A short critique of “Engineering a culture of psychological safety”



It’s a really interesting article and like many ‘tech’ articles that look at psychological, sociological or cultural issues, it updates and interprets existing theories and understanding, into a new context.

It mentions Imposter Syndrome specifically, which has been widely discussed in our own consulting organisation, especially among the senior technical staff.  That the imaginary staff member Karen, ‘developed’ imposter syndrome is unlikely; it will be more likely that she and others in the team are either in situations on a regular basis, so that this became part of their working life, or that she had always had this sense of inadequacy.  Architects and Consultants, especially those who work on bleeding edge solutions (technology and their use cases) are likely to sense Imposter Syndrome though the situation they regularly find themselves in (more knowledgeable customers, inadequate technology for example), and the personalities of these people make them more or less susceptible to it.

However, is making the environment ‘safer’ what is really needed ? Real life and the real world isn’t safe ?

Yes you are create an environment that will encourage contribution, freedom of speech and a greater dialogue. However, the danger of ‘safe’, non-confrontational environments is that there is no criticism and no confrontation, which would you would normally expect to shape thought and discussion.  Being critical isn’t being negative per se, but analysing the theories and comments closely.   Design Thinking and Ideation are both approaches that rely on positive, safe environments for the generation of creative thought, however the “only positive” approach is also now seen as flawed.   The ‘right-brained’ creative types will dominate these safe environments, as they would one that might not be so safe, in that an element of confrontation exists.

However safe an environment might be, an individuals mood or current level thought might one that means they are not going to contribute. Whilst I am usually vociferous and can hold my own in a group session, there have been times (including one recently) where I make a conscious decision to step back from dialogue and involvement.  This includes those environments where it is too artifically safe.  Too much clapping.  One of the concerns I have around ‘safe’ environments is that supports rationalist thinking and behaviour.

You will get affirmative thought, with people eager to support proposed ideas, potentially without the level of diligence needed.  Detractors from these proposals won’t be seen as contributing or influencing in the right way.  Whilst positive energy is good, this can result in a false sense of achievement and a lack of focus on outcomes and objectives.

Rationalism does result in greater efficiencies from people,  through the application of logically reasoning and deduction of what might be normally seen softer, emperical issues (such as culture, change and organisation).  There’s more research needed into if this functional behaviour from developers and engineers, when coupled with fully-automated technology,  results in a better solution.  Yes, more code might have been produced and it might have a greater set functions originally requested from the business, but are people happy with the result and was the development experience satisfying. Do you lose the softer benefits ?

For somewhere like Red Hat, which thrives on criticism, comment and detractors,  (much quoted in The Open Organisation ) then it might be argued that it’s the lack of a safe environment which nurtures the right people to produce the best products.

I’d hope that any leader or manager would find a way to get the right level and commitment from the team by creating an environment that allowed the individual to think clearly and articulate this. Safe environments may encourage contribution, but this might be at the expense of thought.

“People demand freedom of speech as a compensation for the freedom of thought which they seldom use.” [1]

Encouraging contribution without fear or retribution is key, but it should not be without the expectation of criticism.


[1] Soren Kierkegaard