Sofia Graniello
September 11, 2023
min read
Management & Governance

Exclusive Chat: Psychological Safety with Max Sather

Co-Owner and EMEA Lead at August Public, Max Sather gave us a glimpse into what psychological safety at work could possibly look like. We chatted with him on his personal journey from working for companies with an old hierarchy flow, to now being part of an organization that helps other organizations to work together and with ease by implementing psychological safety, inclusion, agility empowerment and creating and learning culture through psychological safety. 

Sofia: How did you get into your current profession?

Max: I have bounced around in many different industries, different types of sizes of organizations. I worked in film, video games and advertising and despite the differences, I always had the sense that something was wrong in how we were getting things done; it felt too hard! I felt like: “It doesn’t need to be this way.”

Personally, I really thrive on autonomy and these organizations weren’t getting the best out of me or my colleagues. And after a quite severe breakdown due to burnout, I started to think: “Maybe there is another way of organizing humans at scale, together.” I started researching, writing and then met August and they were talking about the same thing I was talking about. And 6 years later, here I am. 

📚 Article pick: How to Promote Psychological Safety at Work

Sofia: The jobs that you were in previously, how did they operate: old hierarchy structure?

Max: There was one organization that was an intense hierarchy, actually very little psychological safety, almost by design. And during the time I was there, they transitioned to more agile ways of working. Some of the teams started using scrum, kanban boards and sprints, and when that happened it felt like a big unlock. 

I started coaching different teams around the organization, and spreading the techniques and eventually we just hit a roadblock where the hierarchy of the system pushed back on what we were trying to do. 

Sofia: What are your roles/what do you do at August?

Max: We do organizational development and we work on 4 key areas: psychological safety, inclusion, agility empowerment and creating and learning culture through psychological safety - all these four things are linked and overlap. 

Sofia: Imagine there is a company that is very toxic, with zero to none psychological safety, and they hire you to change that, where and how would you change it around? 

Max: In a non-psychologically safe environment, power defaults upwards, so I would start at the top with the leadership, because that's where we have the most leverage to make a change and the most opportunity. The leaders really need to model, it all flows from there. 

I would probably start with a kind of survey, diagnostic/interviews to a few team members and play it back to leadership and show them what’s happening - whether they know it or not. 

Then I’d find a few leaders - just a handful - who were really raising their hand to make a change, and I’d focus first on coaching just them and their teams to build a case study for larger scale change.

Sofia: Where do you see organizations/enterprises heading for 2023?

Max: It’s no surprise that the big story of 2023 is Chat GPT and all the other AI tools and how organizations integrate those tools into their tech stack in the right way. I think we’re moving away from thinking of them as tools or enablers, the more I think about them as co-workers and how we are reminding people and normalizing how to use them. And doing it in a way that doesn't create fear of  job security, but in a way to let people know: “Hey, Chat GPT is going to do all the boring stuff, and you can focus on the cool, interesting creative stuff.”

A lot of re-training will be required, and could also propel us to the next stage of human consciousness. I think it’s interesting and exciting, and we need to be prepared for that. 

📚 Article pick: The Buurtzorg Method: Practical Applications in France

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Sofia: We are very in tune with learning more about psychological safety and what that entails for organizations. In your opinion and for leaders and future CEOs, what are key pointers they should know in how to create a safe space within their organization?

Max: I did a talk on psychological safety recently with a car luxury manufacturer and leaders of their dealerships and I was talking about what it is and how it works, and the first question I got was: “Do I have to be nice to people now? Do I have to let them go on really long lunch breaks now?”

And I said: “No, it is not about being nice, it’s about being direct, being open and letting them know where they can improve.” 

Here’s an example of two organizations doing things differently in the same industry:

Volkswagen was recently required to pay out 193m pounds, as a result of the dieselgate scandal: back in 2008 engineers were writing codes into the car computers, that allowed the car to cheat emission tests in the United States. A new CEO had arrived in 2007, ‎Martin Winterkorn, and there was a lot about the culture he created. There is one quote from a direct report of his in Reuters: “If Winterkon would come and visit, or you’d go to visit him, your pulse would go up, or presented by news, those were the moments it could become quite unpleasant and loud, and quite demeaning.” So as a result of this, no one felt they had permission to speak up, speak truth to power, so they’d rather damage the environment, cost the company’s reputation, cost the company 193M pounds.

By contrast, we can look at Toyota, and the famous Toyota Production System which has informed a lot of modern theory about Lean startup and the “Toyota Way” management principles. There’s one aspect of the Toyota Production System that deliberately encourages psychological safety: above every machine every engineer has what’s called an andon cord. Andon is a Japanese word meaning: light or lamp. 

So they can pull on the andon cord and that lets your superiors know that there’s a problem. And so what it does, it makes it as easy as possible to raise issues/challenges. You pull the cord, the light goes up, supervisors come and help you out. 

In those two stories, different companies, same industry, you can see the difference in approach and how one of them makes it very difficult to raise problems, and the other one makes it as easy as possible because they know how important that is to the overall efficiency and effectiveness. 


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