Somebody always knew: A conversation between Amy Edmondson and Rita McGrath, top-ranked global thinkers

The topic of psychological safety has taken the world by storm as we realize that in a VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) world, there is a huge premium on fast learning. With the recent Thinkers50 recognition of Amy Edmondson’s work, I thought people might enjoy some notes from our Friday Fireside Chat (and I’m thrilled to be right there next to her on the list!). You can listen in on the conversation at this link

Harvard’s Amy Edmondson and I got together in early June, 2020, for a Friday Fireside chat to talk about her fabulous book The Fearless Organization. I’ll pull out a few key points of discussion here, but it’s really worth a listen if you’d like to go more in-depth. And get the book – it is really terrific. 

What is psychological safety?

It is “a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking.” What that means practically is that there isn’t the fear of bringing up ideas, concerns, questions or possible mistakes among people working together. Speaking up, in other words. 

But, as we discussed, we are always calculating, often unconsciously, the benefit to cost ratio of speaking up. The benefit of not speaking up lies in staying safe and feeling protected. Speaking up might create a cost. You might get yelled at, thought stupid, intrusive or not helpful, a penalty that you personally pay. Which leads to the great dilemma of psychological safety, namely that the benefits are often to the collective community and delayed in time, while the costs to an individual are borne personally and are often immediate. We have little calculators in our heads, running these cost/benefit calculations all the time. 

A story that brings the idea to life from the book is of a member of the top management team of a large electronics firm that had embarked on what would prove to be a disastrous acquisition. Although he had grave doubts about the wisdom of the deal, he stayed silent. When things fell apart, he said to his team, “I let you down – I didn’t want to be the skunk at the picnic.” As Amy points out, this is a terrible analogy for a strategic decision process! A high-level strategy meeting is not a picnic, and a person with a different perspective from the majority is not a skunk, they’re a treasured team member!

And this is the crux of the strategic importance of nurturing psychological safety. When you see organizations that have gone wrong, disasters that were not averted or inflection points that undid a once-successful company, you’ll hear a lot of “nobody could have anticipated that.” And yet, someone always “saw” around the corners. Think the VW diesel scandal. Or the Wells Fargo customer abuse disaster. Or Enron. 

Why don’t the messages get heard? People who saw the danger may not have felt empowered to speak up. Or they weren’t organizationally in the right place. Or people in positions of authority didn’t want to hear the message. 

Why we struggle to say “you were right”

In starting the conversation, I shared what I thought was a remarkable exchange between noted venture capitalist Fred Wilson (and husband of my Friday Fireside guest and entrepreneur Joanne Wilson) and Joah Spearman on Twitter. Spearman, a Black founder in tech based in Austin, observed that, despite the recent murder of George Floyd and the protests for justice that it provoked, Wilson hadn’t noted it in a regular posting. Wilson, in a remarkable moment, simply said “you’re right.” 

I raised this exchange with Amy, and we both remarked that it is really rare to have someone simply say “you’re right” and take action on it as opposed to being defensive and uncomfortable. So Kudos to Wilson and Spearman for offering a great example of dialogue which led to a productive outcome. As Amy points out, being wrong means you’re a human being and the world is an uncertain place.

The surprising origins of the psychological safety concept

The importance of psychological safety was actually a bit of an accident. In a study she was part of that separately measured the rates of medical errors and indicators of excellent teamwork, there was a surprising result. As opposed to what most of us would think, that high performing teams would have fewer errors, they actually had more. After puzzling over this, Amy had a bit of a breakthrough. It wasn’t that they had more errors, it was that they were more willing to talk about then, and therefore to fix them. 

This insight led to many years of research on Amy’s part, and that of many other investigators. The core idea is that when there is uncertainty, you aren’t going to be able to make accurate predictions. This in turn means that the best process for learning is to generate hypotheses, be willing to test them, and be willing to accept the conclusions. So, there is a really solid reason why hearing from diverse perspectives is essential to learning. This in turn means that leaders need to explain to their people why it is so essential that team members speak up – that it is vitally important to be able to pick up more information than that which reflects one person’s perspective. See also snow melts – from the edges.

A fascination with failure

Amy and I share a longstanding fascination with the relationship between failure and learning. Fear of failure is a big reason people are reluctant to take interpersonal risks – they don’t want to look as though they don’t know what they are doing, or even worse, get put into a situation where they don’t know what they are doing, fail, and are punished in some way for that. 

Instead, consider reframing failure. I often talk about defining it not so much as “I was right about this” and instead say, “I have this hypothesis, and I’m willing to spend $500 to do an experiment to see whether it is borne out or not.” The $500 is tuition, not wasted money, if the hypothesis isn’t borne out.

That much being said, there are obviously situations in which we don’t to praise or reward failure. Not carefully doing your homework, being sloppy, being lazy, not thinking through consequences and so forth shouldn’t be rewarded, of course. On the other hand, admitting to mistakes in a complex environment is one of the few ways in which they can be made safer. 

I recall being very influenced by a study that was done by Karl Weick and Karlene Roberts some years ago about how people landing airplanes on aircraft carrier decks were able to coordinate their efforts so well that few accidents resulted. This despite the fact that stopping a flying plane and bringing it to a halt on a relatively small surface in the midst of a giant ocean is a highly risky undertaking. What Weick and Roberts concluded was that a concept they called “heedful interrelating” allowed for nearly continuous, safe, operations. To do this, each participant shared a common view of the system they were in, how their activities influenced the system and what needed to be done to avoid catastrophe. Grappling candidly with possible mistakes allowed the operation to proceed much more safely.

Similar safety gains were reported in air travel when sector leaders got together to re-imagine how to deal with industry hazards. As the Wall Street Journal reports, “they teamed up to launch voluntary incident reporting programs with carriers sharing data and no punishment for airlines or aviators when mistakes were uncovered.” The safety record since then has been nothing short of astonishing.

Psychological safety is not about being “nice”

This is one of the biggest misconceptions about the whole concept – that it involves being nice to people. Not that one shouldn’t be pleasant at work, but holding back uncomfortable information because you’re worried about hurting someone’s feelings or coming off as unsupportive is the exact opposite of what one should be doing. Amy has often said that she would rename it “radical candor” if asked to re-title the idea.

The idea got popular – and ironically, misunderstood – in part because of a series of studies that Google did and widely publicized. They sponsored research, in a program called “Project Aristotle” that got a tremendous amount of attention. Although it put the research and the concept on the map, bringing it to the public’s attention, it also opened the door to many misunderstandings of what the concept is actually about. 

So what can you do, wherever you are?

Both Amy and I have this experience of people in organizations feeling that change is impossible because “they” don’t get it. “They” usually means people higher up in the organizational pecking order. So lets acknowledge that you might not be able to change them.

Instead, look across and down. You can create a better experience for everybody at work by changing yourself and how you relate to colleagues and co-workers. Ask good questions and put energy into really listing to the answer. You can put people on a bit of a stage when you do that – and signal that you are interested. Focus on creating safer conversational spaces wherever those happen at work. And you can begin with your own manager – seek their views, and ask them what they would recommend. 

And remember, the negatives that you imagine might result from your efforts to speak up are probably not nearly as bad as you are imagining. Amy tells a great story about a person working in a factory who had a great idea for how to improve the performance of a production line. Did he put the idea forward? No. Why not?  “I have kids in college” was the response. And yet, the same person, in a subsequent conversation said “Everybody knows we never fire anybody around here.” So the consequences of speaking up may not nearly be as bad as you may make them.

Finally, as with anything, start with small bites and practice. This is particularly important if you are in a leadership position. Ask your people, “what am I missing?” Be genuinely curious. 

Amy recently published a guide to psychological safety in the hybrid workplace, suggesting five practical steps that leaders can take now to help their teams succeed in a more complex, hybrid working world:

1. Set the stage – create shared ownership of the issues among the team

2. Lead the way with candor and humility and be prepared to share your own challenges

3. Take baby steps – share small bits of personal information first to build trust.

4. Share positive examples – catch people and situations where it’s working and highlight them

5. Be a watchdog – push back on remarks and behavior that undermines necessary sharing of information

The results might well be a more engaging, psychologically safe workplace. And who doesn’t want that as we figure out what work even means in the next phase of the pandemic?

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