The Retrospective Community recently suffered a crisis of safety on their discussion list because, well, the owner of the list said so. Safety is important but it’s almost always misunderstood. Let me discuss three spheres of safety in workplace interactions: physical well-being; emotional neutrality; and trustworthy engagement.
My sense of safety feels threatened in settings where too many of the knobs have been set to cultural values that are unfamiliar to me. My rental car was once broken into in Szczecin: they didn’t speak English and I didn’t speak Polish. They took my report at a police station through a government translator who hadn’t come there since the days that people entered the building permanently, never to emerge. Call that: “anxiety:” Fear of the unknown or unknowable (for both of us!) We find an extreme but real example from the contemporary high-tech world in the anonymous Tweets threatening rape against British journalist Criado-Perez for advocating women's’ likenesses on British currency.
The Retrospective Community finds safety in avoiding emotions. Many of them have been influenced heavily by Jerry Weinberg, who emphasizes that conflict resolution should take place on a rational plane. That’s where “I messages”, congruent communication, and active listening come from. Diminish emotional engagement, or shift verboten emotional responses to rationalism.
In a healthy community, I know that in spite of anything you say or do, that you are acting in the best interest of both of us. That gives you complete rhetorical freedom. We call that a community of trust. Such maturity lets people separate their safety from the uncomfortable feelings that arise in passionate debate.
Too many people equate organizational health with comfort, rather than safety. It ends being an ill-defined, almost drug-induced state of Candide bliss. But progress depends on upsetting the status quo. Shaw said, “All progress depends on the unreasonable man.” Guns, Germs and Steel ascribes much social advancement to war. Gever Tulley’s TED talk entitled “Five Dangerous Things you should Do with your Kids” makes more than a passing reference to cuts, burns and bruises.
Now, I’m not advocating conflict for its own sake, any more than I advocate progress for its own sake. But progress entails change, and change displaces people from their comfort zones. Improvement involves popping the happy bubble. When growing from walking to riding a bike, cuts and bruises are likely. That doesn’t imply we should seek cuts and bruises. But it also means that we should not count cuts and bruises as failure. To make an omelet, you’ve got to break a few eggs.
Agile leaders bear the responsibility to set the ground rules in their communities. Sometimes prior shared context is enough, but it’s more common that people come together with widely ranging interaction styles. Many leaders realize that responsibility in the form of covenants or team contracts. The problem is that most of them do it neither at the level of survival (it’s important to establish basic protocols of communication to quickly allow newcomers to engage) nor at the level of trust.
St. Augustine admonished us, “Ne quid nimis:” but everything in moderation. Good moderation comes naturally if people are comfortable at the Maslow survival level, and if the interactions are drawn upward towards a recognized common goal in a community of mutual trust. Artificially muted conflict is thinly disguised tyranny or censorship, and its goal is a false, artificially constructed sense of belonging in a trust-less environment. Let the good times roll, but let the storms rage as well. There is no sicker organization than the ones that silence tearful engagement.