Psychological Safety 53: Structure and Power

Training, Workshops, Exercises and Tools

Psychological Safety 53: Structure and Power

power over and power to

Welcome to the psychological safety newsletter and thanks for subscribing. You are awesome. This week is focussed on organisational structure and power dynamics.If you enjoy reading this newsletter, please share it via your social networks and/or forward it to other people who may appreciate it!

Our next online meetup is the 29th of March! We are lucky enough to have the amazing Nora Jones, Founder and CEO of Jeli. Nora is most well known for her amazing work on Chaos Engineering and has a great passion for psychological safety and the intersection of software and peopleRegister for the meetup here!

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.

We’ve recently been reading ‘The Fearless Organization’ by Amy C. Edmondson, and Sophie Weston, Principal at Conflux, has put together some key takeaways from the book in this article

Psychological Safety In the Workplace: This is fantastic, from Richard Bartlett; Hierarchies are not the problem. Richard writes eloquently here to show that hierarchies are not “bad”. Rather, unhelpful or harmful power dynamics are bad. “Focussing on “hierarchy” doesn’t just miss the point, it creates cover for extremely toxic behaviour.” I’ve personally been part of organisations where a complete “destructuring” happened, and it was not a good place to be.

And on removing hierarchies, or “structurelessness” this is an amazing article by Jo Freeman, American political scientist and feminist. The piece, from 1971, is focussed on the context of feminist activism groups at the time, but the principles and insights apply just as much today, and to contexts from campaigning groups to multi-national organisations: “…structurelessness becomes a way of masking power, and within the women’s movement is usually most strongly advocated by those who are the most powerful (whether they are conscious of their power or not).” 

Speaking of power, there are important distinctions to make regarding power structures and different types of power:

  1. Power over
  2. Power with
  3. Power to
  4. Power within

You’re probably familiar with “power over”; traditional hierarchies and class systems exert “power over” through force, coercion, domination and control. However, power “with”, “to”, and “within” provide empowerment, creativity, equity and self-realisation. Here’s a great article by Graeme Stuart describing these four types of power.

I really like this graphic by Isaac Gilbert that elucidates the idea:

All these pieces provided me with context for reading Matt Parker’s new book “Radical Enterprise”, from IT Revolution. Matt’s book follows in the vein of Holocracy and other devolved governance, somewhat “structureless” or non-hierarchical organisations.

There are some great points in the book, but I have a few concerns about these approaches. Some research suggests that holocracy models risk masking existing power structures and exacerbating the problem, rather than resolving existing inequities, unless they are not addressed beforehand.

For example, practices such as self-directed salaries, where employees can (to a degree) “choose” their own salary, risk worsening existing inequalities in pay gaps for women and non-white people, if those inequities are not properly addressed prior to implementation. 

My personal take: these devolved and less hierarchical approaches are part of the journey towards more humanistic organisations, but they are not a panacea. We must first create the foundations of equity and psychological safety for these practices and principles to work in practice.

 In the image above, Niels Pflaeging and Silke Hermann describe three structures of organisations in “OpenSpace Beta“. These structures exist in parallel; they’re different dimensions in which to describe an organisation. What we’re doing if we remove the formal structure is actually weighting more towards the informal and value creation structures.

Perhaps the wise path is somewhere in the middle, utilising the best parts of all approaches in the most appropriate context. Overly rigid, command-control hierarchies are bad. An absence of formal structure is also bad.And here is one of the mechanisms by which these inequities exist: this article by Amber Burton at Protocol is excellent: Black managers in tech: ‘You cannot be what you cannot see’We will rarely become that which we don’t observe. Not only that, but we need people in management and leadership roles who can empathise and understand our own lived experiences. 

This is a great piece about how Fran Horowitz, CEO of Abercrombie & Fitch, turned the company around. Fran decoupled some of the brands, managed a move away from bricks and mortar retail, and most importantly, transformed the culture from a top-down, “my way or the highway” approach to a more devolved (though far from holocratic) culture where people had more of a say in the strategy and operations of the business. “It took years, really, to get everybody comfortable reporting back what the customer was really asking for.

As Matt Parker points out, “what is good for people is good for business.” Listen to Matt speak to Jeffrey Fredrick on the Troubleshooting Agile podcast about A Radical Enterprise here.

Research and Opinion
 Jonathan O’Reilly has a fantastic podcast called “The QI Guy” where he speaks to improvement leaders, implementers or educators in the field of quality improvement in the UK’s public services and beyond. Jonathan was kind enough to ask me to join him for an episode and we had a great chat. We talked largely about psychological safety in relation to QI, and touched on Deming, Human Factors, and the “weak signals of failure” amongst other subjects.

Follow the podcast on on Twitter @TheQI_Guy and Jonathan at @jonathano_qi

 Here’s an interesting academic piece called “Interrupting Bias in Army Talent Management” by Danielle Holt and Susan Davis, showing how the US Army must foster the selection of leaders who demonstrate competencies of “confident humility” and mental agility to generate organisational psychological safety.

In the last newsletter, I somehow messed up the link to a study on psychological safety in Agile contexts, so here it is again, with the right link this time!

great student thesis from the University of Twente in The Netherlands, by Aninka Spekle. The effect of Product Owner (a role in Agile teams) behaviour on the observed versus perceived psychological safety of Agile team members. Measurement of psychological safety was via examining the below factors from video recordings of sprint retrospectives and other Agile ceremonies:

  • Voice behaviours
  • Defensive Voice behaviours
  • Silence Behaviours (non-verbal)
  • Defensive Silence behaviours (non-verbal)
  • Collaboration behaviours
  • Unsupportive behaviours
  • Learning & Improvement Oriented behaviours
  • Familiarity behaviours
  • Neutral behaviours

The research, unsurprisingly, showed the importance of the behaviour of Product Owners in its impact on team psychological safety, and the resultant effectiveness of Agile ceremonies such as retrospectives.

Things to do and try: It would seem that the psychological safety newsletter is rapidly becoming a Ruchika Tulshyan fan newsletter, which can only be a good thing! Here’s a great article that Ruchika has written about how to “make room and get out of the way“, by, if you possess some form of privilege, using that privilege for good. The article highlights Marilyn Monroe and how she supported Ella Fitzgerald by using her influence to get Ella booked at the well-known Hollywood jazz club “Mocambo” – where she was unlikely to get booked on her own merit due to her being a black woman and not “glamorous enough” to perform there. Notably, Monroe sat in the audience, conscious to not overshadow Fitzgerald and her performance.

This is a great example of sharing your privilege to raise others up, and is examined more closely in chapter 4 of Ruchika’s book “Inclusion On Purpose”, which I received this week and is absolutely superb!

I love this piece from Alison Reynolds and David Lewis in HBR back in 2018 about the traits of the best problem solving teams: cognitive diversity and psychological safety. Cognitive diversity encourages collaboration, identifying problems, applying information, maintaining discipline, breaking rules, and inventing new approaches. But it requires psychological safety in order to be effective.

This is an interesting piece by Patrick Kua, who suggests that the typical “two track” career ladder in the tech industry isn’t sufficient. He presents the “Trident” career model, which splits management, Individual Contributor, and Technical Leadership into three strands. I like this, as it allows for progression either into people, strategy and decision making, technical leadership through architecture and engineering, or specialism in a particular technical domain. As Patrick points out, all models are wrong and some are useful, and this is an oversimplification (I also wonder where “product” leadership fits in), but this is certainly a big improvement on the usual dual-track (or even single track) promotion model that many organisations adopt.

This week’s poem:
Rather than a poem this week, this is an excerpt from one of my favourite books, “Fup” by Jim Dodge:

“He wasn’t the least bit disturbed that his intuition was wrong: intuition often missed, sometimes spectacularly, but when it connected it saved so much time that the spirit leaped forward … and, of course, there was no use denying the basic human delight in being right the first time.”

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