Psychological Safety With Tom Geraghty

Posted on Monday, Aug 2, 2021
In this episode, Mandi Walls talks with Tom Geraghty, Transformation Lead at Red Hat’s Open Innovation Labs, about psychological safety and why it is crucial for modern high-performing teams.


Mandi Walls: Welcome to Page it to the Limit, a podcast where we explore what it takes to run software and production successfully. We cover leading practices used in the software industry to improve the system reliability and the lives of the people supporting their system. I’m your host Mandi Walls. Find me at LNXCHK on Twitter.

Mandi Walls: Great. Today. Welcome to the show. We’re going to talk about incident reviews and psychological safety. I’m joined today by Tom Geraghty from Red Hat, Tom, welcome to the show.

Tom Geraghty: Thank you. Great to be here.

Mandi Walls: Excellent. Tell the people about yourself. What do you do? Why are you interested in psychological safety?

Tom Geraghty: Oh, yeah. My name’s Tom, I’m a transformation lead at Red Hat, open innovation labs here in the UK. We work all over the area and in fact all over the world. But so I got into psychological safety before I knew what it was, before I knew it as a word, about maybe 10, 12-ish years ago.

Tom Geraghty: I had a terrible, terrible boss. Stereotypical boss who would come in storming to the office, open plan office, storm in and rip someone to pieces for some minor mistake or infraction. And that culture resulted in just a terrible place to be, but it also resulted in a real slow innovate, well, no innovation really. Slow old techno and we’re just making changes. And it was all … the performance of the team was really poor.

Tom Geraghty: The performance of the technology was really poor and it was unreliable and awful. I knew at that point that that was the bad end, the bad side of leadership. I didn’t know what the good end was. I didn’t know what that looked like. I couldn’t give it a word.

Tom Geraghty: But from that point on, I vowed I would be the opposite of that. Yeah. And then just a few years ago, I discovered some work by Amy Edmondson and managed to, and was like, “Oh my God, this is the word. This is the thing that I’ve been doing and hunting for.” So that’s sort of how I discovered it and became so passionate about it.

Mandi Walls: Excellent. So why don’t we dip into some things here. If we talk about, say, you mentioned that sort of culture where innovation stops, people are very fearful and we try to encourage learning experiences and growth and that all fosters innovation and all that sort of thing.

Mandi Walls: So how does that play into psychological safety? So when we talk about it, we sort of cite a Google paper and some research there. How do you approach it? How do you explain to people what all this stuff is?

Tom Geraghty: Well, I think, so, yeah, it’s interesting you mentioned the Google paper and stuff, because I think that’s one of the easiest ways for me to describe it, I think, is to talk about some of the original research, which is what Amy Edmonson did in ‘99. She was studying clinical teams. High performing and low performing clinical teams.

Tom Geraghty: And what she found was that the high performing teams where more people survived, made more mistakes than the low-performing teams, where more people died. Right? So that doesn’t make sense. Why would a high performing team make more mistakes than a low performing team?

Tom Geraghty: And she initially thought that she’d got the data the wrong way around. She thought it was just transposing it or something. So she dived into a bit more. And what she found was that the high-performing teams were admitting more mistakes, admitting their mistakes. And the low-performing teams were hiding theirs, which you follow that through, of course meant that mistakes and errors perpetuated themselves. They never got fixed it, and no one, nothing ever got better.

Tom Geraghty: But the high-performance team, they raised an issue. They would hold up a hand and say, “I made a mistake,” and do something about it and make processes better and bring in checklists or whatever it was. So fundamentally, this psychological safety, at a basic level, is just that ability to put your hand up and say, “I’ve made a mistake,” or “I’ve got an idea,” or “I don’t think that’s right.” And that’s the power of it.

Mandi Walls: So the medical clinical association with some of this stuff, it’s pretty clear. There’s a lot of research that sort of brings that in. It’s kind of interesting that things are related, that we’re kind of picking up in IT that way. It’s super interesting that way.

Mandi Walls: And then all of that stuff leads into good practice for incident reviews and how you handle when things do go poorly and all that stuff that becomes so, so important in this same kind of high pressure, real-time environments that our IT teams are running.

Mandi Walls: There’s nobody open on the table or whatever, but there’s a lot of stress going on. So when we’re talking about say incident reviews and how it relates to all of that kind of stuff, how does it play into that part of it? If something’s happened already, and then we’re going to talk about it and hopefully learn from it, what kind of culture we want to foster at that end of the path?

Tom Geraghty: Yeah. So that’s a great question because I think there’s a few things to unpick there. I mean, fundamentally, people need to feel safe to be present. They need to feel safe that being present and offering their ideas or contributing their mistakes or their perceptions of what happened or whatever, if this is an incident review, that that’s not going to backfire. There’s not going to be some negative impact upon them for contributing or sharing what they feel they need to share, or what would be good to share.

Tom Geraghty: That’s a fundamental aspect of psychological safety that people are able to put their hand up, admit mistakes, offer their ideas. Because when you’re offering your idea, you’re making yourself vulnerable, because you’re offering a part of yourself, “This part of me, this is my idea.” And so that takes quite a lot of psychological safety.

Tom Geraghty: And even higher level of psychological safety is required if you’re going to challenge the ideas of other people on the team or challenge the beliefs or perceptions of someone else on the team. Especially if they’re someone senior on the team. And so, you might have a senior engineer or your manager or someone in that incident review, even with a flat team, there’s hierarchies in dynamics. Right? Of course there are. So, to challenge the idea of someone else, if someone else says, “Well, I think this happened. I think this caused this, caused this.”

Tom Geraghty: For you, maybe in order for you to feel safe to say, “Actually, I don’t think that’s the case. I think it might be X,” takes a high degree of psychological safety. And the building of that psychological safety is something, it takes a lot of work and it’s the job primarily of leadership, because it’s leadership, ultimately, there can damage psychological safety, most of all, by making actions and doing things that damage it. So a lot of this relies on leaders to carry out good, progressive leadership behaviors and values and techniques to facilitate that psychological safety in the team.

Mandi Walls: Yeah. What does that look like? So as we go back through sort of historical incidents, historical disasters, I think for those of us of a certain age in the United States, the Challenger accident in ‘83 is a big one, where as that investigation came out, that really shined a light on a lot of really toxic cultural practices and really brought a lot of that stuff to the forefront.

Mandi Walls: And we’re almost, what, 30 years from that, but still struggling with these concepts. So what kinds of things can people do? What do you see that works? Leadership modeling certain behaviors, what kind of behaviors does that look like?

Tom Geraghty: Yeah, great. So one of the phrases I really like is, and this doesn’t apply all the time, but I think it’s really useful to think about, is that one of the best ways to build psychological safety is to pretend it already exists. And as a leader, because naturally you are safer as a leader, as a leader, this is on you to start pretending it already exists and start modeling those behaviors.

Tom Geraghty: So some of those things might be being the first to admit a mistake. And there’s just something that I was speaking to a Red Arrows commander about. Red Arrows are the UK Acrobatic-

Mandi Walls: Blue Angels.

Tom Geraghty: Yeah, yeah.

Mandi Walls: Yeah.

Tom Geraghty: Yeah. And I was talking to him. So he was telling me about when his squadron land from, I’m using all these words that I don’t know, like squadron, sortie. So they land from a mission or sortie or whatever it is, and they walk into the hangar and they do like a debrief.

Tom Geraghty: And the first thing he does is admit at least one mistake that he made. Now, what that does is that creates a safe space for everyone else to admit a mistake, but it also models that behavior. So they actually want to, it’s expected for them to admit mistakes. And then it’s through admitting those mistakes that improvements can be made.

Tom Geraghty: So, yeah, admitting mistakes is a really powerful way of building psychological safety and creating that culture and the environment. Another thing to do is to make sure that when someone else on the team does, say, admit a mistake or contribute an idea or offer their perspective that it’s received well, it’s received with thanks and openness.

Tom Geraghty: Even if you disagree, or even if they’re patently wrong, receive it well, take it on, thank people for their contribution, because the worst thing you can do, one of the worst things you can do, is shut down that future contribution and admission through some sort of negative response to that behavior.

Mandi Walls: Yeah, definitely. It definitely feels like more of a challenge in certain cultures than others or in certain organizations than others, depending on baseline assumptions and things like that. So are there stages of psychological safety? Are there phases that organizations might go through in this sort of process or learning experience?

Tom Geraghty: Yeah. Yeah. There are. I mean, it’s interesting because all … so there are lots of models of psychological safety and as we know, all models are wrong, but some are useful. And there is a model called the four stages of psychological safety. And it’s really interesting to play with and useful to know because it allows you to think about the different ways, the different places where someone might be on a team.

Tom Geraghty: And we all move through these different stages on different teams, with different people in the room, in different contexts, in different situations and at different times of the day. And stuff might be going on at home or whatever, outside of work, that affects where you are. These four stages, this is from a book called the four stages of psychological safety by Timothy Clark. And the first stage is inclusion.

Tom Geraghty: This is actually, it’s probably the most important one to remember because fundamentally, inclusion is absolutely necessary to teaming, to simply being in a team. You know, people need to be comfortable being present on the team. This is just the fundamental, everyone needs to be there. And this kind of speaks to the diversity and equity and inclusion aspect of it all, because no one must feel part of the outgroup.

Tom Geraghty: So that’s your basic, that’s your base layer, that’s your foundation. And then you’ve got a learner stage of psychological safety, which means people are then a bit more confident, feel a bit safer. They can ask questions, they can make experiments, they can try things without fear of failure and they can admit mistakes and ask for help. That’s super powerful. And I love this point where experiments come in, because everything is an experiment. And if that’s then an experiment, you can’t fail because you’ve done the experiment.

Mandi Walls: Yeah, you don’t know. Right?

Tom Geraghty: Yeah.

Mandi Walls: Yeah.

Tom Geraghty: And then we move into contributor safety. And this requires another greater degree of psychological safety, where people can offer their ideas and perspectives without fear of embarrassment or ridicule. This is where innovation starts to happen because you get these different ideas from different perspectives on the team. The collection of ideas, and this sort of distilling of different ideas, means that not just the best ideas win, but the combinatorial power of lots of ideas coming together means that ultimately the best idea probably wasn’t one of the ideas that was originally suggested. Really powerful stage.

Tom Geraghty: The final stage, I think we alluded to this earlier is challenger safety. And that’s where people can challenge the ideas of other people on the team, challenge their perspectives, challenge the way the team does things, the way the organization does things, challenge the ideas or beliefs of the people in seniority, or the leaders on the team. That takes a great deal of effort to get there and a great deal of effort to stay there as well.

Mandi Walls: Yeah. All of those definitely makes sense. And my mind is working, I’m like, “Okay. Yeah.” I feel like I’ve experienced sort of all of those in different places. And like you said, with different teams even, in the same organization has, smaller pods of people might have their own sort of team culture and team norms that contribute to those things in positive and potentially negative ways, just as people are doing people things. And so I was going to ask you another question about that and now I’ve lost it as my brain was ingesting all of this stuff. I’m going a million miles an hour. So that’s super interesting.

Tom Geraghty: I think I can see where you were going with that though. And this is something that comes up quite a lot. This might not be where you were going, but this is a question I get asked quite a lot. And it’s something that comes up quite often. Which is just, how do you deal with these, like I say, pockets.

Mandi Walls: Yes, there you go.

Tom Geraghty: Of safety, in organizations. So you may well be familiar, and a lot of the listeners will be familiar with Western cultural typologies.

Mandi Walls: Yes.

Tom Geraghty: I think were recently referred to in possibly the Phoenix project, definitely referred to in accelerate. So you’ve got generative, bureaucratic and pathological cultures, right? And these exist in different degrees, in different parts of the organization. So I’m sure we’ve all seen, and we can all empathize with how some teams and organizations are sort of really high-performing bubbles. And the teams within that feel psychologically safe inside the team, to be part of that team.

Tom Geraghty: But the wider organization is not psychologically safe. So what you end up with is what I call a psychological safety gradient, a steep gradient. And just with a semipermeable membrane and a a diffusion gradient, it’s harder to maintain. It’s harder to maintain a steeper gradient.

Tom Geraghty: And that stress is on the leader of that team, invariably. And this is the older sort of metaphor of the manager holding up the umbrella to shield the team from the rest of the organization.

Mandi Walls: Yes.

Tom Geraghty: That becomes really stressful place to be. So you can do that as a leader of your team and you can build a great high performing team, but whilst you’re doing that, the emphasis should be to try and widen that psychological safety, spread it throughout the organization. Because it’s only going to get harder and harder as the gradient gets steeper.

Mandi Walls: Absolutely, and we think of teams as a discreet item, but teams are really flowing, living amorphous things. They change over time. People join, people leave. They take on different projects, they get reorged, because why not? And the concept of a team having its own sort of identity is very easily crumbled in a lot of organizations. So yeah, as you strive to spread that nice new dawn across the rest of the organization, you help everybody as well as yourself with that stuff. Absolutely.

Mandi Walls: So let’s talk a little bit about, I think a lot of people who have been following maybe the DevOps movement and some of these other sort of modernization things, probably have at least some concept of psychological safety and kind of know what it feels like in different places, but there’s a bunch of myths around it too. So do you have a myth that you’d like to debunk with our listeners today or that you find around psychological safety?

Tom Geraghty: Yeah. That’s a really good question. And yes, there are definitely some misconceptions about psychological safety that I’ve come across a lot. I’ve come across with, particularly for people in fairly senior roles or fairly traditional roles or in traditional organizations. And particularly for people who have obtained power in those organizations through traditional power structures.

Tom Geraghty: The concept of psychological safety is often kind of framed as a bit of a soft mental health wellness kind of initiative. And it’s often, for some reason, parked alongside diversity and inclusion programs. Honestly, don’t make much sense to me why that, psychological safety is such a fundamental part of human being and such an essential part of team performance and organizational performance and the ability to learn and execute and deliver and be happy, that I don’t really understand why it’s often framed just as a wellness thing.

Tom Geraghty: The danger with that, and what I do see happening, is that because it’s dismissed as nice to have or something for HR to do, or is this wellness thing, is that there’s a temptation to run a workshop or a few sessions, do a few seminars, create a guide or something. Do this, do that, do this other thing and then you’ve got it and your job is done. And you can go back to the old ways. You can start telling people what to do again. You can get back to the Gantt charts and command/control processes that used to have for an effluent or good, but that’s not the case.

Tom Geraghty: Psychological safety is a genuine phase change for an organization. It’s a genuine leap into a completely different way of working, power structures and progressive next gen organizational thinking. It’s a completely different way of doing it. And I liked the phrase that the soft stuff is the hard stuff.

Mandi Walls: Yes.

Tom Geraghty: Because we work in technology, ultimately, technology is technology. It works. It might be hard in the sense you have to work stuff out, but people are much harder. People and organizations and cultures are much, much harder. And so there’s a temptation to kind of steer away, pull away from it, because it’s too difficult.

Mandi Walls: Yeah. Oh, people are messy. They do people things. And what are you doing, man? So, yeah, definitely see that at different places. And with that, as we’re moving towards, sort of, especially in IT, so in our parts of the industry, we’re moving towards teams want to move faster, or they want to do more stuff. They want to put more features in front of their customers. And it feels like that kind of acceleration of innovation and those kinds of goals sort of require this as a prerequisite before you can get to all the good stuff that falls in later.

Tom Geraghty: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. And I think fundamentally it’s because there’s only so much we can achieve without psychological safety. Sure, a team can be high performing or deliver stuff well to high quality and do it quickly without psychological safety. As much as I hate to say it, it is possible to manage through fear. It is possible to get people to do stuff by making them scared of the consequences if they don’t.

Tom Geraghty: But that’s not a long-term, that’s not sustainable. And it also doesn’t take, it doesn’t take teams to the next performance level. What we’re asking teams, particularly technology teams to do right now, in this age, is perform at a level that we’ve never seen performance before. Or we’ve only seen it in little pockets. And that level of performance only comes through an ownership and a true engagement with that desire to perform fast and quickly and to high quality.

Tom Geraghty: What that requires is a psychological safety within that team, to enable everyone in the team to constantly say, “What’s our next idea? How can we do this better? What did we do wrong that time? Why did that success happen? Let’s do more of that.” And that psychological safety to engage with it at a really meaningful level and keep pushing it forward. And that’s why it’s so important right now, because we’re asking so much more of people, but also where, yeah, it’s the right thing to do right now, because fundamentally people should be happy in work.

Mandi Walls: Yeah. And you touched on something else there too. It’s not just for when things go wrong. just the ability of your junior people to ask questions or to learn from the senior folks on your team. Even something that feels like it should be simple. I think we’ve probably all worked somewhere where that wasn’t even the case and just setting those baselines for people to be safe to ask questions and to even just to show up to work as themselves and all of those sort of baseline assumptions all becomes part of this as well.

Tom Geraghty: Yeah. Exactly, exactly. All of that stuff that we often take for granted, like being able to ask someone where to find that documentation, or, “Oh, I can’t remember how to use this tool,” or, “what does that word mean?” You know, all of that stuff does require psychological safety. And if there’s not much psychological safety, all that stuff, all those little things start to slow everyone down.

Mandi Walls: Yeah.

Tom Geraghty: And so yeah, to really enable everyone to push forward and enable other people to pull people forward behind them, then yeah, it requires that psychological safety. And like you say, for successes, not just failures. Examining success.

Mandi Walls: Absolutely. As we look out across the industry, there’s been … we were talking about this before we started recording. I feel like psychological safety is kind of having a moment, right? We’ve seen a couple of newer events put together that sort of focus on it. And even seeing it as a suggested topic on calls for papers and those kinds of things in sort of mainstream events. It feels a little novel. It feels like a newer thing. We’ve been talking about it for a long time, but it feels like it’s just now sort of bubbling back up. Do you feel that way too? Is that kind of what you’re seeing as well?

Tom Geraghty: Yeah, yeah. Yeah. I’m definitely seeing it. I first sort of came across the term maybe three years ago, when I came across one of Amy Edmonson’s videos. But at the time it was a bit niche, it was a bit weird. People were surprised when I was talking about it.

Tom Geraghty: But yeah. Now yeah, most people know what it is, they get it. And like you say, there’s almost no conference or event that goes by without at least one person talking about it. And it’s often a thread that’s brought into talks and presentations and articles and stuff all the time. In fact, up until about two years ago, there was basically one book on psychological safety.

Mandi Walls: Yeah.

Tom Geraghty: Amy Edmonson’s Fearless Organization.

Mandi Walls: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Tom Geraghty: And now there’s more coming out all the time. They’re all over the place. Sooner, Safer, Happier book and Agile Conversations.

Mandi Walls: Oh, yeah.

Tom Geraghty: And The Unicorn Project, they’re all talking about psychological safety as a fundamental factor. And yet, like you say, it’s really having a moment. And I think partly that’s due to 2020 and the chaos that ensued from that. And most of us, maybe all of us, actually, felt a lot less psychologically safe as a result. And so we’ve all kind of felt this need, “Okay, how do we bring that back? How do we make ourselves more psychologically safe in our teams and organizations and at work?”

Mandi Walls: Yeah, that brings me to my next question. We don’t always get too super spicy or into the news of the day on this show, but it feels like there’s been maybe some pushback in some certain sectors about the idea that people should bring their whole selves to work.

Mandi Walls: And thinking about some of the dramatic explosions or implosions of organizations recently that have sort of challenged this. The research is there, like you said, there’s papers, there’s tons of research. It’s there, sort of as an established theory, but then there’s also this pushback. What do you see there? What does that … to me, it feels really kind of gross, but yeah, it’s weird.

Tom Geraghty: Yeah. I’ve seen that pushback and I’ve seen it before now. There are organizations that are almost reacting and reverting to type. And when I say organizations, I mean the leaders of these organizations.

Mandi Walls: Yeah.

Tom Geraghty: And I think what a lot of this comes back to, ironically, it never comes back to fear. And it comes to this picture of fear of losing control and a fear of losing control of the power structures that got them there in the first place.

Tom Geraghty: The leaders of these organizations got to where they are via power structures that, via psychological safety, and other progressive movements, they’re being asked to break down. You know, they’re being asked and told to flatten organizations. Evolve power, distribute power, distribute decision-making. Include everyone, include everyone’s perspectives.

Tom Geraghty: And all of this is fundamentally psychological safety stuff, but it also makes them, as leaders, much more vulnerable. Because what we’re asking them to do, stage four of psychological safety is challenge authority.

Mandi Walls: Yeah.

Tom Geraghty: So we’re asking leaders to put themselves in very vulnerable positions where top into an hour, their decisions weren’t challenged.

Mandi Walls: Yeah.

Tom Geraghty: There were people who are not very comfortable with that, for sure.

Mandi Walls: Yeah, absolutely. And it definitely, yeah, the reaction definitely feels like a step back in a lot of ways. If you feel like, as an underrepresented person in your organization, that there’s someone in leadership roles or even have soft power roles, that make comments about whether you deserve to be there, or any of these other things that … it’s pride month when we’re recording this.

Mandi Walls: There’s lots of drama around so many things and seeing some of these leaders … are they leaders? Right? Even to that point.

Tom Geraghty: Yeah.

Mandi Walls: Some of these higher up folks say, “that’s not important,” and yeah, it definitely feels-

Tom Geraghty: Yeah. Yeah. And I think, and you’ve kind of hit on it there because how many of these leaders? I mean, the leaders that we’re talking about are privileged, white, men, aren’t they?

Mandi Walls: Yes.

Tom Geraghty: So of course, they see this stuff as, “Well, it doesn’t matter.” Because it doesn’t affect them.

Mandi Walls: They’re always safe.

Tom Geraghty: Yeah.

Mandi Walls: There’s probably never a time where they don’t feel empowered to speak their mind or ask questions.

Tom Geraghty: Exactly, exactly. And so, because they don’t feel that fear and they don’t feel that fear of being excluded, they don’t feel the need for inclusion because they’re included by default. They are the organization by default. There’s not that energy behind the inclusion. And there’s often not even a recognition of this concept of privilege, intersectionality and those sorts of deals, because they don’t see them.

Mandi Walls: Yeah, absolutely. For folks in that kind of environment, do they have a light at the end of the tunnel? Is the best policy to maybe leave an organization that’s maybe devolving in that way?

Tom Geraghty: That’s a really good question because I’m really convicted about that.

Mandi Walls: Yeah.

Tom Geraghty: And I’m very conscious of my own privilege in that respect, because if I’m in an organization like that, my journey, and I’ve been in this situation, my journey will be to push, push, push, and rebel and raise my head above the power a bit and say, “This isn’t right. This isn’t good. What you’re doing is wrong,” et cetera. And if that doesn’t work, then I’ll leave.

Mandi Walls: Yeah.

Tom Geraghty: But I’m very conscious that I’m pretty privileged. I speak English, I’m a white guy. I can get a job somewhere else without really worrying about it as much as someone else might. So I know that I’m in a less vulnerable position than other people. And I think it wouldn’t be fair for me to say, as a person in that position, “You should put your hand up and just be bold and rebel against it and protest against it,” because you might not be in a secure enough or less vulnerable place to do that.

Mandi Walls: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Tom Geraghty: And equally, I could say, “You should just leave, because there’s loads of other companies out there that are doing great stuff, and there’s some great people out there, great organizations who will include you and are fantastic and progressive and generative.” But that jump is scary.

Mandi Walls: Yeah, definitely.

Tom Geraghty: So honestly, I don’t know.

Mandi Walls: Yeah, and I kind of feel the same way. It’s been good to see more organizations learning and growing, I think, over time, especially over the last four or five years. And I’m hopeful that these pockets of resistance will start to sort of learn more of what they benefit from when everybody is included and is free to contribute.

Mandi Walls: But the unfortunate thing is so many of these lessons get learned in public in very messy ways that I think has the potential for sending more of these kinds of folks underground and being a little bit more insidious. It’s not every day that your CEO gets up at Grace Hopper and just tells women to negotiate for higher pay, and gets really questioned about that or gets on Twitter and has a meltdown.

Mandi Walls: So, yeah, it’s tough. It’s tough, too, as lots of folks who are changing jobs right now, we’ve seen a lot of sort of pent up, “Time to change!” Kind of things with the end of the closing of the pandemic, at least in North America and parts of Europe and watching people move around and that’s all knowledge gathering for the rest of us, right? What does that organization look like? And the whisper networks kind of light up for, you know, “Hey, this organization isn’t really a safe place to be.”

Tom Geraghty: Yeah.

Mandi Walls: And that has impact as well.

Tom Geraghty: Yeah. This starts to speak to how organizations themselves are high performance, low performance, more resilient. And I think you’ve had John Osborne on recently.

Mandi Walls: Yep.

Tom Geraghty: And his field is resilient engineering, which is the capacity of an organization to anticipate, detect, respond, and adapt to change. Now, one of the things I think is really interesting about psychological safety is that it’s, if you like, it’s the foundation behind high-performing teams, right? But it’s also the foundation underneath high performing learning organizations.

Mandi Walls: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Tom Geraghty: Without psychological safety at that very base level, because resilience engineering fundamentally is all about people. So without psychological safety, you do not have resilience at a large scale in an organization. And one of the things really interesting and powerful about that is that these organizations that are pushing back against the new ways, reverting to tailorist kind of approaches and stuff? I don’t think they will survive. I think that will really struggle. I think these newer, progressive organizations will be more successful. It’s almost inevitable. So in a sense, whilst it sucks that they exist right now, I don’t know how much longer they will exist for.

Mandi Walls: Yeah. It feel like definitely over time, talent is going to drift away. Talent is going to repel against their poll of thoughts and ways of working and go somewhere else. And they’ll lose out on all those opportunities for hiring all those folks.

Tom Geraghty: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Mandi Walls: Yeah, absolutely. I do feel like it will take some time, but yeah. Definitely feels like things are improving. I feel like I hear fewer horror stories that are current. Lots of people still have internalized trauma from bad managers, bad organizations that they’ve worked for in the past. It’s starting to feel like those things are clearing up in at least our part of the industry.

Tom Geraghty: Yeah. Yeah. I think so. I think so. I think we are lucky, in a sense, in technology, that technology definitely as industry has its problems, has its diversity problems, has its equity problems and all sorts of stuff that we need to fix pretty urgently. But in many ways, we’re quite a long way ahead of other domains. We’re behind in others.

Tom Geraghty: But yeah, in this respect, I completely agree. We are pushing this forward. I don’t know why that is. Maybe it’s a facet of working in technology. Maybe it’s just the inherent success of the technology industry makes this finally able, we’re looking at the next thing. We’re looking at, “Okay. Where does real performance lie?”

Mandi Walls: Yeah.

Tom Geraghty: Well, actually we knew it all along, it was in people.

Mandi Walls: Yeah, absolutely. 100%. All right. Well we’re at the end of our time, but is there anything else you’d like to leave us with or finalize for folks? Where else can they find you or other information if they’re interested?

Tom Geraghty: Yeah, that’s brilliant. So I have my own website. I have a website that I created out of boredom last year, but now it’s kind of bloomed into something almost almost uncontrollable. So it’s at We also have a weekly newsletter that you can sign up to and has loads of interesting psychological safety stuff and practices and theory.

Tom Geraghty: And there’s also a community, it’s a Slack community that you can join, you can find a link to on the website there. So if you’re into psychological safety and want to find out more, that’s a great place to start. That’s the idea. There’s loads of stuff to go to from there.

Tom Geraghty: But I would also say three things. If there’s only a little bit that people take away from this podcast, then I’d like people to think about these three things. And in your teams, in your organizations, start asking questions. Because by asking questions of each other, you give people the space to speak up. People have to speak up, because they’ve been asked a question.

Tom Geraghty: And secondly, acknowledge your own fallibility, acknowledge when you’re wrong and admit your mistakes, like the Red Arrows commander, because by doing that, you’re making space for others to do the same. And you’re encouraging that behavior. And this applies whether you’re a member of the team or you’re a leader, especially if you’re a leader.

Tom Geraghty: And finally, treat everything as an experiment. Everything as an experiment. Treat everything as a learning opportunity and the outcome of any work should be knowing how to do it better next time. Because if everything is an experiment, you can’t fail. You just learned. And yeah, just talk about psychological safety, make psychological safety, a psychologically safe thing to talk about in your teams.

Mandi Walls: Excellent. Excellent parting words. We’ll add links to your site in the show notes, so folks can check that out. Hopefully they’ll engage more with you and your projects there, because that sounds amazing. So we’re going to sign off. Thanks for joining us today. Thanks to everybody out there for listening. This is Mandi Walls. I’m wishing you an uneventful and psychologically safe day.

Tom Geraghty: Thank you.

Mandi Walls: That does it for another installment of Page It To the limit. We’d like to thank our sponsor PagerDuty for making this podcast possible. Remember to subscribe to this podcast, if you like what you’ve heard.

Mandi Walls: You can find our show notes and you can reach us on Twitter at paintit2thelimit using the number two. Thank you so much for joining us and remember, uneventful days are beautiful days.


Tom Geraghty

Tom Geraghty (he/him)

Tom’s first job title was “Experimentalist, which set the tone for the rest of his career. His first tech role was as a lone sysadmin, and many subsequent years of tech ops and leadership roles has made Tom passionate about effective leadership and psychological safety. Tom sincerely believes happiness precedes success - high performing teams are high performing because they’re happy. Outside of work, Tom spends as much time as possible outdoors, and is studying for a Masters Degree in Global Health and Humanitarianism.


Mandi Walls

Mandi Walls (she/her)

Mandi Walls is a DevOps Advocate at PagerDuty. For PagerDuty, she helps organizations along their IT Modernization journey. Prior to PagerDuty, she worked at Chef Software and AOL. She is an international speaker on DevOps topics and the author of the whitepaper “Building A DevOps Culture”, published by O’Reilly.