Psychological safety is about being open and honest about what’s currently happening, what’s expected to happen, and where individuals stand. But, that’s easier said than done in most workplaces. I had a virtual coffee with a colleague and they brought up an issue with their direct report.
This manager, Dan, wanted to let Sarah know that her Q4 was below the organization's expectations for her, and that the way she was expecting her Q1 to go would result in the company needing to take action to ensure adequate performance going forward. This was brought up during a 1:1, and Sarah started crying. This was the opposite of the reaction he was intending or expecting.
Dan told me he believed the need for a performance intervention in Q2 was unlikely. He thought she just wasn't as well versed in forecasting as she could be, and was low-balling herself due to that lack of knowledge. He had reviewed her book of business before the 1:1 and believed that she would have a great Q1 based on his perception of available expansion.
This is a great opportunity for Dan to take the time to go with Sarah and see how she is forecasting, how it deviates from Dan’s method, and from there either train her on how to better forecast, or learn that his perception as manager was wrong, and that he’s holding Sarah to a completely unrealistic standard. In either case he has a great opportunity as a manager, and ought to thank his report (potentially publicly, if they're comfortable with that) regardless of the outcome.
At this point you may be pausing and asking me why I say that? The report either didn't know what they were doing, or they exposed a hole in management’s strategy.
Psychological safety correlates with high performing technology organizations and the success of their companies according to DevOps Research and Assessment's (DORA) State of DevOps research program, most recently in the 2019 report.
Google's Rework found similar results. This extends far beyond software too. In fact, in the last month McKinsey published a report showcasing that psychological safety is critical in leadership development. W. Edwards Deming came to the same conclusion outside of tech and years before McKinsey when he said:
Fear invites wrong figures. Bearers of bad news fare badly. To keep his job, anyone may present to his boss only good news.
This is critical because the number one thing that you need as a manager of any discipline is accurate information. If you don't take the opportunity to address the problem and either improve the abilities of the individual or correct the organization's goals for them, and for the greater organization you will no longer get good information, you and your organization will become known for shooting the messenger, which means that folks will only bring you numbers that aren't real going forward, because they don't want to be punished for it. This is the behavior you're teaching them if you don't reward the bad news.
The irony of this situation is that the same dynamics were currently playing out with Dan and his boss.
Dan was handed revenue goals for his part of the organization that he believed were unreasonable, but he was apprehensive about approaching his boss with this information, for fear of looking either incompetent, or whiny. Either way, preventing his boss from being able to take the opportunity to either train him, or adjust the organization’s forecast, direction and goals.
By framing the situation this way I was able to convince my colleague that they needed to address the situation with both their boss and report in the way that best served the organization, and their ability to do their job to the best of their ability.
What can you do to encourage your team to stop lying to you?
Send me a DM on Twitter about times you've seen organizations or managers shoot the messenger, and encourage their team's to lie to them.