RELEASE: Pyschological UNsafety from the trenches

Today 2022-06-15: my new book has been released. Welcome to order it from here:


Signed copy from the author

Ten years ago, Psychological Safety was nothing I had heard of. Since then, the Google Aristotle project and Professor Amy Edmondson have put Psychological Safety on the map. And today everyone talks about it – but few walk the talk. In the second chapter I will explain the theory and history behind Psychological Safety and in the third I will tell you about the stories from the trenches.

This book is an experience report where I tell my true stories. I will tell how Psychological Safety is being used as an alibi and try to explain how concepts like Functional Stupidity and Management by Fear trump Psychological Safety. But also, how Psychological Safety can work as a foundation for a great work culture. I will tell you about the company who paid me a lot to keep me quiet. I will tell you about the sect where outsiders were not welcome and where the Agile transformation did not want Psychological Safety. And I will tell you about the company that actually tried, but not really. I will also challenge the role of the Union, which has safety as accountability – without knowing what Psychological Safety is…! And on top of that, I will kill my darling Nicklas Lidström (the best hockey player ever!) as an example of Culture of Fear, and also accuse him of being a coward. Here are true examples:

At the big retail company where I worked as an Agile coach, we had not prioritized Psychological Safety in the transformation, but after a guerrilla warfare, I got it up from the backlog’s basement. I started by creating a channel in MS Teams to get the discussion started, and soon the managers hooked on with a dedicated workshop, as well as sprint themes and nice PowerPoints. In a workshop I had a flash talk about signs of ”unsafety” and my own failures to set the new standard for openness. Maybe I was a little bit too sincere, and the managers probably wondered who I was, failing in everything. In the end, at least I got to coach HR in Psychological Safety, which I believe gave the right people the right tools.

At the big gaming company, we had a manager who wanted to be agile. I coached him in this, but he insisted on sitting in his glass cage all day. The words he said at the monthly meetings received applause, but at the copier, people came up to me and told me their worries about their own future. I call this the Xerox syndrome – when you do not dare to talk to your boss but instead turn to the ”union”. This gaming company has been nominated to the ”Great place to work” award but is still a place where you do not question the managers and only spill your beans verbally at the copier. Undoubtedly the most toxic company I have ever worked for.

At the large technology company, we started all meetings with a ”safety check-in”. The same PowerPoint was first shown before the meeting began and questions were asked such as ”Kalle, where is the emergency exit?”  ”Lisa, what is the emergency number?” No cheating with safety here! After praising the company for its high safety, I also brought up questions such as ”Pelle, can you say what you really think here in this meeting?” Speak up!

At the insurance company, questionnaires were sent out with various measurements of staff well-being. The problem was that Psychological Safety was so low that no one answered, as it was a mandatory name field. And those who answered had only praise. When they changed to voluntary participation (with the ‘recommended’ name field), there were more answers – more honest. And over time, more and more people filled in the name field. Another problem with the questionnaires is that they are not transparent. Survey data is seldom presented, which means that people don’t see how the data is converted into actions and therefore gives a feeling of “just another survey”.

Mats Alvesson is a professor at Lund University, Sweden. He has invented the concept of Functional Stupidity, meaning that you think short-term, inside the box, nod in agreement, go with the flow and agree rather than stick your nose out and question. In his books and on YouTube he questions his own employer, but with the Psychological Safety he possesses, he can do that with impunity. Is he the exception to the rule that we shut up – and what can we learn from him?

Leadership, the Union and HR are the bad ones I believe, nurturing the Psychological UNsafety with their passivity and ignorance. Sometimes they are talking about Psychological Safety in beautiful words but are only making a buzzword for their organisations in order to create an image of modern employers. The organisations I have been working for use Psychological Safety as a cargo cult word, but I do not see many walking the talk. Still Psychological Safety is getting more and more attention generally and is a prerequisite for an Agile organisation. That fact, and all the above, is the inspiration for this book. Welcome to Psychological UNsafety from the trenches!


This book is a summary of highs and lows from my assignments as Agile coach in various organisations. I am well aware that this book just shows one side of the coin, and the other side is left out of scope. People and organisations I mention have probably a different view on much in my book, and one day I hope we can discuss it. It has no ambition to be scientific so much doubt is needed when reading it.

Ove Holmberg

Doubter, gaffer, author