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Psychological safety is more about 'us' than 'me': Amy C Edmondson

Amy C Edmondson, who is the Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at Harvard Business School and also the author of 'The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth,' tells us why a culture of candour is imperative to unleash talent and create value, particularly in the 21st-century context

Published: May 24, 2023 05:26:43 PM IST
Updated: May 26, 2023 10:55:00 AM IST

Psychological safety is more about 'us' than 'me': Amy C EdmondsonAmy C Edmondson is the Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at Harvard Business School

Q. How would you define ‘psychological safety’?
Psychological safety is a shared belief that the environment is conducive to speaking up—with concerns, questions, dissenting views, and even mistakes. It is not about being nice or job security per se, but about an atmosphere where candour is welcome—where we can learn, innovate, and keep making the changes we need to make to succeed in a changing world.

The biggest misconception is that it is all about 'me'. I see psychological safety as much more about 'us' and 'our' ability to effectively talk and team up to get hard things done.

Q. Is there a way to measure it?
There is a formal way I developed, which can be accessed on fearlessorganization.com. Google used this measure and discovered that it was the best predictor of team effectiveness. More informally, managers and team leaders can ask themselves how often they hear people sharing bad news or dissenting views or concerns compared to good news or successes. If this is not a healthy balance, then it is a bad sign. We are always happier when we hear good news, but we have to train ourselves to think about it differently.

Q. What is its relevance in the 21st-century context?

The work environment today, the economy, the global context—there has never been more uncertainty or interdependence or complexity. This means that effective organisations and particularly, effective teams are those that are vigilant about noticing things and can speak up about them.

Today’s companies cannot rely on employees who are going to hold back and wait and see because time matters. That is what happened at NASA. An engineer had concerns about the possibility of a large foam strike during the launch of Shuttle Columbia. But when the issue is discussed with the mission management team (people more senior to him), he keeps silent because he lacks enough data and confidence to speak up. Eight days later, the Shuttle implodes upon re-entering the earth’s atmosphere, killing all seven on board. Most people will find a way to speak up if they are confident that they are right about a concern. But in an uncertain world, more and more of our thoughts and observations are in the grey zone—not black or white. We are rarely going to have 100 percent confidence. So it is all the more important that people speak up at a lower threshold of confidence.

Q. People generally choose silence over voice. Why is it so?
We intuitively want to look good, and then it becomes safer to hold back. With that in mind, I think it is the job of managers and colleagues everywhere to ask questions and help others. For instance, instead of assuming that an engineer will speak up if he has a concern, you could say, “Oh, you are a subject matter expert. I would love to hear your thoughts.”

When we are face to face with peers or close colleagues, there is a certain human energy that makes us very able to share our thoughts. But where there is a hierarchy, there is fear—for instance, when in-person compared to the flat screen of a Zoom meeting. One thing about virtual work is that there are a variety of tools that can ensure voice, like chat and polls.

Also read: Belonging is fuel for collaboration and creativity: Susie Wise

Q. What goes into the making of a totally fearless organisation?

A totally fearless organisation is an abstraction. In most organisations, some teams are excellent, learning-oriented, and agile, while others are fearful and holding back. The CEO matters very much, but that is not the whole story. Do you have managers across the organisation who are curious, developmental, and approachable? A fearless organisation is something we can strive toward, team by team and leader by leader.

A part of it comes from people’s passion and commitment. Fearlessness comes from believing what you do matters enough to take interpersonal risks. At Harvard Business School, our purpose is to educate leaders who can make a difference in the world. I believe that matters and so I am willing to speak up when I disagree with some aspect of the curriculum. Another part of that willingness comes from a rational understanding that it is okay to say something that is not well-received. The third aspect is the skills of managers and team leaders.

Pixar, when I studied it closely, could be characterised as a fearless organisation. They had created rituals, such as a process they call the ‘brain trust’, where people come together for the specific purpose of evaluating a project.

Q. What are some of the tools leaders can use?

People will struggle to use any tools unless they come from the right mindset. So the leadership mindset has to be what I would call 'knowledge-era thinking' rather than industrial-era thinking.

We face huge uncertainty, volatility, and complexity, and we are dependent on our ability to come together and do our best. The leader has to convey both excitement and challenge. They should be basically saying, “Here is what I think is possible, but what are your thoughts about this project? What are we missing? What are our competitors doing? What are customers saying?” Other tools include putting in place structures and processes that help people do their best as a team in an uncertain context.

Q. Why is ‘motivation by fear’ still a pet approach?
That is because many managers have a deep assumption that the best way to get people to work hard is to make them fear the consequences of not doing so. That logic works well for routine tasks, but if the work needs problem-solving, ingenuity, or collaboration, then fear directly inhibits excellence. People cannot do their best thinking when they are afraid. Also, then they are less willing to speak up when they have a question or a concern. Third, it makes it harder to participate in good teamwork. Nokia missed the smartphone revolution not because they did not have smart engineers but because the bad news did not travel up the hierarchy.

However, I see more and more organisations realising the fact that success is dependent on their ability to create an environment that fosters learning and innovation.

Also read: Innovation has no borders, no owners: Alex Goryachev

Q. How can we fight the stigma around failure?
The biggest issue is that we do not make the right kind of distinctions between failure types. In my book, I describe the differences between intelligent failure, basic failure, and complex failure. Intelligent failures are those we should not stigmatise. We should celebrate them because that is where progress comes from. Basic failures caused by human error or inadequate training should not be stigmatised either. They should be learned from, so we can prevent as many of them as possible.

It is just a crucial leadership competency to be clear about those distinctions. As Pixar CEO Edwin Catmull has said, leaders have to be first in talking about their mistakes, otherwise, they cannot expect others to do it.

Q. Imperatives for next-gen leaders…
Number one: learning matters more than anything in your career and life. Whatever you do, put yourself in places where there are opportunities for growth and development. That is where your future value comes from. Number two is to seize the opportunity to develop others and bring them along. That is the way you can make a difference in others’ lives and also in the quality of the work you do.

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