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Safety and Confidence

As employers we want confident employees. We want people who can get things done with as little supervision as possible. We want to give them money and in exchange they give us value from their effort.

And yet, that's not what usually happens. People require a lot of supervision, they aren't motivated. So why not? Why aren't all your employees rock stars?


It starts with fear. What are your employees afraid of?

Here's an example: Imagine a meeting, someone speaks up and says something ignorant. They don't fully understand the implications of what was going on, say something, and look foolish. At best, people will laugh, shaming them. At worst, someone might yell at them. It could result in them getting a bad review. It could result in them getting fired.

We decide whether risks are "worth it" by weighing the possible rewards against the possible consequences. Your employees are weighing getting the job done against the possibility of getting fired. If they take the "safe" path, and stay quiet, they'll get the job done slower, and run less risk of getting fired. If they're less efficient, they're safer.


On the Getting Apps Done podcast, we talk about safety in the workplace quite a bit, but it's worth describing again here: "Safety" in this context means that even if you take a risk and it fails, the consequences won't harm you. You will not lose your job, you will not be shamed, you will continue to have food and shelter and people in your life.

Individuals can take actions to increase their safety. The most straight forward is saving money. It's less risky to take chances at work if you can afford to be laid off and find another job.

But there are things we can do as employers too. Talk to your employees about the risks they could take. Discuss the consequences of those risks and see if there are ways to mitigate them.

A complex example might be a customer project where a mistake could throw off the timeline. The further out the timeline is, the more likely something will go wrong. A timeline should have a buffer for failure. The more experienced you get as developers, as managers, as leaders, the closer to that edge you can get. You'll know the most likely risks and how to plan for them and the less buffer will be required.

This is the whole purpose of Agile! It goes on the assumption that you're going to mess up and that iterating the plan will be required. Over time your metrics about work estimates get more accurate and you can plan better. Agile creates a safety net on failure by making sure each piece of work is "bite sized" and requesting regular feedback to verify that the work completed matches what was expected. Maybe you messed up an individual ticket, or maybe a sprint. But it's unlikely the entire project would be considered a failure if you've been getting constant feedback.

We apply this strategy of limiting consequences to timelines, projects, and processes, but it's rare that it's applied directly to people.

In the earlier example of a meeting: Make it clear that ignorance is fine! People are so trained to be afraid of showing their ignorance that they often won't ask questions when they don't understand something. Make it clear that asking questions is a safe thing to do, and even an expected thing to do.

Make it safe for your employees to fail.

Trust, Responsibility, Consent, Confidence

When you discuss risks with your team, ask them questions until you understand their viewpoints, and most importantly, trust what they tell you. They're going to be wrong sometimes and that's OK! In exchange for your trust, they consent to being responsible for what they agreed to.

This is where a lot of organizations break down. Consent to responsibility has to be voluntary, because otherwise it's not consent! If you threaten them you're not trusting them, you're forcing them, you're coercing them.

For many, the idea of being responsible for your own actions is just assumed, but the first example in this article points out that sticking your head out can impact someone's safety and their family's. We can't perfectly predict the future, and being responsible for something's outcome is always a gamble. If taking on that responsibility is required by your team, ask them what it would take for them to agree to it. Support them with safety.

Let's go back to that timeline example. You ask the team how long it will take and they say 10 weeks. You list out the possible failure points, and make plans for the most likely, or the ones with the most impactful consequences. And then you do it. And if it goes great or it bombs, responsibility is what people agreed to. Everyone will make mistakes and instead of trying to bury or hide from them, they'll learn from them.

Learning from your mistakes is the road to confidence. The more you know you can safely handle the more confident you are in your own ability. By creating an environment that's safe, people can learn that confidence by making mistakes over and over again, and if they're responsible for their own actions, then they'll have pressure to avoid that as much as possible. They can make decisions based on actual risk instead of "risk of getting yelled at by the boss".

Do the Impossible

Having a perfectly safe environment is impossible, but what you can do is lower the possibility of dangerous consequences. You can do this by making an environment that's consensual, that's safe, and where people are free to do the work they want to do to the best of their ability.

You can create an environment of trust, where you as an employer trust your employees to succeed and fail. When you let people fail and pull themselves back up again, you teach them confidence in their own abilities.

Help them all be rock stars.


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