Self-organisation—by one definition—is one of the three management breakthroughs of Teal. It requires a Power Shift away from hierarchical or informal shared power to distributed power. That shift requires a sense of psychological safety—without it, it will fail. Let me explain from the bottom up.
I am referring to psychological safety within the context of an organisation; not a deep, ever-present existential sense of unsafety, which someone might experience because of their personal history, but the sense of safety among colleagues that liberates creative energy and invites our wholeness to work.
The critical role of psychological safety in a conventional management hierarchy is well-known, popularised by research by Google’s Aristotle Project. This found that psychological safety was the key factor in the difference between high and low performing teams. The definition of psychological safety I am using is an amalgamation of popular definitions: the embodied sense a person has of feeling safe enough to take risks without the fear of negative consequences. This can look like:
- in one’s work: experimenting, making mistakes, failing, seeing things differently, and working with full passion, creativity and verve
- in one’s relationships with colleagues: showing up as one’s full self, being open, honest, and vulnerable, being comfortable being different from the group/organisational norms.
When I can do this without fear of embarrassment, humiliation, or negative consequences—when I don’t have to shrink myself or quiet my voice to protect my self-image, status, membership organisation, compensation, or career progression—then it’s likely I have a good degree of psychological safety in my workplace.
Psychological Risk & Unsafety
Think about an organisation you’re part of and answer this question: what do I have to lose in my situation in my organisation? Your answers will be indicators of your degree of psychological safety. Here are six potential sources of psychological unsafety:
- an unclear or ambiguous power structure, where people with power lack accountability
- a lack of ways to talk about things that are difficult, regarding either my work and/or issues with colleagues (a lack sometimes revealed as conditions for conflict, things getting stuck, relationships turning toxic, and people getting resentful)
- there’s a power-base of people who can decide if I stay in the organisation or not, and how much I get paid, and their opinions of my work or my way of showing up can affect my job security
- things in the organisation feel imbalanced in favour of the organisation’s interests, at the expense of the people who work here, and I lack ways to express or be heard about that
- even though we have a clear power structure and people are held accountable for their power, a shadow power structure is at play and peoples’ informal power is unaccountable
- some people hold special privileges because they founded the company or hold a lot of equity, and I don’t feel fully safe to challenge them because of their privileged positions.
Another way to frame this is in terms of ‘speaking truth to power’: to what extent do I feel safe to speak truth to power in this organisation? What is in the way of my doing that, and what is being lost by my not doing that?
The Power Shift
Part of what happens in the shift to self-organisation is commonly referred to as the ‘Power Shift’: power is shifted away from people who held it by virtue of their positions a hierarchy, or away from informal structures of power without accountability, and shifted into a set of roles or processes with clearly defined decision-making authority. For a real Power Shift to take place, power must be based on a written down, transparent rule-set for decision-making authority and processes for how decisions are made. This rule-set must bind everyone in the same ways. There must be no privileged classes, and no exceptions. No one person may have personal power or authority over another person or over the system itself.
This Power Shift is fundamental in the transition towards self-organisation. It is the reason many people choose a Self-Organising system like Holacracy® which explicitly requires and supports this Power Shift, rather than other bespoke approaches which may not reach to the level of the fundamental power structure in an organisation and may still leave some power with some people in privileged positions.
So what does this have to do with psychological safety and trust? Well, two things.
Firstly, our foundations have been removed. When we depart from the conventional management hierarchy to self-organise, the familiar patterns of how we work together are removed. Extra care needs to be made to rebuild them, as the habits we have learned to rely on cease to be helpful. Our agreements and practices must, in fact, be even more visible, explicit, and resilient than before; so that we know how things work and what to expect of each other. We must see how power is held accountable if we are to experience the conditions for psychological safety and interpersonal trust.
Secondly, we’re experiencing new challenges together. People don’t often give up power voluntarily or easily, and even the best meaning people can hold or relinquish power inappropriately because of our acculturation and self-protection. A part of the Power Shift sometimes involves people with less power challenging those who have, or who previously had, more power. Someone may end up needing to say things to a former boss who was used to telling them what to do. They might need to say, “Thanks for your input—I’ll consider that and let you know what I decide.” This can be quite challenging, so to say something like this a person needs to feel safe. They must trust that there won’t be negative consequences. .
We now turn to a journey through seven distinct stages of maturity of self-organisation. I’ll describe each stage of the journey, identify the primary obstacle limiting psychological safety at that stage, and explore how our new understanding creates the psychological safety that was lacking at the previous stage. With this new safety, we are enabled for a shift to the next stage.