Psychological safety and inclusion in agile teams – pair blogg #5


In case you haven’t read about my pair-blogging idea before, a short summary from the first post:

A while back I asked on Twitter for people who would be up for pair-blogging. The idea was that we agree on a topic and a date and then we each write a post about that topic. We publish on the same date and promote each other’s posts. 

Once again I reached out on Twitter for more pairing. This time it was the lovely Jenna Charlton who invited me to join her on a topic she was workin on. And oh dear what a topic! Her original topic was ”psychological safety in agile teams in the age of black lives matter”.

Jenna and I agreed that I could broaden my post a bit, from ”in the age of black lives matter” to inclusion in general and I’ll talk about it more in the actual post below.
But if anyone is unsure where I stand on this, I want to be 100% clear that I stand with the BLM movement. This is not about erasing people from my story, it’s about adding another group close to my heart to the picture.

I’ll update with a link to Jenna’s post as soon as it’s been published.

Psychological Safety and inclusion in agile teams

Picture of wooden blocks with letters forming the word safe
Photo by Clarissa Watson on Unsplash

Some definitions

Psychological safety can be defined as ”being able to show and employ one’s self without fear of negative consequences of self-image, status or career . . . In psychologically safe teams, team members feel accepted and respected”(Wikipedia).

It is the number one key to a successful team, according to a number of studies. The most well known is probably the one from Google. If you haven’t heard the discussions before, this might come as a big surprise to you. Not only are people in a psychologically safe team happyier they are more effective. It is not a matter of skills, level of seniority, tools – it is how we interact, structure our work, and view each other’s contributions.

Inclusion can in its simplest form be defined as ”the act of including” but what I refer to here is ”the act or practice of including and accommodating people who have historically been excluded (as because of their race, gender, sexuality, or ability)”(both quotes from Merriam Webster).

So, when companies work with inclusion or when people talk about inclusion, they usually mean work related to making sure people who are not the norm (in that particular context) are actively included and accommodated for.

The correlation between the two could be described as ”Psychological safety supports inclusion by creating a safe place for individuals to bring their whole selves to work —an environment where members from non-majority groups can share novel ideas and perspectives free from the risk of ridicule, rejection or penalty. In a psychologically safe environment, employees are less likely to cover or mask their differences.”(Culture plus consulting)

So, why did I want to broaden the scope from BLM to inclusion in general?

First of all, there is a group that I wanted to include, and that is the trans community. It is a group that I feel is often ignored when we talk about inclusion.

Gender inclusion is often measured in something like ”% of women”. As someone (read as) female in a tech leadership position, with a strong technical background, I am always used as a poster girl for inclusion work. I am kind of ok with that. It gives me opportunities to talk about things that matter to me. But I do wish we spent more time measuring and working for inclusion of our trans siblings as well. A Swedish study from 2015 (in Swedish, sorry) showed that more than 50% of trans people in the age of 15-19 have considered suicide. Data from Norway shows suicide attempts are 250 times more common among transgender people compared to the rest of the population.

To the general Swede, being transgender is still something they know very little about. A lot still think transgendered equal cross-dresser, and cross-dresser equal transgendered. A lot are unaware that some. transgender people don’t want to take hormones or have surgery. A lot of people are uneducated, unaware and in general uncomfortable with how to work with inclusion when it comes to transgendered people. Oh dear, let us not even talk about the chaos that ensues when you try to talk about including non-binary people. You can almost see the meltdown going on in people’s heads when you try to explain just because someone ”expresses themselves as women” you can’t know they identify as women.

The other aspect of why I wanted to broaden the topic is that (I suspect, could not find specific numbers) Sweden has an extremely low number of Black people in tech. In my 20+ years in tech I’ve had very very few Black colleagues. As a hiring manager, I can’t think of more than possibly 1-3 applications from Black people ever to come onto my desk. This is of course a huge problem in itself, and one that should be addressed but it also means I have too little experience to feel I can write about it and be credible. We do however get applications from people with other non-swedish backgrounds and/or people not speaking Swedish. Since that is something I do have experience with, and there are prejudices working against them in my society, this is another reason I wanted to broaden the scope.

And lastly, I also have some experience with how people with different disabilities are included/excluded that I want to address.

Feeling safe is easy if you are the norm

Moving back to the definition of psychological safety, being able to show and employ one’s self without fear of negative consequences of self-image, status or career. This is easy if you match the norm. A team that looks the same, has the same background, the same values, the same language etc, might feel safe to be who they are with very little work. This is one reason why we tend to prefer to bring people who are like us into a group. It creates less friction, which can feel like it would make us, as a group, more efficient. If less time and energy is spent on disagreement it feels intuitively like we will be able to deliver more value faster.

Imagine a few friends starting a company. They start working together because they enjoy each other’s company, they share a vision and way of thinking. As the company grows, they bring in a few more people they know and trust and the environment feels perfectly safe and even comfortable.

At some point, this is going to become a problem, for (at least) a few reasons:

  • The pool of candidates is limited, it gets harder to recruit
  • The longer the group has to form, the harder it will become to change the culture
  • A uniform set of thoughts and values as input means a limited set of ideas as output.

At some point our imaginary team will try to bring aboard someone different than the rest of the group. This is where it becomes interesting, and potentially challenging.

Diversity has a lot of benefits. It has been proven to increase productivity, creativity, profit, engagement and company reputation. It is the fertile soil where true innovation grows. It does, however, not come without pain points.

Suddenly our team brings someone in who has another set of values, another background. Since no person is perfect, someone will at some point react to something. It might be how the common language is not very inclusive to women. It might be not accommodating for some sort of disability. It might be people defaulting to Swedish in conversations. It might be a joke at fika that made a person uncomfortable. It might be noticing that people of colour are not evaluated the same way as white people when recruiting. It might be anything out of a million things, many not noticeable if you are in the norm group.

The situation might act out in a few different ways:

  1. The person reacting does not feel safe enough to bring it up and stay quiet. In this scenario the rest of the group still think everyone is ok and would call the group psychologically safe. But it is not.
  2. The person reacting might choose to bring it up, challenging the culture. Being challenged tends to set us into defence mode and this will create friction. Typically people react with ”But I am a good guy!” and tries to either shift blame or say it was in fact not an issue. ”It was just a joke!” In this scenario, the person reacting might be seen as overly sensitive, making a hen out of a feather or difficult to work with. The person reacting will either turn quiet, keep trying to bring things up or leave.
  3. Or, of course, the group is actually safe and the things brought up are apologized for and changed.

What the team first experienced was not true psychological safety. It was people being comfortable because people were the same. Comfortable might feel like psychological safety if you are the norm and/or if there are no differences in opinion.

As Tobbe Gyllebring wrote so well on Twitter:

Screenshot of tweet by @drunkcod:
"You know what's awesome? 

You know what hurts like hell at time, especially while everything is on fire and you're stretching yourself trying to integrate different views and experiences?

It's better.
It's not going to be easy or comfortable."

Facing your bad behaviours

We are not perfect, any of us, what differentiates us is how we react when confronted with doing something problematic.

We tend to equal ”I did/said something problematic” with ”I am a bad person”. We also tend to equal ”I like this thing” with ”It can’t be problematic”. That is unfortunately (or fortunately?) not how things work.

You can have an extremely talented musician, who wrote music millions loved, who still did some very shitty things. You can have a company that spends lots and lots of money and effort on doing the right thing for the environment, but also has extremely sexist and/or racist hiring practices. You can have a famous author who wrote the most amazing books, but still behaves like an arse by not listening when people ask them to stop hurting the trans community. You can have a movie that is amazing and opens up a genre to the big masses, but still uses rape as an cheap way of character building.

And even worse – people in the group that is negatively affected are individuals and they will think and feel differently about them. (So let us agree to drop the ”I can’t be racist, I have a friend from X!” right now, ok? And the ”My jokes are not sexist, my wife loves them!”)

I do believe though, that part of the disagreement comes from our inability to separate ”I like” from ”This is unproblematic. It just requires you to move away from feeling judged.

When confronted with something, we want to defend ourselves. The joke wasn’t racist because I am not racist! My comment wasn’t sexist because I don’t see women as lesser than me! I loved the movie so you are just overly sensitive to react to that rape scene, it made sense to the plot!

This does not help. This does not create a safe environment.

Bringing us back to the ”…in the age of the BLM movement”. We live in a time where several groups that have historically been (and still are!) mistreated are loud. Opinionated. Fighting for change. This forces a lot of us to face things we did not observe before, took for granted, or potentially even believed to be true and fair. It requires us to see some…. unflattering parts of ourselves, our friends and relatives and our society. It can feel like someone is taking something from us, when in reality we are just asked to stop our own unfair behaviour.

True psychological safety, in any group of team, only comes when everyone* feels welcome and safe to express their true self. Without fear of being retaliated against for it.

Change is painful. Diversity can feel unfair if you belong to the ”norm”. Being asked to be considerate can feel like being silenced. But if you can move past that, and realize that it is only your automatic defence system, it can be beautiful.

*Disclaimer: No, that does not mean you should be allowed to spread transphobia, fascism, racism or other vile views. Those views in itself equal stopping someone else from feeling welcome. I am (not) sorry but you just have to shut up, change or feel unsafe. Because really:

Picture of writing on a window: "You suck"
Photo by Walid Hamadeh on Unsplash