"We Have Loads of Psychological Safety. We Just Know It."

Back in the day (aka a couple of years back when I first started on the journey of exclusively figuring out how to lower HumanDebt and enable humanity in tech), I spent quite a lot of time being up in arms about “the people people” and how they shouldn't have let all this debt accumulate in the workplace.

My vehemence then was intransigent and I can’t blame the HR professionals that have decided not to listen because I was militantly and aggressively assigning truckloads of blame and let's face it, that's never productive. I used to have zero compassion for what they went through and could only think of the suffering of their employees surrounded by HumanDebt every day so I was vocal about blame assignment and thought we need radical honesty first and foremost. Unsurprisingly, this hasn’t endeared me to the community and while I’m ok with that, I have to model admitting when I am wrong myself and pointing the finger at the people professionals was harsh and devoid of basic empathy. The truth is they have it immensely hard too. And in time, I’ve changed my tune.

I met hundreds of good people-people in the past few years with PeopleNotTech, some officially in those positions and some de facto influencers, leaders, mentors, and thinking, caring humans. They’re not ill-intentioned they’re not unskilled or unknowing. They’re not ignorant, they’re not even care-less. What they are often times though, is misguided. That is undeniable and some would argue, inexcusable. They lean on a misconception that helps them get through the day. 

That their people are ok.

And in that “okay”, that they are psychologically safe.

“We know how important Psychological Safety is, and we have loads of it in our teams.” 

“How do you know?”

“We can tell”


“People tell us”


“Annual surveys, employee engagement studies, NPS and suggestion boxes/intranet folders.”

“So everyone speaks up?”


“How would you know if they didn’t? And how would you know if they weren’t Psychologically Safe after all? Where would you see that?”

There are many variations on the above but in essence, most leaders presume they have a finger on the pulse of the organisation and that their respective organisations are a-ok. We have yet to meet any company that openly says they have a problem with Psychological Safety, I don’t even think the likes of Boeing would admit it quite that openly. Most everyone else is sure there is plenty of Psychological Safety at all team levels.

We ask them how do they know that. And beyond “just a feeling” which is the true answer, their justification varies as mentioned above, depending on what measures have been put in place, what programmes they are attached to or invested in, and what project they hinged their name or their reputation to. But they always contain some indication of metrics and whether they refer NPS results or engagement surveys, what they all have in common is the unspecific but potentially sanctionable nature of the questions the extreme rarity as compared to what would be optimal, the lack of trust and the just the overall dismal value in ascertaining, how people truly feel at any given moment. 

Let’s be honest, no matter how much an HR professional may be defending psychometrics for recruitment and yearly surveys for sentiment, gaging and true measurements of engagement and motivation, in the heart of hearts, they know these methods are the best antiquated and in effect quite damaging to furthering today’s workplace.

Any people manager worth their salt knows that their teams' state of mind changes by the sprint, the day and even the hour, not yearly or monthly. They know that any method that’s infrequent, untrusted by the team and devoid of finality in feedback is at best approximate, and at worst, creating more HumanDebt. But there isn’t much else and even if there were, challenging the misconception is terrifying for most. So they'd rather hang on to their feeling of it all being okay.

And the trouble with having a feeling in lieu of reliable data is that it has to by default be a good feeling because having a sense there's a problem would require finding out where the actual problem is and that requires analysis. And the trouble with Psychological Safety in itself is that should these execs be wrong, and should it be actually low in the organisation then no one would speak up to say so.

No one would point out that there are never any dissenting opinions when planning. No one would raise the alarm bells when fewer and fewer people even turn their cameras on during meetings. No one would ever object to an idea coming from the ones they perceive in a position of authority. Nearly no disagreement. It would even seem... okay.

Considering that we were the first software tool to start measuring psychological safety, and that we were also the first ones to posit that the human work must be done daily -or at most weekly- before it starts bearing fruit a few years ago, and taking into account the size of the monster-need in the workplace, one would have presumed that the concept of looking at emotions and behaviours in a team context with regularity ought to have spread like wildfire in particular since it resonates as it does to most people who are invested in continuous improvement. 

Needless to say, it hasn’t, and as for the reasons why not I investigate them in this newsletter and in my books, incessantly. The best I can tell so far, not only are there not many professionals invested in continuous improvement but, the reluctance to do the human work needed to make tech-led cultures successful, is no different than the reluctance to do the human work required to make our other relationships and behaviours better. Both represent much work. Work that is uncomfortable and quite hard. No one pretends otherwise. But in the absence of this work, we cannot perform. We cannot be individually healthy and we cannot be healthy as a team and if we are not healthy we are certainly not performing. 

And like we said many times before, we’re all still very very tired. We’re all still catching our emotional and psychological breath. We are all trying to find our groove again and feel well. Life is busy and in many ways harder and more complex than ever. So it’s a little wonder. No one is ecstatic at the idea of investing even more work into themselves. Work that is intangible and ultimately esoterical. So making people engage in this human work is difficult. The turning point for us as the creators of the software was understanding the impact of closing the feedback loop with data to evidence the result of the human work.

As soon as we were able to show people that their hard work pays off in new and productive behaviours, they stopped resisting investing the time. As soon as the data reflected their efforts and they started leaning in into the shed sense of accountability that the dashboard offers them, many teams have not only conducted the human work regularly but increased it and done their team actions with glee and that immediately started translating into business KPIs.

But is it any wonder that things aren’t good in the workplace when we have leaders in denial and invested in this “they’re OKAY!” rhetoric that allows them to ignore the HumanDebt and employees themselves too spent, disillusioned, checked out and tired to invest in the human work? No. It will take both sides admitting the need to do the work and it will have to start with HR professionals and leaders. We have to shake some of the HumanDebt fast and it falls off easier if we start with Psychological Safety. 

So these days, instead of asking leaders, how they know that they have Psychological Safety I ask them how would they know if they didn’t. And if and if they don’t know that they would see it in every indicator and in their very bottom line directly then l worry that they don’t stand much of a chance of ever cleaning their HumanDebt through distributed HumanWork that improves performance through greater Psychological Safety. 

In an age where culture is led by technology and yet technology can’t reach its potential without generative cultures, and where we must increase our human-only USP to remain competitive against AI, all we can do is acquiesce to the need of continuous growth, “soft-skills” enhancement and roll our sleeves to form a solid Human Work practice at both individual and team level because, in the absence of (real not perceived-by-leader) Psychological Safety, we will never have the team-magic, openness, bond and trust that we need to thrive.

Related: Burning Our People Out