The Learning Organisation: How to Transform the Tech Industry With Psychological Safety

 

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The annual Stackoverflow questionnaire provides a useful window into the developer community. In 2018 it surveyed everything from favourite platforms and programming languages to gender identification to how much time devs spend outside. In all, more than 100,000 developers shared their experiences.

Some of the most telling results, for me, involved career satisfaction and goals. Interestingsly, the survey showed that while most developers are happy with their career choice, they are in fact less happy with their actual current job — 76% of devs across all tech industries currently working in their first or second job say they are experiencing job dissatisfaction.

Any company interested in retaining engineering staff might do well to pay attention to this statistic. Fortunately, the survey also gives some valuable insight about what is likely driving this dissatisfaction —  which we can turn into actions for improvement.

Insights

The survey answers related to learning and education are particularly interesting and likely key to this lack of satisfaction. Developers are lifelong learners; almost 90% of all developers say they have taught themselves a new language, framework, or tool outside of their formal education or workplace. Many of them also participate in hackathons, contribute to open source projects, or pursue further formal education on their own.

When it comes to looking for a new job, pay is still the major influencing factor — but salary is very closely followed by the specific technologies in use at the hiring company (18.3 vs. 17.3% of 66958 respondents, respectively). Of even more interest: the sixteen percent who report specifically shopping for potential employers who offer professional development.

The numbers are telling us something: to engage and retain a group so committed to lifelong learning, it is imperative that companies in the tech industry become “learning organizations”.

The Competitive Imperative of Learning

Why is a new commitment to learning so essential? Amy Edmondson, a professor of leadership and management at Harvard, suggests that we are undergoing a fundamental shift in how we work. We are moving from an execution-based model, focused on nonstop production delivering stable outcomes, to a knowledge based economy more reliant upon on intellectual capabilities and constant innovation. “The managerial mind-set that enables efficient execution inhibits employees’ ability to learn and innovate,” she writes in the Harvard Business Review. “A focus on getting things done, and done right, crowds out the experimentation and reflection vital to sustainable success.

Under the old “efficient execution” model, the notion of controllable production and controllable employees made for easy monitoring, and measuring, of outcomes and productivity. Managers relied on Freud’s pleasure principle, the instinctive seeking of pleasure and avoidance of pain, to motivate people. This, unfortunately, produced motivation that was driven by fear. In this system, employees operate with a constant undercurrent of anxiety. Failure is not an option; when it does happen, there is punishment. In this system, if you make a mistake best to hide it, pretend it didn’t happen, or if need be blame it on someone else. Owning your mistake will just get you reprimanded or fired.

With the rise of knowledge-based organizations in the information age, though, the old model no longer works for a number of reasons. Once upon a time there were reasonably simple measures of productivity, like hours worked or units produced. In the knowledge economy, though, performance is increasingly represented by less concrete factors. Intelligent experimentation, ingenuity, interpersonal skills, and resilience in the face of adversity are now the less obvious markers we must nonetheless attempt to measure.

Psychological Safety

Google has always sought to optimize its operations, and the company launched the Aristotle Project in an attempt to quantify the qualities of effective vs. unproductive teams. Ultimately the researchers found that what really mattered was not so much who is on a team but how the team works together. Most important in teamwork was the presence of a set of factors known representing psychological safety.

Psychological safety among teams means that the members of the group believe no one will be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, concerns, ideas or mistakes. When psychological safety is present, team members worry less about the potential negative consequences of expressing a new or different idea than they would otherwise. As a result, they speak up more when they feel psychologically safe and are motivated to improve their team or company. Psychological safety differs from trust due to the focus: trust is about the individual, whereas psychological safety arises from the collective group belief.

Indeed, evolutionary biology explains why psychological safety is vital to success in uncertain, interdependent environments. The brain processes a provocation by a boss, competitive coworker, or dismissive subordinate as a life-or-death threat — the same as if they were a sabre toothed tiger about to attack and eat us. This “act first, think later” brain structure shuts down perspective and analytical reasoning in order to direct all resources toward either fighting back or running away. While that fight-or-flight reaction may still be useful in life-or-death situations, it is much less so in today’s workplace.

Meanwhile, Barbara Fredrickson at the University of North Carolina has found that experiencing  positive emotions like trust, curiosity, confidence, and inspiration have the opposite effect. When we feel safe we become more open-minded, resilient, motivated, and persistent. Humor increases, as does solution-finding and divergent thinking — the cognitive process underlying creativity.

When the workplace feels challenging but not threatening, teams can engage in and sustain creativity and innovation. Oxytocin levels in our brains rise, eliciting trust and trust-making behavior. This is a huge factor in team success, and the goal of the psychologically safe organisation. As Paul Santagata, Head of Industry at Google, attests: “In Google’s fast-paced, highly demanding environment, our success hinges on the ability to take risks and be vulnerable in front of peers.”

Note on feeling continuing stress or even burnout: First of all, this needs to be taken seriously and can not be ignored (see your GP if this is affecting you emotionally and physically). Within the learning organization it is essential that you are can learn and adjust your energy. When you do start to experience these conditions and discuss this with a superior. Learning happens when you feel at the top of your game, and not over it.

Psychological Safety and Accountability

Before a company can become a learning organisation, they need to foster psychological safety or the shared belief that a team is safe for interpersonal risk taking.

In this model we can see the effects of both psychological safety and accountability and how they interact in order to create the learning organisation. Both are key, in the right combination, in order for teams to achieve their full potential.

Amy Edmonson model for psychological safety and accountability

 

Learning zone:  When psychological safety and accountability are high they produce a high performing team, especially when there is uncertainty on the outcome and high interdependence between the team members. It gives team members room to ask questions, and for open discussion. Potential errors are picked up early and dealt with.

Anxiety zone:  In contrast to the learning zone, in the anxiety zone we see that leaders who only hold their employees accountable for excellence without creating psychological safety fall into the “anxiety zone,” which Edmondson says can be dangerous. This is dangerous because potential errors are not reported, which can only set you up for bigger failings along the line.

Comfort zone:  The comfort zone is characterized by high safety. People feel free to express their concerns and have open discussions. However, due to lack of accountability, these teams will typically not be high performing.

Apathy zone:  When people are not held accountable for excellence and there is also no psychological safety, people tend to be apathetic. Further, their main drive tends to be using every means available to gain or achieve something for themselves, but not the group. This inhibits sharing behaviour.

Implementing (Improvements)

So how can companies start creating psychological safety? There are three ways to start creating this group belief.

1. Frame all work as a learning problem, as opposed to an execution problem.

“Make explicit that there is enormous uncertainty ahead and enormous interdependence,” Edmondson advises. In other words, be clear that there are areas that still require exploration and experimentation, and that each team member’s input matters. “We’ve never been here before; we can’t know what will happen; we’ve got to have everybody’s brains and voices in the game.”

In conflict situations, Google’s Santagata knows that true success is a win-win outcome. So when conflicts come up, he advises, you can avoid triggering a fight-or-flight reaction by asking, “How could we achieve a mutually desirable outcome?” This de-escalates the situation through showing both the willingness to collaborate and recognition of the other party’s priorities.

2. Acknowledge your own fallibility.

Make simple statements that encourage peers and subordinates to speak up, such as, “I may miss something — I need to hear from you.”

Also, asking for feedback on how you delivered your message disarms your opponent, illuminates blind spots in communication skills, and models fallibility, which increases trust in leaders.

3. Model curiosity by asking a lot of questions.

“That actually creates a necessity for voice,” Edmondson says, because team members need to generate answers. By replacing blame with curiosty we become more effective problem solvers. John Gottman’s research at the University of Washington shows that blame and criticism reliably escalate conflict, leading to defensiveness and — eventually — to disengagement. The antidote to blame is curiosity. If you believe you already know what the other person is thinking, then you’re not ready to have a conversation. Instead, adopt a learning mindset, knowing you don’t have all the facts. Ask questions. Come from curiosity.

Conclusion

In today’s technology industry, most software companies are reliant on innovation and creativity to succeed, and keep succeeding. Their employees, meanwhile, are eager to learn and keep learning.

Fostering a culture of trust and respect will most certainly pay off, even in a deadline-driven business. If team leads and project managers can empower their team members by asking questions rather than placing blame, the quality of their work will improve — sometimes at lower cost. Employees who feel psychologically safe and valued are able to contribute ideas freely, creating an atmosphere of innovation. And all of these things together drive business success.

As Edmonson says: it’s about recognising that high performance in today’s knowledge-based economy requires openness, flexibility and interdependence. These can only develop in a genuine way within a psychologically safe environment.

These are not easy changes. They require transformation at all levels of the company — the CEO leading by example how people can learn! – that will take time and effort. But the benefits are massive. The bottom line: it’s about future proofing your business.

C

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