Cognitive Load and Psychological Safety

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Cognitive Load and Psychological Safety

cognitive load and psychological safety

On a recent Agile Engineering Podcast we discussed cognitive load and how it relates to psychological safety. Cognitive load is also a fundamental aspect of Team Topologies, affects the scale of the domain that a team works with.

Cognitive Load

Our human working memory, our capacity to learn and solve problems, is a system with limited capacity. The amount of information presented, any distractions in the environment, and one’s existing knowledge and capability all influence our capacity to problem solve and learn new information. This is why we can multi-task when we’re doing something we’re highly practiced at, but struggle to multi-task at anything complex. The foundational research that this is based on was conducted by Chandler and Sweller in 1991 and is related to Human factors and ergonomics: the application of psychological and physiological principles to engineering and design.

Intrinsic cognition is all the stuff you already know, such as how to make a decent cup of tea. Where the teabags are, how to operate the kettle, how much milk to put in, etc.

Extraneous cognition is all the external stuff that you need to find out or understand, such as where someone left the teabags because you can’t find them. It also includes “noise” such as distractions, how to operate unfamiliar equipment, or how to comply with regulatory requirements.

Germane cognition is active learning and problem solving. That’s the stuff of real value – such as comparing Tetley tea to Yorkshire Tea in a taste test to find out which is better.*  It’s also the process by which learning is transferred from short-term to long-term memory. It’s only through Germane cognition that we actually achieve anything or provide real value.

By reducing and minimising extraneous cognitive load, you free up “working memory” or cognitive capacity to focus on problem solving and learning.

cognitive load and psychological safety - intrinsic, extraneous, and germane

From Fraser, K. et al. (2018) “Cognitive Load Theory for debriefing simulations: implications for faculty development”, Advances in Simulation, 3(1). doi: 10.1186/s41077-018-0086-1.

The aim is to utilise one’s intrinsic cognition, minimise extraneous cognitive load, and maximise the potential for germane cognition.

Psychological Safety

A fundamental component of psychological safety is being able to speak up when you don’t know something and to ask questions without fear of embarrassment or shame.

The key point here is that asking questions is absolutely key to reducing extraneous cognition. Therefore psychological safety is critical in order to reduce extraneous cognitive load and maximise germane problem solving and learning. Even without actually needing to ask any questions, being in a psychologically safe enough environment that a participant knows they could ask questions should they need to, will help to maximise germane cognition and learning capacity.

Likewise, be careful when leading or training a group that you don’t overload extraneous cognition – “if participants feel they are being presented with too much information, this can create stress and potentially erode psychological safety.” (Madireddy, S. and Rufa, E., 2020)

Maximise psychological safety and optimise cognitive load.

High performing teams are constantly learning – whether from each other, through active learning, or from mistakes. It is through utilising the germane working memory that learning is optimised, so to maximise learning, and maximise performance, it is absolutely necessary to foster psychological safety and optimise cognitive load. The job of anyone on a team includes reducing the cognitive load for others on the team (and people in other teams too).

Download the psychological safety action pack now to measure, build and maintain psychological safety in your teams.

(*Not that anyone needs to do that taste test, it’s obvious which is better.)


Madireddy, S. and Rufa, E. (2020) “Maintaining Confidentiality and Psychological Safety in Medical Simulation”, StatPearls Publishing, p. Available at:,and%20potentially%20erode%20psychological%20safety. (Accessed: 21 October 2020).

building and maintaining psychological safety for your team

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