Signals and Noise: Cultural Safety in Teams

Posted by Phil on July 18, 2017

I have a current First Aid certificate and I'm the health and safety delegate at our office. In a software consultancy, I think the sum total of instances where my emergency management skills have been called into practice is perhaps two, and the worst of them was to dispense a band-aid for someone who'd cut their finger on a knife protruding from the dishwasher. The other case was finding some paracetamol.

When we think of safety - particularly at an office - we generally think of preventing injury and being equipped and prepared to help should any serious case occur. In New Zealand, Health and Safety legislation requires certain standards be met by employers and workplaces such that harm is mitigated or minimised. We recognise the importance of ensuring people at our offices are able to identify risks, take steps to remove them and ensure others are aware of these risks and how they were removed or reduced.

People can appreciate the benefits in having a workplace that ensures everyone's best interests are taken into account so that shards of broken glass aren't left lying around, gas mains aren't exposed to naked flames and wild carnivorous animals are securely restrained away from desks (although if any of these deliberately absurd examples actually describe your workplace, perhaps it's time to consider a new career), but these benefits are often overlooked when it comes to examining communication, team dynamics and leadership.

Safety in the team sense is equally - if not more so - important as a day-to-day consideration for workplace cohesiveness, productivity, trust and motivation. If your team does not feel safe psychologically, what are the implications for how that team interacts with each other and with the organisation or its clients? Physical safety is easy: risks are visible, able to be mitigated and - generally speaking - universally recognised as being actual hazards. Few companies have a genuine policy around open communication and team coaching, however. This point is a big one because a distrustful environment leads to expensive and sometimes terminal problems.

Companies that foster a trusting culture will have an advantage in the war for talent: Who would choose to stay in a stressful, divisive atmosphere if offered a productive, supportive one?

For knowledge workers (the specific example being software / professional services for the purposes of this post), being able to trust that questions can be asked and feedback given in an open, transparent manner is absolutely vital to the productive functioning of the team. Without a supportive, accountable and collective social structure, the habits and attitudes drive closer to an environment where each member of the team operates as an isolated individual, obstructed from soliciting feedback and input from others within the team, afraid of punishment or retribution more likely to become silent on issues and observations for fear of the repercussions on them.

The crucial function of a 'people manager' is to create an inclusive environment where people are able to autonomously make the best judgements they can based on available information and where mistakes are addressed objectively, honestly and without fear of reprisal or blame. High performing teams have freedom to innovate, think, resolve conflict, request help and introduce change such that it benefits the whole team and "makes the boat go faster". Clearly-understood context, purpose, customer needs, business goals and priorities mean the team is best-equipped to self-manage and are able to freely share opinions and initiatives that contribute to that team's success.


The signals being sent here are massively important. Saying "we value an open, transparent and trusting environment" but the thing that matters is the congruity between the stated formal message and the signals. A signal can be anything that reinforces or detracts from the "official message": individual interactions, structures that support or inhibit the stated goal or formal communication that underpins or overrides that goal. If the signals are highly incongruous, the team will quickly learn that there is a public veneer giving the right appearances, but a private character that doesn't mesh with the official line.

Signals contribute strongly to a team culture. Software development is the output of informed decisions based on a given problem, which are based on a collective learned experience. Being able to share those experiences helps inform the wider team and contributes to better decisions based on a broader knowledge. That obviously means better software. If the signals from the company or team management are not congruent with allowing team members to explore those decisions and outcomes, the information remains guarded, isolated, the team will not gel and function as one unit and quality and skill levels suffer as a result.

If the focus for team management or coaching is working with each individual within that team, then how can an accurate picture of the whole team's dynamics be measured? Analysing patterns of participation, sharing and decision-making within the team offers better insight into how unified the team is, and that collaboration cannot effectively be facilitated if there is no culture of safety. Similarly, critiquing or shaming actors within a system in the event of a failure leads to management becoming less aware and informed on how work is being performed day to day, and developers then become less educated on latent conditions for failure. Human error is an effect or symptom of systemic problems deeper within the organisation or team. Telling people what they should have done might be a satisfying way to describe failure, but that fails to explain why it made sense for them to do what they did and therefore is a superficial way to address the problem.

A lot of this ties in to the principles of Just Culture, coined originally by Sydney Dekker. Individual performance often has measures on how the individual contributes to the team and to the company more generally. But despite such performance indicators, if the individual isn't empowered to explore new ideas and ask challenging questions autonomously, confidently and safely, employee engagement or "buy-in" to the company's goals (and by contraction, the performance metrics) will suffer.

Just like workplace hazards, cultural safety matters because it affects everyone and when properly addressed, it has the generative effect of lifting everyone at the same time, encouraging greater participation, quality and outcomes.


Read more

The Decision to Trust: Harvard Business Review, 2006

Communication, Commitment & Trust: Exploring the Triad: International Journal of Business and Management, 2011

Blameless Post-Mortems and a Just Culture: Code as Craft, 2012

Photo Credit

Drew Hays

Ray Hennessy