WordPress Isn’t Safe But It Can Be And It Starts With You

Two women standing side by side with flowers behind them.

This has been a particularly interesting week in WordPress. There’s a term in the industry that many of us are familiar with called “WPDrama”. It’s usually when someone (or a company) says or does something that goes against what others consider the established norms of the ecosystem. Things are said, sometimes to an extreme, feelings are hurt, understanding is lost and the community bleeds.

It’s also a week when my co-worker Michelle acknowledged some uncomfortable truths (for cis men) about how women experience the WordPress community

I accept what she and others say about their experiences as valid and stand by her and all other women both inside WordPress and outside of it who share similar experiences in how they are perceived, treated and spoken to (and about). 

We need to acknowledge that despite our collective efforts at inclusion, we still have a long way to go in creating an equally shared and safe space in WordPress for people across the spectrum of gender, race and philosophy. 

Are We Giving Space To People’s Lived Experience In WordPress?

So, where do we start? I think Michelle and the team at Post Status have given us a good place to begin. I knew Michelle was going to be publishing this article in advance and when she shared it with our team at StellarWP, I could tell that she was both excited and nervous about it.

Excited because it’s something I know she’s wanted to talk about for a while and nervous because whenever you put yourself out there and use bold language, you will inevitably collect negativity. Where I think Post Status excelled, was first, in giving Michelle a platform to share her thoughts and experiences. They knew the topic was going to be potentially controversial or trigger an emotional tremor and yet, they were willing to take the risk of negative blowback because they valued the conversation.

Secondly, and more importantly, they gave Michelle the emotional and psychological safety and encouragement to communicate honestly and openly. They didn’t ask her to tone it down, they sought to listen and learn from her.

So, just what exactly is psychological safety and what is it that makes it so special?

Psychological safety is something that I’ve written about a few times already (see Working Agreements and Embracing Feedback) and the more time I invest in my own leadership development, the more I recognize how mission-critical it is to my leadership and really to any leader on any team anywhere.

Google made waves a few years ago when they released a workplace study that identified psychological safety as the number one thing great teams exercise. Not only were teams with psychological safety more performant, but retention was higher and overall impact more noticeable by executives.

Amy Edmondson in her journal article coined it as “a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking”. 

The WordPress Community Can Be Scary

When we look at the week that just was in the WordPress ecosystem, it’s easy to see why it’s an unsafe space for many people. Especially those without a profile or perceived influence. It’s why I, for many years, have been afraid to hold any kind of opinion publicly. 

Last year I was starting a new podcast and as I was putting it together, it was skewing white and male in terms of the guests I was able to secure. I was having a hard time finding people who had a public profile in the WordPress ecosystem and were willing to engage in a podcast format and fit the brief for content. 

So, I did what I thought made the most sense. I went public to my network with my search and asked for recommendations and people willing to participate who identified as part of underrepresented groups. 

And I got attacked for it. Or I felt attacked for it. Yeah, that’s Twitter, but once again it proves my point about safety. It was the first time I’d ever reached out that way and while I was able to connect with some amazing people and expand my network (and find some incredible guests for the show), I felt like I had done something wrong, dirty even. 

It’s not hard to extrapolate from that too. If that’s my experience with a tweet as the classic white cismale, I wonder what the lived experience is for people that are working directly on the project, racialized people, neurodiverse people, or people across the gender or ability spectrum? 

How Does Your Local Team Do At Psychological Safety?

But let’s localize it a bit more. Yep, at a broad level, Twitter is an unsafe space. Social media in general is risky. But what about when it comes to the teams you’re working on every day?

Have you ever been part of a team or in a situation where there were a few folks who would dominate conversations? Perhaps you were on a team with a leader who wasn’t interested in what anyone’s input was but only their output?  Maybe you’ve been unwilling to contribute because of how you thought you might be perceived or how people might react?

That’s the definition of an unsafe space. Amy Edmondson even has a list of questions she asks teams to answer as part of their own evaluation. Looking at the team you’re currently on, do you agree with any of these statements?

  1. If you make a mistake on this team, it is often held against you.
  2. Members of this team are able to bring up problems and tough issues.
  3. People on this team sometimes reject others for being different.
  4. It is safe to take a risk on this team.
  5. It is difficult to ask other members of this team for help.
  6. No one on this team would deliberately act in a way that undermines my efforts.
  7. Working with members of this team, my unique skills and talents are valued and utilized.

The good news is that psychological safety is achievable by any team and any community if they are willing to put the effort in to make it so.

Amy Edmondson has this phrase she uses that’s inspiring me these days, she says “leader is a role, leadership is a behaviour.” What she means by this is that while the person in titular control has a lot of influence, each of us as part of the team also can exercise leadership. Especially when it comes to the way our teams and communities operate and engage with each other.

Let’s go back to WordPress for an example. This week a conversation was started on Twitter where one person with both titular control and influence made statements that were direct and confrontational. The response from the community was one of hurt, confusion and counter-attack.

If WordPress was a safe space and Twitter was a safe space to have this conversation, how might this situation have unfolded differently, I wonder?

Gender non-conforming asian person

Start With Assuming Positive Intent

In a safe space, the outcome is not slander or destruction, it’s creating opportunities to learn through shared effort. When bold statements are made, the intention is to uncover or discover something new. It’s about broadening our perspective or looking at a problem from a different angle. 

We have to start from a position of assuming that the intent of a statement is not to attack or tear down. When everyone in the group assumes positive intent, we’re able to separate ourselves from the statement and create space for empathy and understanding.

When bold or direct statements are made by leaders or team members they can very quickly reduce the sense of safety. How leaders and team members respond though, can defend the safety of the space too. 

How many people, for example, responded to the initial statement on Twitter with a follow-up question based on empathy and looking to understand without passing judgment on the original statement? For example:

  • Wow, that’s coming across as a very bold statement. Can you help me understand why you said it this way? 
  • What do you see that we don’t see?
  • Some people might get confused, can you provide some additional context for us?

When teams are able to turn down the temperature after a statement, we reduce the opportunity for emotions to escalate and for the person making the statement originally to feel misunderstood, misrepresented or forced to defend something they didn’t expect to be received in a negative way.

Own Your Fallibility

My mom thinks I’m perfect but she’s the only one. If you talked to my wife, or my kids, or my colleagues, or my direct reports, you’d learn the truth. 

If we aim for perfection, we’ll miss every time. When we own our ability to make mistakes or not get things right, we create space for others to own their fallibility too and we normalize it. Mistakes are part of being human, we’re not always going to get it right and we shouldn’t hold people to some ridiculous standard that they’ll never be able to live up to. That’s exhausting. 

How might this week’s Twitter experience have been different if we’d owned our fallibility? For example:

  • I overgeneralized here and caught individuals up in a way I didn’t mean to. Sorry about that.
  • I’m open to being proven wrong here, but from where I’m sitting…
  • They said it this way and it didn’t land well, that’s happened to me before, they’re probably feeling…

When teams are able to recognize that we’re all human, we drop unrealistic expectations and add air back into the space. That’s not to say we let people get away with acting in a way that goes against the norms and psychological safety we’re intending to create. We just recognize that we’re not always going to be able to do it the right way.

A young girl being held by her parent in a warm embrace of safety.

Ask Lots Of Questions

If we all agree that a safe space is all about creating opportunities to learn through shared effort, we’ll have to model curiosity. When outcomes are not just what we delivered but what we learned, we make it possible to fail without the emotional baggage.

We also make it possible to challenge thoughts and actions directly without attacking an individual personally. We use this at StellarWP a lot when we do creative feedback. Rather than saying we don’t like something, we try to phrase it in the form of a question that starts with “I wonder”.

I wonder (*wink) what would have happened if we’d used this approach in the conversation that happened on Twitter. For example:

  • Why do you feel so strongly about this?
  • How did you land on this statement?
  • Where do you see this most evident?
  • Why did you respond to the initial statement the way you did? 
  • How did you internalize the information provided?

I wonder (*wink *wink) what would have happened if the conversation on Twitter would have started this way. For example:

  • How can we protect and preserve WordPress from commercial interests that could undermine the project’s future?
  • How can we call out / inspire commercial entities to be more honest in marketing?
  • I wonder if WordPress is at risk from commercial interests that limit the financial stability of free software?
  • I think WordPress faces existential threats from purely commercial entities, can we talk about this?

WordPress Psychological Safety Starts With You

Regardless of your profile in the WordPress community, you have a role to play in what is and is not acceptable. You can create safety or you can take it away.

This week, I could have been more proactive at trying to create safety. Rather than engaging directly, I was more passive-aggressive by posting thoughts on Twitter and talking about the situation and doing it in a way where it would be seen. I stirred the pot without trying to actively confront or call out any individual specifically. 

Next time, I’ll aim to be better. I’ll assume positive intent, seek to understand and recognize that we’re all human and can be easily misunderstood or make mistakes.

The next time you’re in a team meeting, think about what you can do to make that space safer. Is there something you can say? Is there something you can do? Be proactive rather than reactive.

If we’re working hard to make our local teams spaces where everyone experiences psychological safety, there is no doubt in my mind that it will trickle up to the way we experience the WordPress community and how we engage online. 

I’d love to be able to take all the credit for what I’ve written but some of my starting points were from a great resource that Google has produced on their re:Work site. Check it out and jump in for more awesome tools for leaders and managers.