Psychological Safety and Rocket Science

by Augusto Cuginotti

rocket science, noun
: the science of designing or building rockets
also : something that is very difficult to learn or understand

When people say something is not “rocket science” what they mean is it’s not so difficult. After all, what can be more difficult than rocket science, right?

Last week I watched a documentary that recalled the accident of the Space Shuttle Challenger back in 1986. On January that year, the Space Shuttle was launched in the US and after about 70 seconds exploded in the air, killing 6 people, including a civilian teacher.

The documentary shows how the events unfolded and the following investigation of the accident. They’ve found the accident was caused by O-rings, the plastic rings used to seal the sections of the rocket booster so fuel wouldn’t leak out. The cold weather made the rings brittle and the fuel leaked, causing the explosion.

That was the scientific explanation to the accident, but not the most important fact about it. The disaster happened simply because it was psychological unsafe to speak out in a meeting.

Engineers knew it was not safe to rely on those O-rings at a low temperature. They had tests and data, at least casting doubt on the safety of that launch. So why didn’t they speak out?

You can find out the real cause of the accident by listening to the testimonials of the then junior engineers. They speak of emotions like guilt and remorse for not stepping up to their bosses and managers on a decision they knew deep inside was wrong. One of the interviewees talk about his mixed feelings while pressing the button to send the authorisation document to NASA.

I knew how to run the fax machine and I’m the one to sent it down. That’s the time that I wish, I wish so badly, that I’d just said: There’s a dissenting view here. Just to let them know that this wasn’t an unanimous decision, but there was at least one person, if not many, who believed that we should stick with the original recommendation.

The initial assessment, that is was not safe to launch, got overturned by external pressure. Ironically in this case, it was not pure rocket science that generated a rocket accident.

It would be if there were no indication of the dangers for launching. If so, this would be devastating, but simply a mistake. But those engineers were actually good in rocket science. What they were not good at, not individually but as a collective, was in creating a space that was psychologically safe to speak out.

It was the perceived impossibility to point out what science was telling them to their senior engineers and managers that contributed a great deal to this tragedy.

And speak out is, in theory, not difficult: all one has to do is to say something. But although it is not difficult, it is extremely complex. It deals with a different kind of problem, one with many layers, historical biases and contexts.

These kind of problems require a different approach, attention and study, easier than rocket science, but by no means trivial.

– How do you and your team identify problems that are complex? How do you deal with them?

– What is your experience in being in a group where psychologic safety was an issue? What happened?


Explore more

Challenger: The Final Flight (Documentary) :

Psychological Safety At Work: what do psychologically safe work teams look like? by Harri Kaloudis on Medium:

High-Performing Teams Need Psychological Safety. Here’s How to Create It by Laura Delizonna on HBR: