Why is Psychological Safety at Odds With the way we Work?

In order to prepare for a talk I delivered at Mind the Product’s 2019 Leadership Forum in San Francisco I’ve spent the last couple of weeks applying the lens of psychological safety to the things I’ve experienced and witnessed in my product career. And I keep coming back to a messy but seemingly unavoidable conclusion: In real-world organizations, the behaviors that create psychological safety for our teams and the behaviors that bring us rewards and recognition as individuals are often fundamentally at odds with each other.

Easier Said Than Done

This is a huge, real challenge for us to address as a community – and one I’ve been hearing about a lot lately. Many of the teams and individuals I work with have recently asked me about Google’s Project Aristotle research which concludes, definitively, that psychological safety is the number-one characteristic of high-performing teams. Reading through this research for the first time, I thought: “Yes, this makes perfect sense!”

In theory, it does. Teams that feel safe to try, fail, communicate, and ask questions are more likely to do all those good things we want to do as product leaders: test and learn, focus on outcomes over outputs, and deliver customer value. But as I read through the Project Aristotle research, I couldn’t help but think of all the times in my career when I’ve experienced a notable lack of psychological safety – including a few times at the very company that published this research.

It’s easy enough for us to fault our organizations for not providing psychological safety in the same way they provide fast wi-fi and free snacks. But the uncomfortable truth is that, as product leaders, we are often profoundly complicit in creating environments where our teams do not feel even remotely safe. And, to make things even more complicated, we are often rewarded for it. I’d like to share a quasi-hypothetical story from a friend of mine that illustrates how this might play out at a real-world organization.

The Rich and Famous CEO

Midway through a project, the product leader on my friend’s team managed to secure an audience with their rich and famous CEO. And, to the great delight of this product leader, the rich and famous CEO really liked what his team was working on. “This is great- do you think you could ship it by Tuesday?” The product leader responded, without flinching: “Absolutely.”

So, what happened next? You can probably guess. This product leader went back to his team and said: “Cancel your weekend plans. Call your families and tell them you won’t be seeing them for a while. The CEO wants this on Tuesday, and we’re going to make it happen.” They embarked upon a gruelling “death march,” and got the product out of the door.

So, what happened to the team itself? Burn-out! People got sick, people quit, morale tanked.

And what happened to the product leader? He got promoted!

Let me ask you a tricky question: what do you think would have happened if this product leader had said to the CEO: “You know, I’m not sure. I need to check with my team. Can you help me understand why Tuesday is the particular day you have in mind?” Would he have been promoted?

That hesitation you’re feelingn is exactly why so many individual product managers and product leaders struggle to create psychological safety for their teams. Because the truth is… we don’t know! We don’t know how that CEO, or any CEO, will respond when we advocate for the safety, capacity, and autonomy of our teams. But we do have a pretty good idea of what will happen if we say “yes, boss” and then leave our teams to manage the repercussions.

Who would be willing to tell that rich and famous CEO, “no” – or, at least, to ask that rich and famous CEO, “why”? I’m not sure if I would! Because doing so means taking on real, impactful risk for ourselves as individuals. We might not get that big promotion! We might even get fired. But if we truly believe that psychological safety is the most important part of team performance, we must be willing to take that risk.

Two Types of Product Leader

Looking back over my career, I can place the product leaders I’ve worked with into two categories: those who are willing to take on the individual risk that comes with creating psychological safety for their teams, and those who are not.

Let’s start with the product leaders who are not willing to take on the individual risk that comes with creating psychological safety for their teams. These product leaders often waltz into organizations as self-styled “visionaries”, quoting Steve Jobs and making big – if not necessarily realistic – promises. They tend to be people who have received the benefit of the doubt via systemic privilege – which is to say, more often than not, they look broadly like me. They are really good at telling leadership exactly what leadership wants to hear, and, perhaps more importantly, they are really good at insulating leadership from the real-world trade-offs that go into delivering products. They say: “Yes, you can have this, AND you can have that. You can have it all!” They tend to get promoted a lot, and quickly – sometimes before their team even delivers anything. And then, sometimes years later… it all falls apart. Leadership realizes that their big, lofty promises were never really possible in the first place, and that some of the most valuable individual contributors on the team have already left. But – before these product leaders can be held accountable… surprise! – they’ve already found a big, fancy new job somewhere else.

Now let’s talk about the product managers who are willing to take on the individual risk that comes with creating psychological safety for their teams. These product leaders often don’t have the opportunity to step into those big “visionary” roles – not because they lack vision, but because they are so busy doing the emotional labor of cleaning up after the other product leaders who are making those big, lofty promises. These are the product leaders who earn the trust and respect of their teams by helping leadership understand the real-world trade-offs that go into actually delivering products, even when leadership doesn’t want to hear about it. And here’s the thing: over time, they actually train company leadership to be better! They sharpen their organization’s focus by saying, “You can have this OR you can have that. Which is more important given our goals and constraints?” These product leaders deliver so much value to the companies they work for, and the truth is, they don’t always get rewarded for it.

When I reflect honestly on my own career, I can say with confidence that I’ve been that first type of product leader more often than not. In fact, I sometimes wonder if I would have even had a “product leadership” career if not for my willingness to say “yes boss” first, and let my team sort it out later.

Let’s Keep the Conversation Going

Of course, we can’t go back in time and change what we did to get here. But we can decide to operate differently moving forward. There are no easy answers here. But I want to end by asking you to think about three important questions:

  1. How do we better align the behaviors that create psychological safety for our teams with the behaviors that bring us rewards and recognition as individuals?
  2. What are we as individual product leaders willing to give up in order to create psychological safety for our teams?
  3. How do we continue having this conversation openly and transparently?

Conferences and meetups are such a critical place for holding each other accountable and moving the discipline forward – let’s keep talking about these difficult topics, today, tomorrow, and every day.

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