A recurring theme in the two conferences I’ve attended in the last fortnight (Agile Manchester and BeyondTech) has been psychological safety, people’s perception of being in a safe place to take risks: to bring up new ideas, to raise concerns, to admit your own mistakes. Amy Edmondson found that it was the most important feature of effective teams, findings corroborated by Google’s Project Aristotle.
A key point of Gitte Klitgaard’s excellent talk Psychological safety: overprotection or not? was that producing a psychologically safe environment is (in her own words) “a shitload of work.” You cannot just say something is “safe” and expect people to feel empowered to speak up when there is a pre-existing power imbalance. The environment needs to feel safe too.
I wanted to expand on this, because as more people recognise the importance of healthy workplaces, it’s important we get it right. To do it, let’s take a detour through the world of street design.
A simple way to see if a road feels safe is to watch how people cross it. Do they walk assertively, in confidence? Or do they furtively look both ways at the kerb, before dashing out in a gap in traffic?
Highways engineers call this subjective safety—that is, “if I cross this street, will I get hit by a car?” This is a similar, related concept to psychological safety.
Many local governments are now interested in making walking a more attractive means of transport. A much-hyped solution to this is ’shared space’. This consists of removing kerbs, traffic lights, and road signs, in the hope that on a shared surface, everyone will pay attention and negotiate for space with each other.
These schemes operate with varying success. The most controversial example in London is on Exhibition Road, a tourist hotspot and the site of several major museums.
Shared space schemes tend to draw sharp criticism from groups representing blind and d/Deaf people, who find it intimidating when people drive and cycle past them too close. This scheme was no exception. Guide Dogs took the local authority to court over the Exhibition Road scheme.
It is now likely this scheme will be at least partially reversed. This is partly because the context has changed (a new entrance has opened to the V&A museum), and partly because Exhibition Road has developed a reputation as being a terrifying place to walk or cycle. There was a collision in October 2017 where a minicab driver drove into a group of people, nine of whom were hospitalised. Seven years after the scheme was completed, a report commissioned by the local authority showed that the 85th-percentile speed of motor vehicles on Exhibition Road had actually increased from 22mph to 27mph—with over half of vehicles breaking the 20mph speed limit.
What went wrong on Exhibition Road?
The key failing of the Exhibition Road scheme is that it did not remove any cars from the street.
The most successful ‘shared space’ schemes happen in access-only streets, with low speed limits. The main design feature of these zones is that it’s impossible to drive a car *through*—the only reason you would drive there is to access one of the premises. Most European residential areas and car-free city centres operate on these principles. Because the traffic volumes are low, the subjective safety of these streets is high. People feel comfortable walking and cycling.
By contrast, Exhibition Road is seen by the local authorities as a major road for motor traffic, connecting Hyde Park to the A4 arterial. There was no political appetite to remove traffic from this route. The result is that the number of cars hasn’t really changed.
At the same time, the pavements and pedestrian crossings were removed from Exhibition Road when the scheme was brought in. In the previous configuration, people had a safe space where they could walk; now, that safe space has been removed. Drivers and pedestrians are likely to have to interact with each other. This creates a problem, because there is an inherent power imbalance.
Acknowledging the power imbalance
The ‘might makes right’ mantra is typically used in foreign policy. Military or economic might grants leverage: this means (for instance) a small nation with valuable natural resources is open to bullying, and exploitation, by larger superpowers.
The same applies on the streets. For instance, a modern London taxi weighs 2,230kg. Even if the driver is careful and obeys the speed limit (difficult on Exhibition Road—it’s downhill, and other drivers will honk at you impatiently) if the cab collides with a pedestrian, the pedestrian is going to come off worse.
The result is a power imbalance. Pedestrians know it’s going to hurt if they get hit by a motorist or a cyclist, and so are more likely to give way. This is especially true for parents with children, elderly people, and Disabled people.
The natural result is that some drivers take advantage of this power imbalance. It’s common to see drivers parking inconsiderately, overtaking cyclists too close, and bullying people into giving up their legal priority by tooting their horns and revving their engines.
This is the antithesis of the promise of ‘shared space’ schemes. Rather than feeling empowered to cross the street assertively, pedestrians feel intimidated by traffic. You can’t share space when cars take all of it.
Stop saying, start cultivating
‘Shared space’ is often presented as a silver bullet to hostile town centres and stagnant walking/cycling levels. The reality, as always, is that unless the decision makers understand what will make such a scheme work, it won’t.
The same goes for the general concept of psychological safety. Many team leaders seem to think they already have it: Gitte says in her talk (above) that many people say “I expect my team to say something.” Unless you inspect and address the power balances in play, this is wishful thinking.
Even if no-one with the upper hand in a power imbalance abuses it, the mere existence of that imbalance is likely to affect people’s behaviour. People will be less willing to do things—be that crossing the street, or speaking up in meetings.
This is especially true for marginalised groups. In her book Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race, Reni Eddo-Lodge talks about how she dreads calling out racism, for fear of being dismissed as an ‘angry black woman.’ Privilege is a form of power in this respect: I, as a cis, able-bodied, white man, am more likely to be listened to than (for instance) a black trans woman with a walking stick. We must acknowledge and understand our own privilege, and realise this affects the way we move through the world.
Might as right in the workplace
The most pervasive power imbalance in the workplace is probably between management and employees. Even in countries with decent labour laws where you can’t just fire someone on a whim, managers can still make their lives difficult.
This is especially true in large, hierarchical organisations, with many layers of middle management. The way to get someone to do anything is to escalate to their boss, to their boss, and beyond. Management hangs over rank-and-file staff members like a tonne of bricks—and you can’t feel safe with that hanging over your head.
This disconnect leads many managers to believe they can fix the problems by running ‘team-building’ sessions with their staff. More and more people are realising this is an anti-pattern: team-building is something that happens over time, not in six hours at a paintball range.
Rather alarmingly, some of these ‘team building’ events turn out to be wildly inappropriate, influenced by re-heated pop psychology but without any professional input or support. A BBC News article from 2018 recounts such events where people were expected to “share things that would normally be considered way too personal for an employer to ask about - things like your deepest fears or experiences from childhood.”
I think this kind of exercise is irresponsible. It is the management equivalent of telling a pedestrian to lie down in the middle of Exhibition Road and hope the cars will stop. In an environment that’s already psychologically unsafe, pressuring people to share what may be traumatic experiences with colleagues—and, in all likelihood, some strangers—can be an upsetting and humiliating experience. And because they’re there at the behest of their paymasters, no-one is going to stand up at this point and say “hey, this is inappropriate.”
Wrap-up: neuter the might
The inescapable fact is that the ‘silver bullet’ doesn’t exist. You can’t humanise Exhibition Road just by getting rid of the pavements. Nor can you get rid of dysfunction in a team by telling your employees to spit water into each other’s mouths, or share a story behind a scar.
Psychological safety is a pre-requisite for an effective team. And power imbalances make psychological safety impossible without efforts to mitigate them. So this starts with us, and we need to lead by example.
We—developers, consultants, managers, whoever—need to acknowledge our own power. We need to be willing to admit mistakes, and allow other people to call us out on them. And we need to be humble.
This starts with us. Instead of expecting people to bare their souls in front of strangers, let’s start accepting our own mistakes, and let’s use our power to uplift the voices of others.