Psychological Safety #30: The Toxic Triangle

Training, Workshops, Exercises and Tools

Psychological Safety #30: The Toxic Triangle

epidemiological triangle

Welcome to the psychological safety newsletter and thanks for subscribing. You are awesome. This week we’ve got some great stuff about the Toxic Triangle, Neurodiversity in TTRPGs, teaching PE, employee surveillance, and 15/5 reports.

Enjoy, and have a great day!

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Psychological Safety In the Workplace:

I’m interested in your thoughts on this: how does employee surveillance impact psychological safety? My instinct tells me that any degree of overt or covert surveillance is likely to be harmful, both to psychological safety and to fundamental employee wellbeing. Additionally it’s a rather Taylorist approach to management which is intended to increase productivity, but actually results in negative outcomes – as is so often the case with such approaches.

This is an excellent piece about the practise of teaching Physical Education, and how providing a psychologically safe space for children to explore physical activity not only encourages them to simply get involved, but facilitates more effective learning and improvement. “How can a willingness to have a go, perform and learn occur if children are frightened to do so? How can delight, enjoyment and flourishing through movement happen if all I do is try to manage their behaviour?

Are you Deming or Drucker? Do you take a systems approach to work and organisations, or manage by objective? This article is a good read on that subject, and whilst there are a few slight inaccuracies, and it presents somewhat of a false dichotomy (there are valuable lessons from both approaches), it is an interesting way to think about approaches to building psychological safety and performance in organisations.

Psychological Safety Theory, Research and Opinion:

Thanks so much to Gillian Manson for getting in touch and pointing me towards this excellent work by Padilla, Hogan and Kaiser: “The toxic triangle: Destructive leaders, susceptible followers, and conducive environments“. It’s a really useful model of the toxic combination of “Destructive leaders”, “Susceptible followers”, and “Conducive environments”, and reminds me very much of the epidemiological triad, that describes the three necessary components for a disease to occur, and it makes me wonder if that was the inspiration for it. As always, it’s an oversimplification (as are all models), but it makes for a very accessible framework. It also caused me to wonder if there’s an analog of Rothman’s Causal Pies that we could use in describing or modelling the necessary factors for organisational dysfunction.

Rein Heinrichs on Twitter shared this tweet on Tuesday. I agree, and it’s a good thread. I too get frustrated by psychological safety platitudes such as “be inclusive”, “foster a culture of trust”, etc. If it were that easy, every organisation would be a haven of happy, engaged people delivering great value, but that’s clearly not the case. Instead, we need actionable items that apply to the current context. There are common practices applicable to all teams and contexts (such as leaders admitting mistakes, asking questions, and focussing on learning outcomes over productivity), but the most powerful advice is that which applies specifically to the context the team is operating in.

Here’s an interesting open-access chapter by Tessie Herbst on five “shifts” required to navigate disruption and uncertainty – the Awareness shift, the Identity shift, the Mindset shift, the Paradigm shift and lastly the shift from Fear to Psychological Safety.

This is fab: “Neurodiversity, Dungeons, and Dragons: A guide to transforming and enriching TTRPGs for Neurodivergent Adults OR The Neurodivergent Player’s Handbook“. (TTRPG stands for Table Top Role Playing Game – Dungeons and Dragons, for example). Characters’ neurodivergent mechanics allowed players to more explicitly model their experience in the groups’ co-created D&D world. Different TTRPG safety tools establishes boundaries which establish psychological safety that is not typically available to neurodivergent folks in everyday life. Players experienced positive shifts in self-esteem, and practiced transferable self-autonomy skills for potential out-of-game, real life self-advocacy and liberation.

Things to do and try:

I was talking to Chris Baynham-Hughes this week about the above article on Deming vs Drucker, and how my preference is to lean away from objective-based management, and more towards a systematic approach that trusts the people closest to the work to understand and decide how best to do the work. Part of that approach is via a high-cadence, light-touch reporting method called 15/5 reports. You can read my write up of 15/5 Reports in the Open Practice Library, and I genuinely think it’s one of the most powerful management practices in my toolbox, if done well, consistently, and over a long period of time.

This week’s poem:
Milk and Honey, by Rupi Kaur
how is it so easy for you
to be kind to people he asked

milk and honey dripped
from my lips as i answered

cause people have not
been kind to me


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