Psychological Safety #46: Google, Grout, Tigers and Elephants

Training, Workshops, Exercises and Tools

Psychological Safety #46: Google, Grout, Tigers and Elephants

nasa tlx - workload assessment

Welcome to the psychological safety newsletter and thanks for subscribing. You rock. 

This week includes Neurodivergence, Google, Grout, Tigers and Elephants, Pre-Mortems, Equity, Accountability, Gendered Social Biases, and Cognitive Load.If you enjoy reading this newsletter, please share it via your social networks and/or forward it to other people who may appreciate it.

This newsletter is sponsored by Conflux.

Conflux is the leading business consultancy worldwide helping organisations to navigate fast flow in software. We help organisations to adopt and sustain proven, modern practices for delivering software rapidly and safely.

Fostering psychological safety is one of the principles that organizations must adopt in order to succeed – according to Jon Smart’s recent book, ‘Sooner Safer Happier: Antipatterns and Patterns for Business Agility’. Sophie Weston, Principal at Conflux, has been taking a closer look at the patterns for creating psychological safety and describes her key takeaways in this article.

The first Psychological Safety Meetup went off!

Thanks to everyone that attended the first ever psychological safety meetup! I was absolutely nervewracked (is that a word?) in case it all went wrong, but the dream team of Romy, Stephanie and Samantha pulled it together. And thanks also to all the wonderful attendees, who listened, contributed and shared their expertise and insight. The Lean Coffee discussion was great: we talked about toxic cultures, leadership behaviours, virtual and hybrid work, and even “downsides” to psychological safety, alongside intersectionality, equity and inclusion! I can’t wait to do it again, and we’ll confirm soon when that should be.

You can watch the video of the 25 minute talk on the history of psychological safety here. And you can access the slide deck here too.

 Psychological Safety In the Workplace: Maybe the biggest psychological safety news this week is about Google, where some of the original industry-based psychological safety research was conducted, by Julia Rozovsky’s Project Aristotle. Members of the “Borg SRE” team at Google recentlyreported that the culture there had become “abusive and sociopathic” at times. (“Borg” is part of the Google system that manages highly complex and dynamic compute resources in different datacentres around the world).  This article by Nico Grant at Bloomberg dives further into the events over the past few years, and perspectives of different members of the team. To me, this piece demonstrates very clearly what we already know – that psychological safety is hard-won, takes a great deal of effort to build and maintain, and can be lost very easily through the actions of very few people. But it can be rebuilt, and I hope very much that it will for this team.

Here’s a great article from Sam Knuth about management and neurodivergence. The whole piece is genuinely fantastic and really insightful. Sam expresses with clarity the potential for two people (manager and team member) to have diametrically opposing perspectives of a situation, and I believe this doesn’t just apply to people who consider themselves neurodivergent either. If we adopt approaches such as these two that I’ve highlighted below, I feel that we’re making the best of a kerb-cut effect, where everyone benefits, whether neurodivergent or neurotypical.

  • Don’t assume intent (positive or negative), but default to curiosity and try to understand diverging viewpoints. (Assuming positive intent can be an excuse for bad behavior, assuming negative intent can create conflict.)
  • Don’t question the experiences of others; accept the reality of a situation that is presented to you. (This helps promote mutual understanding and curiosity instead of fostering an environment of skepticism and judgment.)
(image CC BY-SA 4.0 Interaction Institute for Social Change | Artist: Angus Maguire)


And I love Sam’s message reflecting on the image above: “If you are a neurotypical manager, you may have no idea that some of your employees are unable to see over the fence and some are, because you don’t even know that the fence is there.

“Honouring the grout means attending to the conditions which make good work possible.” This is a lovely article by Thea Snow on the metaphor of the “grout”; of paying attention to the things we can’t see – the things that stick everything together and create the conditions and foundations for interpersonal success.
I love this Twitter thread from Shreyas Doshi about “pre-mortems” and his practices of “Tigers, Paper Tigers, and Elephants“. Pre-mortems are a psychologically safe way of surfacing risks, concerns and establishing team cohesion and a common language around dangers, especially those that are difficult to raise.

Staying on Twitter, here’s a great thread from Liam Gulliver, of the Agile Engineering Podcast, about the sociotechnical aspects of DevOps and software engineering, including the necessity for interpersonal trust and psychological safety.

This is an excellent piece from Madison Butler, about Building Psychological Safety at ScaleMadison writes and speaks so eloquently about creating equitable and inclusive organisations, and this framework is an example of that:

  1. Education: this is all about understanding the ‘why’ behind psychological safety and its importance.
  2. Self-work: these are the hard conversations that must be had.
  3. Eliminate the trash: you must dismantle the oppressive systems, policies and people that are already in place and rid the company of harm.

And here’s a very good article from GTM Flow about creating effective accountability: “Holding people accountable solely for attaining interim outcomes creates a culture of fear that inhibits ambition (under-promise and over-deliver), reduces intelligent risk taking and undermines psychological safety.

Psychological Safety Theory, Research and Opinion:
Here’s a great paper by Radoslaw Nowak of the New York Institute of Technology on the effects of psychological safety on potential and realised absorptive capacity – i.e. an organisation’s innovative capabilities — the abilities to recognise value, incorporate, and exploit new information emerging in external markets. Effectively, the capacity to detect and respond effectively to change. The paper isn’t open access, but Radoslaw was kind enough to provide an extended summary as a pdf that I can share here. 

Some worrying research from Stanford, in this article by Chana Schoenberger. Gendered social biases held largely by managers who are men may be preventing some people from working on pressing social problems.    “…managers may think that employees who choose to volunteer are less committed and less of a fit with the firm’s culture… And this concern is realized when it’s a man who is seeking a promotion and has a man evaluating him.

Howard Seidel wrote this rather good piece on the interpersonal skills required to build and maintain psychological safety. It includes surveying (and some salient points about surveys rarely addressed in the business world), feedback, dialogue, and uncovering hidden assumptions.

Things to do and try: We know that if cognitive load is too high, it damages psychological safety because people are less confident in their ability to succeed at a task. Likewise, low psychological safety increases cognitive load because it prevents asking for help and admitting mistakes.

I’ve recently been working on some challenges focussed around examining how to measure cognitive load (or at least gain some insight into cognitive load over time) – in order to test to see if changes and improvements actually result in reducing extraneous cognitive load or not. The NASA Task Load Index (TLX) was created in 1980 by Sandra Hart at NASA Human Systems Integration, and is a measure of perceived workload. As an example of it in application, this study aimed to investigate the effect of heads-up displays (HUDs) on astronaut performance during a maintenance-focused EVA (ExtraVehicular Activity – such as a “space walk”) using measures from the TLX.

You can use the TLX with pen and paper by printing off the pdf, or there’s an iPhone app. Below is the report output when I analysed my own “Task Load” for delivering a rather high pressure live presentation this week!

The TLX doesn’t necessarily tell you what to change about a task or the environment, but it provides a standardised measure of task load that can be used in longitudinal studies, UX design, or team changes. There are other methods too, but my preferred one so far is the TLX. Plus it’s from NASA, so it’s cool!

Let me know if you try it, modify it, and have any success from it!

This week’s poem:
Listen To The MUSTN’TS, by Shel Silverstein 

Listen to the MUSTN’TS, child,
Listen to the DON’TS
Listen to the SHOULDN’TS
The IMPOSSIBLES, the WONT’S
Listen to the NEVER HAVES
Then listen close to me-
Anything can happen, child,
ANYTHING can be

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