In the book, Smarter, Faster Better: The Transformative Power of Real Productivity, Charles Duhigg breaks down research done on what makes amazing teams productive. Hint: it’s not natural talent. In fact, the largest factor that made teams at Google and Saturday Night Live some of the highest-performing teams ever was psychological safety: a set of norms for how they treated each other that made them all feel very supported, and in turn made their output incredible.

People with ADHD or learning disabilities, in the tech world and everywhere, should seek out psychologically and emotionally supportive environments for work and our personal lives. It’s not a far reach to say that a lot of us have had trouble feeling intelligent, effective, supported, or our best selves. Our conditions are such that even the most brilliant among us can have regular experiences that make us feel stupid, unproductive, or strange, and we’ve all had experiences where people have perceived us as such. Though deep down we know that isn’t the truth.

Psychological Safety, Explained

What does psychological safety mean? In Duhigg’s book, he talks at length about the characteristics of communication among a number of highly effective teams. Here are a few core ones that I’ve internalized.

  • They don’t interrupt each other.
  • They all have a chance to speak.
  • They make each other feel heard.
  • Conflicts get spoken about and resolved out in the open.
  • They’re encouraged to take risks.
  • They don’t get shamed for mistakes or failed attempts when taking risks.

These hit home for me when I first read about them. I’ve experienced the opposite of each one of these. And never once were those situations helpful. However whenever I felt heard, had my frustrations listened to and acted upon, or had my mistakes discussed without judgement—I felt a sense of relief and progress.

Have you ever been in an environment where you’re always getting interrupted? Or don’t feel heard? Or are criticized for every mistake? Each one of these things will make you so fearful of doing the wrong thing that you’ll stop trying. And not trying is the worse thing we can do. Conversely,†cam the habit of repeatedly trying something until we get it right, as we know from Learned Optimism, is the greatest key to success that we can build for any endeavor.

Psychologically safe relationships

Building a more psychologically safe life begins with one’s personal relationships. Do your friendships, family and romantic relationships fit the criteria above? Are there a few areas they can improve? If they’re too far off, then it’s time to do some thinking.

We can only be as happy and effective as the people around us make us feel. I remember being in friendships where I was reluctant to speak my mind because the “friend” had a habit of responding to too many topics with hostility, negativity, or excessive sarcasm. I remember relationships where there was too much hair-trigger emotion to be able to communicate freely. I’ve been guilty of all these things too, once upon a time. In order to ditch bad habits like these, it’s crucial to spend time around people who have better habits.

Psychologically safe work environments

Thriving in your career as an ADHD / learning disabled person can be hard; it’s impossible if your environment expects you to behave like a neurotypical person. In your work environment, do you get reprimanded or penalized for small, “careless” errors? Or lack of attention to detail? These things are extremely common to ADHD people. A supportive environment will have processes that catch things like these and encourage you to learn from the errors, rather than having harsh responses to them.

A note for the ADHD programmers and programmers with learning disabilities among us: code reviews, pull requests, pair programming, continuous integration, and automated testing: these are all processes that accept human error as a constant. Look for companies that practice them. And get a sense of how code errors are looked upon by team members. If they’re expected as a natural occurrence, that’s a good sign 👍.

Human error is normal, and with ADHD / LD people it’s more pronounced. Look for work cultures that accept this and try to build processes that accommodate them. Also, look for companies that treat passion for what you do and the value you add to the organization as far more important than having a low percentage of mistakes. A big part of happiness is the feeling of competence; you’re a lot more likely to feel competent if you’re excited about what you’re working on, and you’re able to look at the big picture results you’re creating rather than the small details you’re missing here and there.

Lastly, but perhaps most importantly, look for kindness and empathy. When your direct manager and your peers listen intently, hear your concerns, and show with their actions that they’re important, these are good signs that they’re a team that will work to support you.