Now let me tell you about an old Swedish engineering company, Sandvik. They are the Swedish Champions in Psychological Safety, but regardless still don’t meet my high standards. This company is sprung from steel production and today working with tools for the industrial sector. The tools are becoming more and more digital, and IT is a core part of the business. The people working here are highly educated engineers with that typical need for science behind everything they do. From a Psychological Safety perspective this culture is great, as it comes with intriguing discussions and smart people. When I joined this company as a consultant Agile coach I fell in love with the people and the culture as they were very candid in everything they said. Psychological Safety was part of their DNA I would say, and discussions were always heated, but with respect. At every meeting we started with a slide on Safety First and people were asked where the emergency exit and the defibrillator were found. I will not take the whole credit for their adding Psychological Safety to this safety slide a year later, but in fact I was promoting it while doing my coaching there.
In this company people expressed what they thought was right without any fear of negative repercussions, but nevertheless there was a negative side effect. People challenged too much, and decisions were hard to make. The Swedish culture of consensus, making people debate forever with a belief that we can reach a compromise to everyone’s satisfaction was painful, and sometimes I actually longed for great old-school management. But soon I noticed that this safety slide had become just words. People did not walk the talk about safety and when I challenged the team with a question where the nearest fire extinguisher was, I got no answers as this was not on the slide…! And when I asked people to give an example on Psychological Safety in action, they had nothing to tell. This slide had become Cargo Cult Psychological Safety and was just a formal step to run through. I contacted the HR department to see if they had a plan for Psychological Safety, but as always (in HR) they didn’t know anything about it. Again, as always, I offered inspiration sessions on the topic, but there was no interest. They were busy doing their usual HR work.
I asked my friends in the leadership training program if Psychological Safety was discussed, and the answer was: only the whistleblowing part. Curious about the whistleblowing service, I found out it was an external service, linked from the intranet. I also learnt that my closest manager had been reported twice for bullying, which made perfect sense, as he now had improved and shaped up after I told his boss how he used to bully me. My guess is that there was a third time limit before any penalty actions would be taken. Still, this company and its people is a great place to work, but they don’t walk the talk and they have a Psychological Safety Cargo Cult.
This is a part of the book Psychological UNsafety from the trenches you can order or read more about here.