Safety, Care Labor, and Work Styles in Decentralised Orgs

I’m taking a guided program with The Hum called Patterns for Decentralised Organizations. It is taught by Nati and Rich, geniuses I’ve been following and crossing paths with for some time. I’ll be keeping notes and reflections as I go along on this tag.

How do we want to be together?

With any group, this question of “how do we want to be together” is the central starting point. It implies a question about the purpose a group wishes to serve but also the norms a group wants to create in regards to working together. Naming norms is part of the process of creating psychological safety. No matter what a group is going to do it needs to be safe. This is something that Google found in an internal study and it’s something you already know in your bones.

A group that fosters safety is a group that can surface problems as they arise, give critical feedback, and problem-solve more effectively. Safety creates a culture where one can be vulnerable. Think of a dog who feels safe with you, they will roll over and expose their soft belly. Safety creates trust, trust welcomes vulnerability, vulnerability allows people to ask “dumb” questions or point out errors that would otherwise be missed. This vulnerability allows people to make mistakes and own up to them. With psychological safety, a team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.

Trust is when the thing that I think is important is taken seriously by you.

Weaknesses and blind spots become celebrated and supported as opportunities for growth.

A grown mindset

Creating safety is part of culture creation. This process of creating culture starts with the individuals in a team. Each individual will want to be moving towards a growth mindset. This is no small feat. I firmly believe that through school and other institutions from the dominant culture, a culture of power over, we are taught a limited or fixed mindset.

You can see from this chart that a fixed mindset isn’t going to jive well with a team culture that is striving for vulnerability. If you believe that mistakes prove the you’re not good enough, you might not give the mistakes of your teammates much grace either.

So a team that is working to move into a growth mindset will be supporting each team member in developing such a mindset. The development of individuals supports the teams’ development. This is the idea behind Deliberately Developmental Organizations or groups that invest in individual’s personal development.

Building Safety

The Hum outlines some ways to build such safety.

Develop trust

To trust you I need to know you… Spend time getting to know each other outside of job titles. Ask colleagues about their family, interests, hobbies, what do they care about? What is important to them? And share your answers too.
Showing our whole self and being vulnerable is what helps us develop authentic relationships of trust.

Vulnerability works in loops

Vulnerability requires courage; someone needs to start. If I’m vulnerable, show myself authentically to you, for example, being honest and disclosing how I feel nervous speaking in front of the room, it’s more likely that you will notice it and
respond by opening up yourself and sharing for example that it makes you nervous too. In that way creating a loop and making vulnerability part of the norms of our relationship. Not always the other person will respond to the
invitation right away, don’t feel discouraged and keep trying!

Belonging cues

Subtle gestures, mainly non verbal that tells another person, ‘you belong here, I care about you, you are part of the team’. Physical proximity, eye contact and attention when talking, smiles, posture mimicry, turn taking, physical touch,
and small gestures of care like offering or bringing cups of tea… Repeated belonging cues tell the amygdala ‘you are safe here’ help it to turn from looking for danger to tending to relationships.

Take small risks

Eg, offer a new idea, admit you made a mistake, ask a question, give feedback to others, seek other people’s disagreements and name yours… Remember, we learn by modeling and mimicking so by taking small risks you show others that is ok to do so. Publicly appreciate people that take small risks Appreciating the behaviours you want to see more of, makes it more likely that the behavior will be repeated and spread to others.


You’ll notice that a lot of these are personal moves that are performed for the group. When trying to cultivate a culture you must perform or model the culture you wish to see. Culture changes by modeling social norms and mimicking those we respect. So if you want to work on your norms you’ll want to enlist the help of respected people in the group and model those norms yourself.

Working Styles

As a team’s safety is being developed you’ll want to start thinking about working styles. I’ve seen these described as archetypes in more woo-woo settings. You’ll probably be familiar with tools like the Enneagram (I’m a 9) or Myers–Briggs (ENFP). The Hum introduced us to a framework around the compass points (North, East, South, West).

  • North – Task oriented, get shit done.
  • East – Far view, sees options, ideas, visionary.
  • South – Looks out for people and process, what is fair and right.
  • West – Detail oriented, logical, focused.

Considering what roles people naturally play in your team and how those roles can support and cause conflict with each other is an important step.

In the course we broke into self identified teams and discussed what is good/hard about being “that type of person” plus what the other directions need to know about us and where tensions might arise.

For instance, I’m a Northeastern person. I am future oriented and will put in the work. I can steamroll process, get fed up with slowing down to talk about feelings, I get frustrated when a meetings context gets muddled, and am not very detail oriented. You can see how tensions could arise with detail or process oriented folks in the South and West.

By understanding our gifts, however, we can turn potential conflict into flows of support. I can help detail oriented people move forward and they can help me to not ship mistakes.

Teams can also see gaps in their make up and look to bring new people in that fit a working style. I also believe that we can intentionally take on certain working styles in a group. For instance if there are too many get-shit-done types in a group I can take on the role of slowing things down and thinking about the process.

In the Social Permaculture lens we call this mapping for working styles “human polyculture”.

Care work

Finally we come to the often invisible care work. Caring for the members of a team is just as important as doing any other kind of work. However due to cultural patterns care work is often made to be invisible. Consider someone who grew up with a caretaker who always did their dishes. To them dishes just magically get done, they might be completely oblivious to the work that goes into doing the dishes. So when they enter a work environment they won’t see the real work being put into doing the dishes.

On the flip side, perhaps that someone was an older sibling and ended up doing the dishes all the time. It might be second nature to do the dishes. Even they might not notice that they are always doing that work.

Care work should be made visible in our teams. There is some amazing thought work happening over at DisCO.coop about care work.

The first step is to identify care work as work and look for it in your team. Who remembers people’s birthdays, who is cleaning up common space, who is checking in with people. Looking after the well-being of people is emotional labor. In David Graber’s book Bullshit Jobs he describes the emotional labor that underlings must constantly be engaged in to try and understand what their superiors are thinking and feeling and attend to those needs. When you are the boss you don’t need to give a shit about what an employee feels about how you deliver news to them, what are they going to do? Fire you?

Care work in the US context (and most western contexts I presume) is tangled up with power. If the janitor stopped cleaning up an office it would grind to a halt much sooner than if a manager were to disappear. Yet the pay disparity between those two positions does not reflect that. When it comes to rearing children our economy simply ignores that economic activity all together. Care work is gendered, invisible, and performed almost entirely by marginalized people.

This is why it is important to recognize and equitably distribute care work within our teams.

Edge, Home, & Groove

The final tool is all about helping people get into their best space for growth. I was introduced to this concept through Abrah Dresdale’s Regenerative Design for Changemakers Workbook. Where she described the Comfort, Edge, and Panic zone. I did a little video about that here:

https://www.facebook.com/hornbein/videos/10100597847106575/

This pattern introduced by The Hum, edge, home, and groove is similar.

  • Edge – The learning edge, what you are currently working on.
  • Home – The community of support, where you feel at home (the comfort zone).
  • Groove – The collections of practices that support development, what you need to thrive.

Using tools like these to determine when people are working and growing at their best will help develop team members and get ahead of problems like burn out.

Conclusions

When setting off with a new group or transitioning a team into a more decentralized configuration we can start by asking “how do we want to be together?” From there we work on developing each member’s growth mindset and a psychologically safe culture through intentional “norming” (creating group norms). As we build safety we start to map our working styles and figure out how those working styles can thrive together in our human polyculture. As we get to work we make sure to set up systems to value care work. Our care work can then begin to recognize when people are in their edge zone and have what they need to groove.

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