a blog written by Brandon Mowat

On Psychological Safety in a Recession

Creating safe spaces in unsafe times

Sat Jul 23 2022

Working in technology has pretty much always been a great choice for your career. For the better part of the past 20 years, it's been one of the best industries to work in; with high pay, great office perks, and pretty safe employment. Even back in 2001, Stats Canada reported a 20% lower unemployment rate and higher than average earnings for those in the IT profession.

But now, on both the inside and the outside, it seems like things have been too good for too long. Companies are laying people off left and right after 2 decades of times that, in retrospect, seem to have been too good to be true. Fintech, crypto, and other consumer focused tech companies have been impacted greatly as we slip into a recession. Layoffs.fyi, a website dedicated to tracking tech/startup layoffs, has reported just over 50,000 individuals have been laid off across 330 startups this year so far. Even as I write this post, more news about layoffs at Rivian, Hopin, and Microsoft are being reported on. And managers at Meta have been asked to identify team members "who can't get on track"; perhaps an indicator of a layoff to come. The layoffs have been seemingly constant since late spring/early summer.

These layoffs unfortunately don't stop at the people immediately affected. They have a rippling effect, especially when they're happening frequently across an industry that you work in. They have side effects of dampening a teams' productivity which perpetuates a self fulfilling prophecy; market is performing poorly -> layoffs occur in industry -> team feels uneasy -> performance affected -> layoffs occur... You get the rest. But that's not to say something can't be done about it.

What's happening to a team, when the market atmosphere is poor and uncertain, is that they're psychological safety is being affected – they no longer feel safe and secure in their role (whether in reality they're secure or not) and they need action from their leader to improve it.

So what can leaders do?

As a leader in your organization, there are a few tools that you can employ to take care of your teams psychological safety.

Firstly, leaders can acknowledge the reality, the atmosphere, and the teams' feelings in an open, transparent, and public way. If you don't do this, your team will feel gaslit. Without this, it'll be incredibly hard to create a psychologically safe workplace. Conversations about what's happening will turn to rumours and team culture will dive quickly. Start the conversation and own it.

Secondly, create space for people to talk about how they themselves, their colleagues, or their friends, are being impacted by whatever forces are at play. Your team needs space to talk through their feelings and work through them for themselves. An important distinction to make here is that you should not lie to your team to make them feel a false sense of security. Be real with them. You cannot change the fact that things can be scary, but create safety inside by allowing people to share, be heard, and that you are right there with them, as a member of the team.

Thirdly, keep moving, but accommodate your teams' needs with empathy. It's vital that your team still work towards a mission. Sitting around, waiting for work while anxiety about whether you're going to be laid off festers, is no way to create a psychologically safe space. Continue delivering and growing your teams' own skills and careers while also making sure that people know that they can take care of their mental well-being, as needed. While continuing to press on, its vital that you accommodate everyones capacity with empathy.

Employing all these tools are not fool-proof, but they will help keep your team pulse higher and help retain your talent. It's important to also note that this is not a finite list. These are simply the patterns that I incorporate into my own management style and have seen work. As the situation changes, I'll continue to learn more and the patterns may change, but the values that root them (Empathy, Authenticity), will remain constant.

Take care 💕

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Written by Brandon Mowat
building useful things at Ada, in the city of Toronto

made from scratch