A Password Autofill Surprise

On psychological safety.

September 1, 2022 • 4 min read

A lot of things turn out the way they do because of how we safe we feel. Let me give one example.

Some time ago my wife Karen asked me for help with her computer. Ever since she’d migrated to a new Mac, Chrome’s password autofill feature would no longer trigger. I suggested a couple things for her to try, but they didn’t work and she was stuck. She unlocked her computer and left it for me to investigate.

When I dug in to the password autofill settings, I noticed something surprising. There was exactly one website listed to “Never autofill passwords”: okcupid.com. A dating site.

This struck me as strange. Karen and I had been together for 18 years. She had no reason to have an account on a dating site. Why might someone tell their browser not to store a password for okcupid.com? The only reason I could think of would be to conceal from their partner that they have a password for okcupid.com.

My heartbeat spiked. I didn’t want her to feel like I was snooping around on her computer, but this entry looked so… weird. It made no sense. Why is this here?

I stared down the one lonely item in the list. The entry that I could not explain. What are you doing here?

Then, I recalled something.

Years prior, my brother had visited, and was telling us about some of his misadventures in online dating. He’d showed us what okcupid.com looked like, on Karen’s computer, and had demonstrated how it worked. As he’d been logging in, I specifically remembered us joking, “Haha no Chrome, you don’t need to remember his password for online dating.”

So, that was that. Mystery solved, cognitive dissonance resolved.

I had a laugh, then proceeded to fix the issue (deleting Chrome’s user profile was what did the trick). I had thought it was exceedingly unlikely that Karen had a secret online dating profile, and – turns out – I was right.

But man, what luck! What luck that I was present years ago when this rogue autofill entry was created. And much moreso, what luck that I felt safe enough in our relationship that I didn’t panic, didn’t jump to conclusions. That I’d had years of safe and trustworthy experiences with this person that primed me to be curious instead of angry.

Because of those experiences, even if I hadn’t remembered the explanation myself – even if she couldn’t remember the explanation – the strong foundation of a communicative and safe relationship would have prepared us well to talk it through. We have a long history of talking things through and figuring them out. That can occasionally feel like work, but one of the many rewards is that one little mystery is no match for a decades-full trust battery.

The safety dance

It is said that one of the biggest predictors of successful teams is the presence of psychological safety. If you can depend on one another, predict what each other might or might not do, and can trust that a single mistake or misunderstanding isn’t going to wreak havoc, then you’re primed to do well together.

Building this safety and trust takes time and diligence. But filling folks’ trust batteries is a key part of making any team work – whether they’re domestic or professional.

I recently came across some example guidance on how to foster psychological safety:

  1. Make psychological safety an explicit priority.
  2. Facilitate everyone speaking up.
  3. Establish norms for how failure is handled.
  4. Create space for new ideas (even wild ones).
  5. Embrace productive conflict.

These approaches were written with the workplace in mind, but in my estimation it’s a decent formula for home life as well. Build relationships where people expect you’ll figure it out, together. It’s a safe bet.

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© Allen Pike. You can find me on Twitter, contact me, or check out Steamclock.