Psychological Safety #25: Toxic Workplaces

Training, Workshops, Exercises and Tools

Psychological Safety #25: Toxic Workplaces

everything is an experiment psychological safety sticker

This week we have company culture at Netflix and Twitter, Toxic Workplaces, Game Theory and The Improvement Method Olympics!

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Psychological Safety In the Workplace:
 This is a really interesting and thought provoking piece by Howard Seidel about transparency in organisations (on this occasion, Netflix) and psychological safety. Does “radical” transparency enhance or damage psychological safety, or do we need a degree of privacy in order to “vent” sometimes?

From Netflix to Twitterin this piece by Kate Conger at The New York Times she describes what happened when Dantley Davis joined Twitter as VP of Design in 2019. According to the article, Davis stated that “Twitter was too nice”, and that the overly “kind” atmosphere in the organisation stifled honest feedback. Opinion appears to be split as to whether this approach ultimately will benefit the culture and performance of the organisation or damage it along with broader psychological safety of its people.

And if you’ve been in, or left, a toxic workplacethis article by Anne Branigin might resonate. I’ve personally worked at, and left, a toxic workplace and I can empathise with the longer-term effects on confidence and self-esteem that result. This article rightfully points out that this toxicity in workplaces typically affects some people more: those who are underrepresented or marginalised, including women, people of colour, people from the LGBTQ community, and people with disabilities. Crucially, Anne makes the point that not many managers actually go through any real training in coaching, empathy, or psychological safety, and they absolutely should.

This is an excellent article by John Looney (@john_p_looney) about Psychological Safety in (Tech) Operation Teams. He uses the fictional case of a new engineer on a team to show how even small interactions can build or destroy psychological safety, and the resultant effects of that. Really worth a a read.

Psychological Safety Theory, Research and Opinion:
 Really interesting research here by Kristen Toohill at William James College, Northeastern University, “Gamers Don’t Die, They Respawn” – about psychological safety and gamers: The gamers “magic circle” is a psychologically safe space that is entered into by the players in which failure and learning is expected. The theory is that this increase in general psychological safety hypothetically leads to greater specific epistemic curiosity behaviours at work, which in turn leads to increased creativity or innovation.

I like this Tweet from Bernd Schiffer, Agile coach, about making explicit the difference between estimates and commitments. We should make it easier and safer for people to suggest estimates and provide forecasts without worrying that they will be held to them as “deadlines”. 

I came across this quite a while ago in Atul Gawande’s “Better” book (which is excellent and well worth a read). Patients admitted for acute cardiovascular conditions whilst surgeons are away at a conference (and thus cannot operate) actually have slightly better outcomes than those admitted whilst surgeons are in the hospitalSometimes it is better to do nothing and wait, rather than act. I suspect that the psychological safety required to restrain from doing the thing you’re paid to do is rather high, especially in high-consequence environments. If someone dies, are you more comfortable saying “We did the best we could.” or “We thought the best thing to do was to wait and see”?

Relevant to the toxic culture pieces above, this tweet from John Cutler is an excellent summary of the traits and impacts of toxic leaders, and how the behaviour perpetuates and even amplifies itself in organisations. 

The State of DevOps Report 2021 came out recently, and yet again emphasised the importance of culture, and specifically psychological safety, to digital and organisational transformation. I’ve summarised the report here, or you can read the entire report here (registration required).

Things to do and try:

This is a superb online exercise on Game Theory and Trust from Nicky Case, who also has a bunch of other awesome stuff on their website. This is a great interactive learning resource, and a lot of my colleagues tried it out this week and learned a lot about Game Theory and Trust (plus it’s good fun!).

I often suggest to managers and leaders that they “break the golden rule” (treating others how *you* want to be treated) and instead learn how others want to be treated. A great way of doing this is with the use of personal “README” files, or what Monzo call a “Working with me” doc. Here’s a great list of examples of Manager “readme’s”.

Helen Bevan, Chief Transformation Officer at the NHS Horizons, has been running the Improvement Method Olympics on Twitter, and it is brilliant. Go and check out all the awesome practices, frameworks and methods that have been voted on, and get to see which one wins in the final!

This week’s poem:

I Do Not Believe, by Afghan poet Elyas Alavi.

My beloved if
Death be here for you
Let it be in tuberculosis’ form
Or the form of bitter cold,
Not as prey of suicide bombing.

You should have the time
To review your memories,
To review the particulars of your body,
To make plans for your departure.
Not to depart the house on your feet
And we only find your shoes in the bazaar.
Not to ever find your hands or your smile.
Never to locate your eyes.

With my own eyes I ought to
Witness your death, your final breath.
My fingers should touch your eyelids to close.
Otherwise, no one will believe it, forever 
I myself will not believe it.

Listen to Elyas read I Do Not Believe in his beautiful Afghan Persian.


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