Psychological Safety 60: Conflict and Holding Environments

Training, Workshops, Exercises and Tools

Psychological Safety 60: Conflict and Holding Environments

Photo by Afif Kusuma on Unsplash

Welcome to the psychological safety newsletter and thanks for subscribing. You are amazing. This week discusses Conflict, Holding Environments and High Performance Sport.

If you enjoy reading this newsletter, please share it via your social networks and/or forward it to other people who may appreciate it! To view this newsletter and previous issues online, head to

Kimberly Young-McLear PhD

The psychological safety online meetup is back! This time on the 9th of June at 7pm UK time. We have a fantastic speaker lined up – the incredible Kimberly Young-McLear PhD, who is going to present about diversity in the field of psychological safety.Register 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.

Many organisations today are stuck using ways of working from a bygone age. In this article, Sophie Weston, Principal at Conflux, takes a look at why knowledge work needs a new approach in which psychological safety is a key ingredient.

News, Research, and Opinion
I’ve been hearing the word “Conflict” a lot recently. 

Usually, conflict is a result of our different perspectives, value sets, experience and expertise that means we hold different views on something, or we have misaligned goals and incentives. We should remember that conflicts aren’t necessarily bad. Conflict often means that two or more people disagree about something important enough to care strongly about; this type of conflict, well managed, can be a strong force for improvement and change. This is also why I prefer not to use the term “conflict” when we actually mean “war”, such as in Ukraine right now. The results of conflict can be positive; the results of war are death and destruction.

Psychological safety is not the absence of conflict: it is the ability to constructively handle conflict in an interpersonally safe way.

Here’s a good article by Crystal Williams-Brown at Thoughtbot about how to handle conflicts in the workplace, called “Agreeably Disagreeing”.

This is a great article, however, I’m not sure I completely agree that “no one is right or wrong” (and here’s where I’m bringing a conflict) – I absolutely agree that the power of finding common agreement is one of our most powerful tools in reaching consensus and resolving conflict. However, in many cases, conflict arises because one party is simply not aware of the harm that their actions or beliefs are causing to another. There isn’t any blame to be placed – none of us are omniscient enough to fully comprehend how our actions impact the world – but it can be difficult to kindly make people aware of the harm their stance is causing. We may react with disbelief, anger, or sadness when told that our approach causes harm, especially if our intentions were good. None of us want to be the baddie in our own story!

Here is a fantastic paper from 2006 by Amy Edmondson and Diana McLain Smith about conflict in the workplace, highlighting conflict centred around “hot” and “cool” topics. Sorry, the paper isn’t open access, but I can share the main tables from the paper below.

Some researchers suggest that framing conflict as “relationship conflict” or “task conflict” helps us address how to resolve them, but it’s rarely as simple as that in practice. In the real world, even task conflict can be a “hot topic” if their is a high degree of uncertainty or the stakes are particularly high. Also, conflict is messy and complex, and I believe that reductionist attempts to rationalise a procedure or framework that treats all conflicts in the same way will fail, or cause even more damage. We can’t “playbook” our way out of interpersonal conflict.

To deal with this, Edmondson and McLainSmith describe how to adopt “cooling systems” at the individual, team, and organisational levels, which can help to de-escalate conflicts from hot to cool. Here’s a great table from the paper above that describe the behaviours and outcomes at different interpersonal scales:

This article by John Dobbin about last year’s problems at Basecamp highlights similar points about “cooling down” conflicts: “The leader’s job was simply to contain it, to let it run its course. If things got too hot, they could try to cool it down by directing employee’s attention to higher principles, saying something like “let’s remember to be civil”, for example.

John also introduces the concept of a “holding environment“, first coined by Donald Winnicott in 1973, which originally refers to the safe holding of a baby by their mother, but extends to “the continuation of reliable holding in terms of the ever-widening circle of family and school and social life.” We can think of the holding environment in the workplace as “any relationship in which one party has the power to hold the attention of another party and facilitate adaptive work“(Heifetz, Ronald A. 1994. Leadership without easy answers. And I really like this definition by William Kahn (he of psychological safety work in the 1990’s): “Holding environments are interpersonal or group-based relationships that enable self-reliant workers to manage situations that trigger potentially debilitating anxiety.” – from Holding Environments at Work, 2001. (Sorry, not open access).

When we’re facilitating workshops, chairing meetings, managing a team or leading an organisation, part of what we’re doing is creating a holding environment, and I believe that an essential component of any holding environment is psychological safety – for how can we facilitate adaptive work without psychological safety? As John describes at Basecamp, leadership abruptly destroyed that holding environment, leaving employees feeling abandoned, and paid the price for it. I understand things have much improved now, so if you’re at Basecamp, I’m really interested to hear from you about your experiences.

Here’s a really interesting paper about psychological safety in High Performance Sports: “Psychological Safety in High-Performance Sport: Contextually Applicable?” by Jamie TaylorDave Collins, and Michael Ashford. What the authors are stating is that they feel that whilst the applicability of psychological safety to “knowledge work” and safety critical domains is well established, there is less evidence to demonstrate its effect in mediating performance in sport. Personally, I feel there’s quite a lot of evidence in favour of psychological safety mediating performance in sport, but I understand their concern that not all dimensions of psychological safety are transferable or applicable in the high performance sport context.

The authors make a valid point (which I should say is also made in nearly all robust psychological safety research) that psychological safety is not enough on its own to drive performance. They highlight Implicit Voice Theory, role clarity, and positive conflict as contributing (if not essential) elements necessary for performance.

Here’s a quote from the paper: “For instance, in a time where all of HP sport is more aware of athlete welfare concerns, if athletes are told that PS is an essential feature of their experience, how does the coach manage selection or essential challenge? Additionally, how does the athlete respond when they are judged for their performance? And, if a lack of PS is a performance enhancer, how is this approached?

I’m really interested in your views. Could a lack of psychological safety be a performance enhancer in some contexts? If we adopt the now essentially canonical definition of “Psychological safety is a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes,” – how could a fear of interpersonal consequence for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes increase performance in sport, and how?

Psychological Safety In the Workplace: 

Being a bit of a geek in various realms from tech and engineering, psychology, safety culture, and complex systems, detailed incident analyses are some of my favourite things to read! This Post Incident Review from Atlassian about a recent outage is an excellent example of their “Open company, no bullshit” values, and a blameless (or even better, blame aware) engineering culture.

This is a great example of an engineering incident review that encompasses the technical and the sociological aspects of an incident in comprehensive and objective fashion. The review raises improvements to technology robustness and process both in response to the causes of the incident itself, and learning from the recovery process as well. Playbooks form part of this improvement strategy, which is good, but I’m conscious that (as per most Safety I approaches), over reliance on playbooks and processes to deal with unanticipated events can actually make systems more brittle – and less resilient as a result.  

Things to do and try:
This is amazing! The Big Book of Conflict Resolution Games by Mary ScannellGames can reveal real conflict—along with emotions, personalities, misunderstandings, and reactions. Through games, the team experiences conflict in a safe environment. Competent facilitation is key, and this book contains around 60 different games all designed to: (1) understand conflict, (2) improve communication, (3) value diversity, (4) build trust, (5) provide perspective, (6) raise EQ (emotional intelligence), and (7) foster collaboration. I’m going to be drawing on these games heavily, and I hope you find them useful too!

Recent events in the US have impacted, and may significantly impact further, access to reproductive healthcareStacey Nordwall, Head of Employee Experience at Pyn, created a policy to support Pyn’s employees who may need access to reproductive healthcare and support, and has shared it in a copy-able Google Doc if you’re hoping to create (or influence the creation of) a similar policy. 

P.S. This week I was delivering workshops in Stockholm, and managed to find the time to go and visit the Vasa Museum, and see the astonishing warship that made it only 1500 metres before sinking on its maiden voyage, which we discussed in issue 58. And I saw a double rainbow across the harbour 🌈 🌈
The Vasa museum and Stockholm

This week’s poem:

Reasons to Live Through the Apocalypse, by Nikita Gill

Sunrises. People you have still to meet and laugh with. Songs about love, peace, anger, and revolution. Walks in the woods. The smile you exchange with a stranger when you experience beauty accidentally together. Butterflies. Seeing your grandparents again. the moon in all her forms, whether half or full. Dogs. Birthdays and half-birthdays. That feeling of floating in love. Watching birds eat from bird feeders. The waves of happiness that follow the end of sadness. Brown eyes. Watching a boat cross an empty sea. Sunsets. Dipping your feet in the river. Balconies. Cake. The wind in your face when you roll the car window down an open highway. Falling asleep to the sound of a steady heartbeat. Warm cups of tea on cold days. Hugs. Night skies. Art museums. Books filled with everything you do not yet know. Long conversations. Long-lost friends. Poetry.

Sign Up to the Psychological Safety Newsletter & Get A Free Poster Pack

Receive weekly updates of interesting content on psychological safety, leadership and high performance teams across all domains, from technology and business to healthcare and sports teams.

You can change your mind at any time by clicking the unsubscribe link in the footer or by contacting **Data Rights are Human Rights: We will treat your information with respect.**
Spread the love