Psychological safety, homogeneity and diversity in group contexts.

Psychological safety stems in large part from a shared set of group values, norms, and experiences. When we’re in a group that shares the same perspectives, life experiences, language and culture, we feel safer and more able to listen, contribute, admit mistakes and challenge the ideas of others.

Think about tribalism – which is sometimes framed as a negative, but can be extremely powerful for good and for bad. Football fans who all passionately support the same team, are an incredible support group and safe space for many people. But of course there can be a dark side to the same phenomenon, as manifested by football hooliganism and violence, whereby outgroup members are seen as “The Other” and thus either a threat, or a group to be dominated or beaten.

Being part of a “tribe”, a group of similar people (similar in whatever way brings that tribe together, whether it’s a football club or a sexuality) brings with it a sense of belonging and safety.

Groups of people who are more similar, who have similar life experiences, language, values, and expectations (of each other and of themselves) will find it easier to attain higher levels of psychological safety because they understand more implicitly whats expected, what behaviour is accepted and “good”, and feel less fear from other members of the group

This is why it’s useful to have “safe spaces” where people, for example, LGBTQ+, or people of colour, can talk openly about the things they’re dealing with. Having people in the group without that life experience can make psychological safety harder to attain – but not impossible. This applies not just to those who we’d typically view as disadvantaged or disenfranchised in some way – we are all somewhere on the myriad spectrum of intersectionality.

For example, I, as a white, english speaking man, may feel very safe in a very heterogenous group of different genders, ethnicities and languages by dint of the privilege as a white man that I’m lucky to benefit from – but if I was in a group that also consists of various Elon Musks and Jeff Bezos characters, I’m probably going to feel very psychologically unsafe, and I’d be highly unlikely to speak up, admit mistakes, and certainly not challenge the ideas of others in the group.

Creating a homogenous group, whether it’s of gender, sexuality, class, colour or background is a shortcut, a cheat code, for psychological safety.

But ultimately, homogeneous groups will never attain the performance level that a highly diverse, heterogenous group will. Diversity brings different experiences, knowledge, insights, that increase the ultimate capability of the group to do the thing they’re trying to do – whether that’s build a product or run a country.

So, whilst a homogenous group can be an effective way to increase, quickly, the psychological safety of a group, it is just a shortcut. It’s not a reason to suggest that we should create homogenous teams – and certainly not an argument to segregate society, if one was that way inclined.

Diversity arguably does make psychological safety harder to attain, because there isn’t as much of a set of inherent shared group norms, beliefs and experiences. However, that “weakness” is also a strength. By working on creating those group norms, values and behaviours, a more diverse group can reach far higher potential than a less diverse, more homogenous group – through exploiting that wide spectrum of experiences, knowledge and insights.

Resilience Engineering, DevOps, and Psychological Safety – resources

With thanks to Liam Gulliver and the folks at DevOps Notts, I gave a talk recently on Resilience Engineering, DevOps, and Psychological Safety.

It’s pretty content-rich, and here are all the resources I referenced in the talk, along with the talk itself, and the slide deck. Please get in touch if you would like to discuss anything mentioned, or you have a meetup or conference that you’d like me to contribute to!

Red Hat Open Innovation Labs

https://www.redhat.com/en/services/consulting/open-innovation-labs

Open Practice Library

https://openpracticelibrary.com/

Resilience Engineering and DevOps slide deck  

https://docs.google.com/presentation/d/1VrGl8WkmLn_gZzHGKowQRonT_V2nqTsAZbVbBP_5bmU/edit?usp=sharing

Resilience engineering – Where do I start?

Resilience engineering: Where do I start?

Turn the ship around by David Marquet

Lorin Hochstein and Resilience Engineering fundamentals 

https://github.com/lorin/resilience-engineering/blob/master/intro.md

 

Scott Sagan, The Limits of Safety:
“The Limits of Safety: Organizations, Accidents, and Nuclear Weapons”, Scott D. Sagan, Princeton University Press, 1993.

 

Sidney Dekker: “The Field Guide To Understanding Human Error: Sidney Dekker, 2014

 

John Allspaw: “Resilience Engineering: The What and How”, DevOpsDays 2019.

https://devopsdays.org/events/2019-washington-dc/program/john-allspaw/

 

Erik Hollnagel: Resilience Engineering 

https://erikhollnagel.com/ideas/resilience-engineering.html

 

Cynefin

Home

 

Jabe Bloom, The Three Economies

The Three Economies an Introduction

 

Resilience vs Efficiency

Efficiency vs. Resiliency: Who Won The Bout?

 

Tarcisio Abreu Saurin – Resilience requires Slack

Slack: a key enabler of resilient performance

 

Resilience engineering and DevOps – a deeper dive

Resilience Engineering and DevOps – A Deeper Dive

 

Symposium with John Willis, Gene Kim, Dr Sidney Dekker, Dr Steven Pear, and Dr Richard Cook: Safety Culture, Lean, and DevOps

 

Approaches for resilience and antifragility in collaborative business ecosystems: Javaneh Ramezani Luis, M. Camarinha-Matos:

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0040162519304494

 

Learning organisations:
Garvin, D.A., Edmondson, A.C. and Gino, F., 2008. Is yours a learning organization?. Harvard business review, 86(3), p.109.
https://teamtopologies.com/book
https://www.psychsafety.co.uk/cognitive-load-and-psychological-safety/

 

Psychological safety: Edmondson, A., 1999. Psychological safety and learning behavior in work teams. Administrative science quarterly, 44(2), pp.350-383.

The four stages of psychological safety, Timothy R. Clarke (2020)

Measuring psychological safety:

 

And of course the youtube video of the talk:

Please get in touch if you’d like to find out more.

Remote Working – What Have We Learned From 2020?

Remote working improves productivity.

Even way back in 2014, evidence showed that remote working enables employees to be more productive and take fewer sick days, and saves money for the organisation.  The rabbit is out of the hat: remote working works, and it has obvious benefits.

Source: Forbes Global Workplace Analytics 2020

More and more organisations are adopting remote-first or fully remote practices, such as Zapier:

“It’s a better way to work. It allows us to hire smart people no matter where in the world, and it gives those people hours back in their day to spend with friends and family. We save money on office space and all the hassles that comes with that. A lot of people are more productive in remote setting, though it does require some more discipline too.”

We know, through empirical studies and longitudinal evidence such as Google’s Project Aristotle that colocation of teams is not a factor in driving performance. Remote teams perform as well as, if not better than colocated teams, if provided with appropriate tools and leadership.

Teams that are already used to more flexible, lightweight or agile approaches adapt adapt to a high performing and fully remote model even more easily than traditional teams.

The opportunity to work remotely, more flexibly, and save on time spent commuting helps to improve the lives of people with caring, parenting or other commitments too. Whilst some parents are undoubtedly keen to get into the office and away from the distractions of home schooling, the ability to choose remote and more flexible work patterns is a game changer for some, and many are actually considering refusing to go back to the old ways.

What works for some, doesn’t work for others, and it will change for all of us over time, as our circumstances change. But having that choice is critical.

However, remote working is still (even now in 2020 with the effects of Covid and lockdowns) something that is “allowed” by an organisation and provided to the people that work there as a benefit.

Remote working is now an expectation.

What we are seeing now is that, for employees at least, particularly in technology, design, and other knowledge-economy roles, remote working is no longer a treat, or benefit – just like holiday pay and lunch breaks,  it’s an expectation.

Organisations that adopt and encourage remote working are able to recruit across a wider catchment area, unimpeded by geography, though still somewhat limited by timezones – because we also know that synchronous communication is important.

Remote work is also good for the economy, and for equality across geographies. Remote work is closing the wage gap between areas of the US and will likely have the same effect on the North-South divide in the UK. This means London firms can recruit top talent outside the South-East, and people in typically less affluent areas can find well paying work without moving away.

But that view isn’t shared by many organisations.

However, whilst employees are increasingly seeing remote working as an expectation rather than a benefit, many organisations, via pressure from command-control managers, difficulties in onboarding, process-oriented HR teams, or simply the most dangerous phrase in the English language: because “we’ve always done it this way“, possess a desire to bring employees back into the office, where they can see them.

Indeed, often by the managers of that organisation, remote working may be seen as an exclusive benefit and an opportunity to slack off. The Taylorist approach to management is still going strong, it appears.

People are adopting remote faster than organisations.

In 1962, Everett Rogers came up with the principle he called “Diffusion of innovation“.

It describes the adoption of new ideas and products over time as a bell curve, and categorises groups of people along its length as innovators, early adopters, early majority, late majority, and laggards. Spawned in the days of rapidly advancing agricultural technology, it was easy (and interesting) to study the adoption of new technologies such as hybrid seeds, equipment and methods.

 

Some organisations are even suggesting that remote workers could be paid less, since they no longer pay for their commute (in terms of costs and in time), but I believe the converse may become true – that firms who request regular attendance at the office will need to pay more to make up for it. As an employee, how much do you value your free time?

It seems that many people are further along Rogers’ adoption curve than the organisations they work for.

There are benefits of being in the office.

Of course, it’s important to recognise that there are benefits of being colocated in an office environment. Some types of work simply don’t suit it. Some people don’t have a suitable home environment to work from. Sometimes people need to work on a physical product or collaborate and use tools and equipment in person. Much of the time, people just want to be in the same room as their colleagues – what Tom Cheesewright calls “The unbeatable bandwidth of being there.”

But is that benefit worth the cost? An average commute is 59 minutes, which totals nearly 40 hours per month, per employee. For a team of twenty people, is 800 hours per month worth the benefit of being colocated? What would you pay to obtain an extra 800 hours of time for your team in a single month?

The question is one of motivation: are we empowering our team members to choose where they want to work and how they best provide value, or are we to revert to the Taylorist principles where “the manager knows best”? In Taylors words: “All we want of them is to obey the orders we give them, do what we say, and do it quick.

We must use this as a learning opportunity.

Whilst 2020 has been a massive challenge for all of us, it’s also taught us a great deal, about change, about people and about the future of work. The worst thing that companies can do is ignore what they have learned about their workforce and how they like to operate. We must not mindlessly drift back to the old ways.

We know that remote working is more productive, but there are many shades of remoteness, and it takes strong leadership, management effort, good tools, and effective, high-cadence communication to really do it well.

There is no need for a binary choice: there is no one-size-fits-all for office-based or remote work. There are infinite operating models available to us, and the best we can do to prepare for the future of work is simply to be endlessly adaptable.