Scott Adams does a good job above of illustrating one of the many perils of low levels of psychological safety within a team. Dilbert is trying to raise reasonable doubts with his leader, the Pointy-Haired Boss, but his concerns are met with the threat of losing his job. How likely is it that Dilbert will raise such concerns in the future?
While this scenario has been dramatized for comedy purposes, it sometimes ends with tragic results. In those cases, lives are lost and the post-incident investigations often reveal systemic repression of raising any information which would refute established plans. The March 1977 collision of two Boeing 747 jumbo jets in the Canary Islands is a textbook case of what can happen when staff don’t feel safe challenging assumptions.
But most of us don’t find ourselves in situations where sticking with the wrong plan will result in loss of life or limb. However, there can still be negative impacts including:
- Reduced benefits realization
- Increased legal fees and other costs when we don’t deliver what we had promised
- Reduced staff engagement and job satisfaction
- Increased attrition and costs of retention or replacement
- Reputational damage when former employees publish feedback about the toxic culture within their teams on job boards or on social media
Invalid assumptions are often a source of risk which is why assumptions analysis can be an effective method of identifying project risks.
If assumptions remain unstated because team members don’t feel comfortable sharing them, the team loses the opportunity to challenge those assumptions. When they don’t feel safe, team members will keep their concerns to themselves, valuing short-term security over long-term benefits. And if the risks are realized, they are likely to say something to the effect of “But they never listen to us” or “I was worried about losing my job“.
On the other hand, when the members of a team feel safe, they are less likely to worry about the short-term negative impacts of having made a mistake and will be comfortable proactively speaking up when they are making an assumption about something. That provides an opportunity for the rest of the team to assess the assumption and identify any risks associated with that assumption being invalid. Then, if the severity of the risk is sufficiently grave, they can define when that assumption should be verified and even have a contingency plan to implement if that assumption is proven to be invalid.
But sometimes the assumptions being made are not ours.
In the Dilbert cartoon, the invalid planning assumptions are those of the Pointy-Haired Boss’s. Another benefit of a team operating at a high level of psychological safety is that the team members are more likely to challenge their leaders when those leaders have made faulty assumptions. While that is helpful to the project, getting such feedback in an honest, timely fashion will also help the leaders’ decision-making to improve.
Silence doesn’t create project and organizational safety, it erodes it.