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Building Resilience: How to form lasting psychological safety

This is the first of a two-part post about building individual resilience in software engineering.

Today is Blue Monday. According to experts this is mentally the toughest day of the year for knowledge workers in the Northern Hemisphere. The low point of the year for many of us due to the long dark days, the excitment of the Christmas season being over and it being a couple of weeks until pay day.

Mental health of workers has been in the spotlight for a few years now. Thanks to the popularity of Amy Edmondson’s “The Fearless Organization” there has been much interest in worker happiness and psychological safety. A 2022 report from the UK’s Ministry of Defence concluded:

Psychological safety alone represented 29.4% of the variance in wellbeing scores amongst survey respondents, and the projects in the top quartile for high psychological safety had 47% higher median wellbeing scores than the lower quartile

In addition to the impact on wellbeing, psychological safety also explains 37.5% of the variance in team performance scores

It’s clear that creating psychologically safe environments where people are free to express themselves has a real impact both on the individual happiness of your workforce and the overall success of the projects they are working on.

However, a recent report from HP showed that only 1 in 4 workers are happy at work – so perhaps we have some way to go in addressing psychological safety and worker happiness?

What does Psychological Safety look like from an organizational perspective?

The default approach in many organisations is to attempt to measure ‘happiness’ without addressing the core of psychological safety.

‘Psych safety’ check-ins can be deployed as part of inspect-and-adapt or organizational planning exercises. Anything regularly scheduled, when a questionnaire is sent around to all teams, and individuals can rank how they feel about their way of working in the company and with their current workload. Questions such as:

  • I feel able to raise issues without fear of retribution from my manager.
  • I feel like my voice is heard when we are making decisions about architecture.
  • I feel that I’m valued as a member of staff.
  • I feel I can influence the direction of my work.
  • And so on.

Check-ins such as these are easily gamed and results tends to be of low quality. The questions often don’t factor in context and they don’t factor in timing. They are simple questions which are at the mercy of those answering them. Having a bad day? Take it out on the questionnaire? Having a good day? Perhaps you’ll be too generous.

Without careful weighting and measurement, questionnaires aren’t going to give managers a feel for happiness or cognitive load.

Additionally, any questionnaire is part of a feedback loop. It is reporting after the event when the “horse has already bolted”. It would be better to positively influence cognitive load and happiness before or in place of feeling the need to measure it.

The only conclusions you’re likely to derive from measuring happiness retrospectively are that people don’t like being regularly asked what their opinion is of the work they do.

Also, because often these initiatives are implicitly top-down (i.e. they are initiated by management) there is a certain fait accompli about these surveys. Any employee who wants to make their manager happy will of course say they are happy. With current pressure on incomes and jobs, many workers are not in a situation where they can pick and choose about how ‘nice’ their job is. They just need a job.

The Happy-Productive Worker Thesis

One thing both managers and individuals can agree on is this, that happier engineers are more productive engineers. So rather than attempting to force or game psychological safety, how can leaders encourage psychological safety without it coming across as being forced, uncomfortable or patronising?

I recently read a paper that analyses in depth the truth behind the Happy-Productive Worker Thesis which states:

The happy-productive worker thesis (HPWT) has a long tradition in work and organizational psychology since the human relations movement (Hawthorne studies in the 1930s). This movement showed the importance of groups in affecting the behavior of individuals at work and strongly contributed to the generalized belief that a happy worker is more productive.

The Hawthorne studies are also referenced heavily in Self-Determination Theory and the paper goes on to show through analysis of many other papers, that there is undoubtedly and provably a link between worker happiness and performance.

Happiness is Individual

There is a distinction between what makes a person happy and what makes a team happy. Too often for reasons of efficiency and effectiveness, management will seek to measure happiness with clumsy tools such as surveys.

Instead of just trying to game happiness – what about if we actually empowered workers to feel happy in themselves? As the adage goes:

“What happens if I train people and they leave? Well what happens if you don’t train them and they stay?”

Rather than treating individuals as numbers – measuring them, prodding and stimulating them for reactions, attempting to understand them from a distance – why not actually treat individuals like humans and give them something to be happy and proud about?

How to show leadership

Just having a job and not necessarily loving it (or wanting to show about it) is also a valid way to work. Doing a good job and not wanting to learn or grow more in the role is also fine – we don’t need to always be trying to grow or expand ourselves or others.

We don’t owe our employers more than a living. In these times of increasing wage disparity and unemployment – employers should learn to address worker happiness in ways which don’t necessarily cost anyone more money.

While the intent behind psychological safety measurement is fundamentally good. Too often this feels like lip service to the actual feelings we have about our roles.

You can truly make workers happier by giving them the chance to speak up and have a say in what constitutes the work they do. But you can also make people happier by giving them the tools and opportunities to be more resilient in the same way they seek to keep improving the systems.

In other words, we know that happier people do better work so give them the tools to be happier. Give them Daniel Pink’s “autonomy, mastery and purpose”. Give them space and time to grow when it suits them, not on a monthly, quarterly or annual basis. Give them a chance to show you what they can do when they are not being bothered by surveys which only provide a shallow understanding of the people you work with.

In the next article I will explore some ways that individual resilience in engineering can be fostered to improve happiness in your DevOps and development teams.


Psychological Safety in MOD Major Projects, Ministry of Defence, July 2022.

The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation and Growth, Amy Edmondson, 2018

Thanks to the WB-40 Podcast on Psychological Safety for the discussion.

Happy-Productive Teams and Work Units: A Systematic Review of the ‘Happy-Productive Worker Thesis’, M. Esther García-Buades,1,* José M. Peiró,2,3,* María Isabel Montañez-Juan,1 Malgorzata W. Kozusznik,4 and Silvia Ortiz-Bonnín1, 2019

HP Work Relationship Index Shows Majority of People Worldwide Have an Unhealthy Relationship with Work, September 2023