happens, there needs to be conversations afterwards about what can be learned from it and what can be improved. The best results will come from a team that feels safe enough to talk frankly about their shortcomings, the shortcomings of the company and the reality of a situation. Think of a situation where you made a change that cost your company a couple thousand euro in sales - in a psychologically unsafe environment, there’s no way you’d put your hand up to admit what happened for fear of being demoted or fired. And without a clear understanding of everything that happened, how could you possibly talk about fixing this in the future?

Making failure a positive experience is a culture shift and it happens gradually, not all at once. Regardless of your position in a team, start by admitting your own mistakes. When you fail, give clear signals that it’s okay to fail and it’s okay to call you out when other people see you making mistakes in real time.

It’s important to encourage risk-taking in your teammates and to make room for growth. Not every idea is golden because sometimes initiatives fail and projects don’t turn out the way you imagined. It’s a good idea to take a moment at the end of a milestone of a project and have an honest discussion about the good things, the bad things and the things that could be improved in the future.

It might sound counterintuitive but you need to be comfortable being uncomfortable. Being open and vulnerable will incur some level of discomfort with your peers, it’s inevitable. For example, you might be someone who likes control and relinquishing that control may make you uncomfortable, but giving others the space to try something new is the only way to figure out if that crazy idea is crazy enough that it just might work.

Acknowledge the discomfort in the moment but try to approach it as a collaborator, not as an adversary. You should all collectively work together towards understanding and volunteering for risk, so that when failure does happen, you have replaced blame with curiosity.

Creating psychological safety around failure encourages people to think about how things can be improved, rather than focusing on blame and how it happened.

How To Make A More Psychologically Safe Team/Workplace

I really like a chapter in Seeking SRE called “Psychological Safety in SRE” (Ch.27) by John Looney (you can find an earlier version of the same published in “;login:") which has a section about building psychological safety into your team. If you want to read more about this, I’d highly recommend reading that chapter.

I’ve mentioned it already but psychological safety comes from the culture within the company and individual teams. A large portion of what makes us feel safe to raise concerns is a feeling of respect. Make respect a part of your team’s culture so that people don’t have to feel like they must mask a part of themselves to appeal to other peoples' ideas of who they should be. When situations arise where a lack of respect becomes evident, you should tackle it immediately and in the same context it was given. This keeps everyone on the same page and also serves as a learning opportunity for everyone present, whether they were involved or not.

In tech especially, there’s a lot of talk about “innovation” but not a lot of talk about “risk”. Remember what I said about things being challenging but not threatening above? Well a way you can achieve that is by making space for people to take chances. In project meetings or brainstorm sessions, give people a platform to represent and pursue their ideas. Some of the most genius outcomes will start with a single person having an itch they just need to scratch.

Often in operations work, I think of this one quote from Futurama:

Sometimes, if you’ve done everything right, no one will know you’ve done anything at all.

This can be a bit of a problem for the Esteem Needs portion of you/your peers' hierarchy so to combat that, make it obvious when your team is doing well. Most people notice when things are failing or going wrong, but you should make a large effort to distribute good news as well. Personally, every Thursday I send around a themed gif for the week and a couple of bullet points on what the SRE team did and any important change info. It’s a great way to both keep everyone in the company informed, while also feeling like your work is not going unnoticed.

Lastly, there’s a small bullet point list John Looney mentions which I think form a solid base of action you can take right now:

  1. Give your team a short survey, and share the results with your team. Perhaps get a trusted person from outside the team to do 1:1s with them, promising to summarize and anonymise the feedback.
  2. Discuss what “Safety” means to your team; see if they’ll share about a time when they felt “unsafe”
  3. Build a culture of respect & clear communication, starting with your actions

The Moral Of The Story

Psychological Safety should be a core pillar of any team that wants to succeed. It is the underpinning concept of happiness at work and a feeling of satisfaction in what you do. Without helping to fulfil our team’s hierarchy of needs and making them feel psychologically safe to raise issues and pursue risk, we are not allowing them to reach their self-actualisation, their true selves.

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