Let’s Talk About Debt. Human Debt.

Anti-Impression Management and Clarity practice: We make software that measures and improves Psychological Safety in teams. If you care about it- come talk to us. We are currently running a 4 weeks license-free trial promotion! 


Not everyone reading this works in technology. Even so, I’d wager even if you don’t, you would have heard the term “technical debt” and would have made the connection as to why I tend to use it as an equivalent term to the concept of HumanDebt™ which we have to eradicate by focusing on Psychological Safety in high performing teams.

According to one definition “Technical debt (also known as design debt or code debt, but can be also related to other technical endeavours) is a concept in software development that reflects the implied cost of additional rework caused by choosing an easy (limited) solution now instead of using a better approach that would take longer. As with monetary debt, if technical debt is not repaid, it can accumulate ‘interest’, making it harder to implement changes and unaddressed technical debt increases the probability a project will fail.” 

The human work is no different from the technical work in its ability to turn into accumulated debt should it be ignored and marginalised. And I put it to all of us that we need to treat HumanDebt as equally important as TechDebt and we need to do something about them both.

In my definition of it from the “People Before Tech” book: 

HumanDebt™ is the equivalent to Technical Debt but for people. All of the initiatives, the projects, the intentions we (the organisation) had to do better by them, but we abandoned halfway. All of the missed opportunities to make their lives and their work easier and more joyful. All of the empty talk on equality, respect, lack of blame, courage and trust. All of the missing talk on teams. All of the lack of preoccupation or resources for building better team dynamics. All of the toxic culture that comes from it. That’s Human Debt.

But admittedly, that’s all very general and vague and as ever, we should strive for the opposite – clarity and enough dissection of concepts to make them actionable so before anything else let’s think of whether this HumanDebt is only accumulated at an enterprise level. It isn’t. 

Some examples of HumanDebt at an enterprise level are:

  • People-work projects started and abandoned
  • Lip service from the top
  • Management changes and bad leadership
  • No “organisation permission” for human topics and examining emotions and behaviours
  • “Friday initiatives”
  • Big topics left unclear – D&I, Employee Happiness, Ways of Work, etc
  • Sterile surveys
  • Punitive acts
  • A culture of fear and avoidance of failure
  • Allowing toxic politics and staying silent when there is systemic racism or bullying
  • Condoning command & control
  • Lip service to Agile with no mindset change
  • Unhappy, unengaged employees
  • (and a major one we are seeing unfold these days which will create more HumanDebt than imaginable) Being tone-deaf or slow to admit that the future means hybrid-work

Solving for those may be exclusively on the to-do list of the organisation with little that can be affected at an employee or team level. 

But if we’re honest, we’re accumulating HumanDebt at a team level as well. Some examples are:

  • Constant Impression Management 
  • All the times we felt tension but hoped it would resolve itself
  • When we witnessed someone treated unfairly but we didn’t speak up
  • When we felt we were brushing big topics under the carpet
  • When we know we should have done a team re-launch or a team building exercise or similar and we cancelled
  • Undiscussed failures or mistakes
  • Any time we de-prioritised the human work in favour of delivery
  • Avoided 1-on-1s
  • Lack of investment in an emotional bond with our teammates
  • Lack of EQ training
  • No interest in having a healthy and happy team and no human work invested in it
  • Not treating the human work as delivery/ops/dev work
  • Blaming the organisation

And these can and should be worked on at a team-bubble level. Simply doing a “Team Level HumanDebt Honest Audit” together should go a long way. I was speaking to one of our client teams last week about them wanting to construct a play to do that. One in which they’d set aside an hour and list all the instances they can think of where they may have done the above and then think of 3-4 regular things they can do so they start paying off that debt. Concrete, actionable things. If they do it and it woks for them we’ll be including it in the Playbook of our software alongside all the other tools to help you pay off some of it, the ones that influence each of the behaviours above and the ones allowing the team to vent alike -such as the “Anti-Impression Management” plays, the “Courage Hackathon”, the “Humour Workshop” or the “B!tch Fest”-.

When tech teams realise they have to pay off tech debt, they need to do a series of things to socialise the importance of the realisation inside and outside the team and, more importantly, to carve out the time to do the work to pay it back.

Ridiculous as it actually sounds on examination , most teams let themselves end up in a place where continuous delivery work is expected of 100% of their time. Which is wh,y time for learning, time for thinking and time for going back and doing things right (aka do the work to pay the debts) is almost regarded as a luxury when it is -obviously- integral part of the work and arguable cornerstone to it. 

So one of the first steps is to say to whomever is asking for that 100% of the output “Hold up, we can’t be running this fast ahead without doing some of the other work so no, we can’t take this ticket/accept this work/ agree to this deadline because we need the tickets/time/headspace to do this other work. Ignoring it would be irresponsible as it would prove disastrous in the medium to long run.” And then with that boundary in place start doing the work that counts.

I won’t sit here and pretend that all teams deal with their tech debt just as not everyone deals with their financial debt and being in denial about debt is tempting and common but never sustainable or responsible and we can only ignore it for so long before it comes and bites us. 

We said this before, if you feel you’re too busy to do the people-work – the thinking and measuring of how you and your team mates are feeling and then taking the time to do the people work needed to better it be it a workshop, an intervention or a team-dynamic exercise, then you’re either utterly checked out of the team and not invested in its success, or in extreme denial about the debt you’re accumulating and about the danger if you don’t start paying it off. 

Some tips on how to accomplish that in tomorrow’s video, but meanwhile, we wish you a week with repayments and ever more psychologically safe teams.


The 3 “commandments of Psychological Safety” to build high performing teams are: UnderstandMeasure and Improve

Read more about our Team Dashboard that measures and improves Psychological Safety at www.peoplenottech.com or reach out at contact@peoplenottech.com and let’s help your teams become Psychologically Safe, healthy, happy and highly performant.

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