Facilitating the Spread of Knowledge and Innovation in Professional Software Development

Write for InfoQ


Choose your language

InfoQ Homepage Articles How to Recognise and Reduce HumanDebt

How to Recognise and Reduce HumanDebt

Key Takeaways

  • Just as taking shortcuts or doing the wrong thing when building systems leads to technical debt being accumulated, enterprises also accumulate human debt – its equivalent connected to all the people issues- when they ignore their people’s needs
  • There is human debt at an organisational level, but there is also human debt at a teal level, and the latter should be our focus
  • The key to staying competitive in the new paradigm of work caused by VUCA and the post-pandemic world will be focusing on our teams and “human work”
  • The fastest lever to healthy and happy team dynamics is the concept of psychological safety – the ability to fearlessly speak up and engage
  • Teams can be empowered to reduce their human debt by learning to measure and improve their behaviours to achieve happy, psychologically safe and therefore highly performant dynamics

Between what was a fast-paced VUCA world to begin with, and what the 2020 pandemic has added, working in technology will never again be straightforward or about the technology only. What is now needed is a focus on the humans who do this work. Now, with the changes in the ways of working, we need flexibility, resilience, healthy team dynamics and collaborative, fearless, open, emotionally invested and ultimately happy teams. Without them we aren’t going to grow, become or remain competitive. The "people work", -- both at an individual, but especially at a team level -- is now the key to sustainability.

The amount of work we each have to do is directly proportional to how much HumanDebt we have.

What is HumanDebt™?

"HumanDebt™ is the equivalent to Technical Debt but for people. All of the initiatives, the projects, the intentions we (the organisation) had to do better by our employees, but we abandoned halfway. All of the missed opportunities to make their lives and their work easier and more joyful. All of the empty talk on equality, respect, lack of blame, courage and trust. All of the missing focus on empowered teams and servant leadership. All of the lack of preoccupation or resources for building better team dynamics. All of the toxic culture created by these. That’s Human Debt."

In my definition of the creation of the HumanDebt, I include all the moments that have caused the big themes of "respect", "safety" and "happiness" to remain unsolved.

The well-intentioned projects that only lived to dance one summer or one exec’s tenure; the initiatives and programmes that were a lot more about lip service than action and faded to nothing; every instance when the human topics were allowed to be thought of as "second-grade citizens" of the workplace; every time each of us "did the robot" and believed that being devoid of feelings is the "professional way"; the millions of surveys that were either completely sterile with no results communicated or punitive and feared; every action or lack thereof that left D&I up in the air; that reduced "satisfaction" to a "would you recommend us?" and lost any true channel of communication with our people.

The million cuts that have resulted in today’s extreme disconnect and disenchantment that exist in many organisations in far greater quantities than we are willing to admit. 

The Two Types of HumanDebt

It is tempting to believe that this type of debt is the organisation’s problem only. Even more tempting is to believe that it only happens at that macro, cultural level and that that is the only level where it can be fixed. Both are fallacies though.

It’s important that the organisation has a degree of recognition, which enables them to offer "organisational permission" and help, as there really is only one solid thing to start with - empower teams to work on their own dynamics and improve their happiness by giving them the resources they need to do so.

Here are some examples of this accumulated debt at the enterprise level:

  • People-work projects started and abandoned
  • Lip service from the top
  • Management changes and bad leadership
  • "Friday initiatives" - allowing the "people work" to be confined to an after-work moment after the "real (operational) work" is finished
  • Big topics left undiscussed – D&I, employee happiness, ways of working, etc
  • Sterile surveys
  • Punitive acts
  • Culture of fear and avoidance of failure
  • Allowing toxic politics and staying silent when there is systemic racism or bullying
  • Condoning command & control
  • Lip service to Agile with no mindset change
  • Unhappy, unengaged employees

Almost every enterprise has these to a degree or another, but the public examples are many and they involve the companies who "didn’t make it," and in each of these examples their failure is almost directly attributable to the above. Take Nokia’s sharp fall, which was then unveiled by a 2015 INSEAD study to be the result of a toxic culture of silence that the employees were experiencing that caused them to be in denial about the progress of their competition; or Boeing’s extreme failure that has been outed as a consequence of an environment of fear, where their engineers were afraid to be more vocal about the consistent failures they were observing that eventually led to the 737 tragedies.
At the team level, whether you are a team lead or a mere team member, you too may be contributing to this HumanDebt unwittingly if you ever engage in or observe and stay silent about these behaviours:

  • Engaging in impression management - a manifestation of being psychologically unsafe; we are impression-managing every time we do not express ourselves for fear of appearing incompetent, ignorant, negative, disruptive or unprofessional
  • The times we feel tension but hope it will resolve itself - it never does, and unaddressed conflictual states tend to accumulate and fester, sabotaging team dynamics
  • When we witness someone being treated unfairly, but we don’t speak up
  • When we feel we are brushing big topics under the carpet
  • When we know we should have done a team re-launch or a team building exercise, some coaching, a workshop or similar, and we cancel
  • Undiscussed failures or mistakes
  • Avoiding 1-on-1s
  • Lack of investment in an emotional bond with our teammates
  • Lack of EQ understanding and training
  • No interest in having a healthy and happy team, and no human work invested in it
  • Any time we de-prioritise the human work in favour of delivery/ops/dev work
  • Blaming the organisation

The last one on the list is crucial. Simply recognising the HumanDebt that exists at the organisational level and claiming our hands are tied while we point fingers is in no one’s best interest. Teams have the power to diminish the amount of HumanDebt themselves, and with the right tools they do not even need any external help in doing so - in a sense, by working intentionally on aspects of their team dynamics, teams engage in a form of CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) but for their group - they recognise negative behaviours and learn to avoid them but they also can heal old patterns.

What to Do about It

In our software at PeopleNotTech, which is a team dashboard designed to measure and increase healthy team dynamics through psychological safety, we include a series of plays which we crowdsourced from other successful teams; using them allows the teams to do this CBT-like people work.

An example of a successful play that helps correct a negative pattern of behaviour is the "Impression Management Counter," which allows team members to notice when they engage in impression management and catch themselves next time it happens.

Another popular one, that is designed to offer a moment of catharsis by eliminating the subliminal tension that previous unresolved conflict brings to the team, is called a "B!tch Fest"; it guides teams through a step-by-step exercise of expressing what the old issues were and how it made them feel. The results are spectacular, and teams find it liberating and fundamentally cleansing, allowing them to openly engage much more afterwards.

We spent the last three years researching high performing teams in technology and science, and building a product to help them shape happy and healthy dynamics; the way that dynamics contribute to HumanDebt is nothing short of fascinating. We focus almost exclusively on psychological safety as it is really the all-encompassing term and the lowest hanging fruit, in terms of monumental wins on HumanDebt.

Psychological Safety in Teams is Key

Studied by academics decades ago, the concept of psychological safety was heavily researched and written about by Harvard professor Dr. Amy Edmondson, but it was only really made popular by how it was featured as the number one sine qua non condition to having a high performing team, when named top of all contributing factors in Google’s "Project Aristotle" - a massive workplace study aimed at finding what makes teams most performant -the findings of which were then replicated by 2019’s State of DevOps Accelerate Report.

In Professor Dr. Edmondson’s definition, psychological safety "is a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking". In other words, a state of psychological safety in the team is one in which the dynamics between the team members allow them to believe they are completely free to speak up and never fear a loss of image should they engage with each other truthfully and authentically. This of course, is the basis of any innovation and collaboration, and therefore essential to achieving high performance in team work. When further dissected, in these ever-changing dynamics- which are worth constant close inspection and tweaks, hence the CBT-like aspect discussed above- a few good behaviours around courage, openness, learning, close emotional bond, empathy and flexibility become evident, and these positive behaviours can be encouraged and cultivated, while the opposite is true for the negative ones.

What Can Be Done to Reduce the HumanDebt?

If you lead teams, these are some of the practical things worth trying in order to increase psychological safety, and therefore create better team dynamics intentionally, and as a result reduce HumanDebt:

  • Heed all the ample advice out there regarding modelling courage and therefore vulnerability; being open, creating and holding the space for self-care and introspection, and ensuring we are all fit enough to be doing any of the other work
  • Bring everyone along the journey - arm yourself with facts and data to show why tackling the people topics matters - there is 81% less burnout, a 30% increase in retention; and companies are 20-40% more profitable when psychological safety is present, as evidenced in multiple reports such as this latest 2021 Gartner Workforce Resilience Employee Research or the Marching Sheep Survey
  • Make room for human work - in the same way we make room for technical debt (or should); time is an in-demand resource so we have to prioritise and limit delivery work, or the way we respond to putting out perceived fires, to ensure there’s time for this work
  • Understand that the work has to consist in hands-on team actions; clear tickets on the sprint where some desirable team dynamic change is driven either through a team exercise, a play, coaching, and so on
  • Find ways to constantly measure so you can show the smallest of early wins- such as the impression management counter detailed above- and underline the value of seeing the effect right away; this allows teams to understand the importance of continuous self-improvement work and how accessible it is to them
  • Keep consistent until you’ve created the habit, then watch the team self-propel into even more team people-work once they see the effects of their efforts
  • Be empathetic and sympathetic to how this is a completely different ask from what we have asked of our teams before, and how it is hard and sometimes unpleasant
  • Never relent, asking for "organisational permission" - every company owes its employees the firm encouragement and practical support that is needed for this work

If we look at the companies heralded in terms of doing Agile well and winning technology-wise, be it Google, Netflix or any of the digital-first scale-ups, we see they do each and every one of these. In their case, it’s more preventative than therapeutic as they haven’t yet amassed as much HumanDebt as the incumbents or those of us who have had to go through major transformation.

We have to admit that incumbent organisations therefore need this work the most. At PeopleNotTech, we have met hundreds of teams from incumbent big organisations and some have managed to make great progress on at least some of the points above, from the retailer that organised a massive educational campaign to socialise the importance of doing the human work, complete with a rewards system for those doing the most; to the public servants who found a way to involve their own teams in creating new bespoke plays and actions that pertained to their own situation; to the technology shop that quantified the habit formation when it came to creating human-actions-tickets in the sprints to reinforce the organisational support when it comes to the human work.

They each saw every positive behaviour of psychological safety and therefore dropped considerable amounts of HumanDebt.

We know TechDebt is bad; chances are HumanDebt is worse, and once you’ve seen it, you can’t "unsee" or ignore it. Doing the work is not easy, but it is essential; every other piece of practical work can and should wait if we are to be focused on the sustainability and growth of high performing tech teams.

About the Author

 With a background in psychology as well as technology, Duena Blomstrom is on a crusade to see lasting change in our VUCA world, to help companies avail themselves of Agile and the new ways of working, while eradicating their HumanDebt™. An international keynote speaker, influencer, blogger and author of "Emotional Banking" and "People Before Tech: The Importance of Psychological Safety and Teamwork in the Digital Age", Blomstrom is also the co-founder and CEO of PeopleNotTech  -a company designing a revolutionary team performance enhancing work-tool - the world’s first solution to checking and increasing psychological safety in teams.

Rate this Article