Decision-making in a Psychologically Safe Environment

Francesco Strazzullo interviews Erin Casali

What do psychological safety and decision-making have in common? What is their common ground? In a nutshell, you can't make good decisions if your environment is not psychologically safe, as simple as that.
Francesco Strazzullo interviews Erin Casali in his book Decision-making for Software Development Teams—published by Avanscoperta.
Erin has extensive experience leading and managing people, applying a transdisciplinary approach to the challenging-yet-intriguing intersection between tech, people, psychology, and an always-increasingly uncertain work environment.

Francesco: Hi Erin!

Erin: Hello hello!

Francesco: Before starting our interview, would you mind telling our readers something about yourself?

Erin: I’m currently Product Design Director for EMEA in Xero, a global accounting software platform for small businesses. I’ve previously worked as VP of Product Design for Jetpack, one of the brands of Automattic—creators of WordPress·com, Tumblr, and a few other products.
However, I always find titles to be restrictive, so I feel it’s more useful to know that in my work I have a transdisciplinary approach, blending together different areas such as design, product, business, technology, psychology and more.
I’ve been managing teams for about 14 years now, and I’m passionate about organization design.

Francesco: In the first chapter of my new book I explained how psychological safety is a prerequisite to growing as a decision-maker. What does it mean for a workplace to be “safe” from a psychological point of view?

Erin: The simple definition here is that, in a psychological sense, a safe space is a context where people can be themselves, make mistakes, and be vulnerable. In this case, the word "safe" doesn’t mean to be comfortable, or at ease. Quite the opposite: it means things can be rough at times, yet they can be worked through together.
Of course, within organizations there are some areas where this can’t and shouldn’t go—it’s not therapy—but still this is the general foundation. This means that people work together in a way that is able to welcome their ideas and allows them to work openly while backing them up, and helping them grow.
All of this while knowing that disagreements, errors, and issues can happen, and there are positive and constructive ways to deal with them.
In one word, "safe" means people can trust the organization and the team.

Francesco: How can psychological safety, or the lack of it, influence decisions made by an organization?

Erin: Psychological safety is a prerequisite for decisions. There are many major negative impacts of organizations that aren’t psychologically safe.

Transparency becomes something people fear instead of welcome. When people don’t feel safe, they share less, communicate less, and keep information for themselves.
While this could be manipulative behavior from certain people, in unsafe scenarios this happens ordinarily from everyone because they worry that what they share could be used against them.
Communication is oxygen, especially for decisions: lacking this, it means people won’t have all the information they could have to make good decisions.

Collaboration suffers. In unsafe situations, it always becomes a question of whom to trust and whom not to trust. Which means people are less keen to work together, and less able to share successes.
As a consequence, the likelihood of good decisions decreases.

Ownership is something people shy away from. Being an owner in an unsafe environment translates to people who don't like to take charge and be responsible, because they have seen how people are treated when they fail.
And without clear ownership, decisions take longer to happen, because nobody drives them forward.

Daring ideas aren’t proposed anymore. When psychological safety is lacking, people's brains aren’t open to try new things, find new connections, and identify possible new futures.

Creativity suffers, which means that ideas tend to be more conventional, usually just a repetition of what came before because that feels “safe”.

Criticizing the status quo becomes impossible. This is something not immediately visible, but will show up in the medium-to-long term: the organization will not evolve, and it won’t adapt to the changing challenges of the product, clients, and market.
This will also have a drag effect on every decision, effectively keeping the company in the past.

Diversity suffers. Unsafe spaces, repeating old decisions, unable to evolve from their status quo, will also make the company unable to hire a more diverse workforce, thus losing out awareness, creativity, richness of perspectives, and much more.
The outcome is that decisions will stay and conform to “this is how we always did things”.

All of these of course happen on a spectrum: the more unsafe a place is, the more the negative effects listed above will damage the organization's effectiveness.

Francesco: Are there some easy-to-spot “red flags” to understand that a workplace is not safe?

Erin: These are generally derivative of the points just mentioned. The easiest red flags to spot are probably two.

One is the lack of clear ownership. Who owns tasks? Who owns projects? Are they clearly in charge? Lack of ownership is usually easier to spot just by asking a few questions, especially in the most problematic companies.

One is the lack of transparency. Is it easy to find information? Is it accessible? Do people default to communicate openly and publicly? If too much is happening behind closed doors, within teams, with little communication outside, this should be fairly easy to spot.

Of course none of these red flags are a sure indication of an organization lacking psychological safety—there might be other reasons, like an organization that tries to give credit to everyone, or some issues with its communication channels—but these are surely flags that in some instances can point to it.

We should also mention in this area that there are a lot of collateral aspects that will help create an unsafe organization, even if they aren’t strictly about psychological safety itself.
For example, an organization that has poor working hours balance will directly impact the wellbeing of people, making their trust decrease. As trust is a key element of psychological safety, there’s a negative effect on that too.

Francesco: What can you do if your workplace isn’t safe?

Erin: I think it’s important to acknowledge this is not a black/white scenario, but it’s a spectrum, as with all human things. There’s no such thing as a 100% safe workplace as well as there isn’t a 100% unsafe workplace.

If it’s extremely unsafe, the only real answer if possible is: get out. These kinds of organizations are going to attract the same kind of toxic people their culture calls for, which means that in most cases they are just going to end up badly: either fail, or get cleverly acquired by an unsuspecting organization, or they keep finding money to "reinvent" themselves.
Either way, none is a good scenario, even if being acquired by a good company could be an escape route.

If it’s not possible to get out due to personal life circumstances, the most important thing to do is to preserve your individual wellbeing and mental health. Compartmentalize work and focus on what’s in your control, maybe look to switch in a team that has been able to protect themselves from the rest of the organization—often due to a good manager.

For organizations that aren’t that bad, of course there’s another way: work to help the organization change. This often requires identifying what are the primary fears of people, and seeing what can be changed to help them feel better.
There are multiple avenues for this, as no organization is like any other. It could start at a personal level, by helping the manager to up-skill and get better at managing people. But it should also happen at an organizational level, by changing processes and allowing for more open discussions to happen—and mistakes being made.

Francesco: What should be put in place to ensure that psychological safety is assured?

Erin: I don’t think psychological safety can be assured. It can only be taken care of, and improve as much as possible over time. This is important to acknowledge to avoid setting ourselves to impossible goals—and in the principles of psychological safety itself, also to allow us to make mistakes.

There are two levels here that I personally consider relevant:

  1. Managers level
  2. System level

At the managers level: there will always be good managers, and bad managers. And between bad managers, there are the ones that are so because they are unskilled or inexperienced, and the ones that are so because they aren’t really interested in management (a whole other topic).
This means it’s important to identify the seconds and help them out or reposition them in non-management positions, while at the same time putting in place learning and coaching for the first to improve. This will also effectively support the ones that are good already by creating shared practices.

At the system level: there needs to be first and foremost a change in culture by embracing the fact that mistakes happen, and people need to be supported in this. A good rule to remember is that all mistakes are systemic mistakes—if someone forgets a step, ships something with mistakes, or else, it means that the organization was lacking, not the individual that was the final actor.
While there are of course exceptions as some people aren’t a good fit for a specific organization, approaching everything with a system-first perspective will help build a structural level of trust that will bring the right people onboard and help them grow.

It’s also possible that the culture is formally onboard, but unable to deliver. In this case it’s important to do some internal research and identify which are the fears people are having that make them unable to represent the stated company values.

It’s also clear that the systemic level and the managers level aren’t separate. All good change will impact both. It’s just a useful way to frame what I consider the two main levers for change.

Photo by Garrett Sears on Unsplash.

Learn with Francesco Strazzullo

Francesco is the trainer of Decision-making for Software Development Teams Workshop and author of the book Decision-making for Software Development Teams (published by Avanscoperta and available on Leanpub).

Check out the full list of our upcoming training courses: Avanscoperta Workshops.

Francesco Strazzullo

Francesco is a web developer with a focus on Javascript and on the frontend and mobile apps development.

Erin Casali

Sr Director of Product Design EMEA @ Xero.

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