HRM speaks with Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson who offers practical tips for cultivating psychological safety in the workplace.
Picture this: an employee has an innovative idea that could solve a complex problem that you’ve been scratching your head about for months, but they choose to stay quiet.
Now picture this: an employee is working in the production line at an aircraft company and notices that issues with equipment delays are resulting in an increase in defects. This means the aircrafts are likely unfit for use. In this instance, the employee does voice their concerns, but they’re brushed aside.
These two examples show how varied the impacts of a lack of psychological safety at work can be. In the first instance, the company is missing out on a good idea and wasting valuable resources. In the second scenario, people died. How do we know this? Because the latter example is real.
Following the devastating Boeing crashes in Indonesia and Ethiopia in 2018 and 2019, killing a total of 346 people, former Boeing US senior manager Ed Pierson came forward as a whistleblower, claiming a swathe of issues from equipment delays and backlogs of work, to a culture of stress and exhaustion that culminated in what he believed to be an unsafe work culture.
Pierson shared his concerns with those higher up in the business, but, according to him, they were not taken seriously. He feared he’d be fired for speaking up. However, after another failed attempt to get leadership to shut the factory down, he decided to retire. Two months later, the first plane crashed.
(You can listen to his full story in a recent episode of the Work Life podcast).
This is a prime example of the many elements that make for a psychologically safe work setting.
Not only do leaders need to create an environment in which people feel comfortable sharing their ideas or concerns, or to question the status quo, they also need to be prepared to listen when they do and encourage a variety of perspectives, even if the feedback is hard to swallow.
“Organisations are more at risk of preventable business failures or human safety failures when psychological safety is low,” says Amy Edmondson, Novartis professor of leadership at Harvard Business School, and the researcher who put team psychological safety on the map in the 90s, building off the work of researchers before her.
It’s also about the innovation, changes or improvements that simply don’t happen because people don’t offer up their crazy, big ideas, she adds.
“We need to have a comfort level with being a fallible human being.” – Amy Edmondson, Novartis professor of leadership at Harvard Business School.
In her book, The Fearless Organization, she says this “culture of silence” can be the by-product of an environment in which team leaders only welcome good news and, as a result, they might dismiss red flags or cause their teams to be overly confident in their decision-making skills. The latter can lead to authority bias (i.e. believing whoever is in charge is always right).
Despite studying and talking about this topic for decades, Edmondson has experienced a huge uptick of interest in her work since the onset of the pandemic and the uncertainty that surrounds our jobs, health, mental wellbeing and social lives.
“All of these forces sort of came together to create real and genuine interest in helping people, and creating the right types of environments where people can be resilient and can learn, grow and contribute, despite the uncertainty,” says Edmondson, who will be unpacking this topic at AHRI’s Convention TRANSFORM 2021 next month.
This shows that employers are focused on the right thing. Where some leaders get stuck, however, is learning how to put psychological safety into action.
Before we dive into that, it’s worth quickly unpacking what we mean by psychological safety and why it matters.
Haven’t got time to read the whole article? We’ve summarised some of the key points:
- Remind leaders that no one comes to work wanting to do a bad job.
- Be appreciative when someone offers feedback or tells you they’ve made a mistake (your initial response matters more than you might think).
- Frame the work for your team so they know exactly what kind of input is needed from them.
- Model fallibility from the top.
- Embrace a culture of interpersonal risk taking and candour.
What is psychological safety: the risks and barriers
In today’s world, we need to take interpersonal risks to do good work, says Edmondson.
That means speaking up with an idea, asking a curly question, feeling safe to own up to mistakes or sharing concerns before something develops into a problem.
“Psychological safety describes an environment where you believe you can do those things [without negative repercussions],” says Edmondson. “It’s permission for candour… it’s not being nice. It’s not being comfortable. It’s not job security. It’s a recognition that I, as my fallible self, can work here, be with these other people and do my very best.”
Importantly, Edmondson clarifies that psychological safety isn’t usually displayed at an organisational level, stating that would be “extraordinarily rare” unless it was a relatively small business. It’s what she calls a “local phenomenon” that exists within teams.
With this in mind, she says team leaders need to remember that in order for their people to adopt a growth mindset, they’ll need to stretch themselves and they will most likely face barriers when doing so.
“That means [they’re] going to be bad at things and [they’re] going to be wrong about things, but that’s okay. We need to have a comfort level with being a fallible human being, but that’s a barrier because most of us don’t have that comfort level.”
“Nobody likes to look ignorant or incompetent in front of their colleagues, and certainly not in front of their boss.” – Amy Edmondson, Novartis professor of leadership at Harvard Business School.
Hierarchical cultures can also present challenges, says Edmondson, if leaders with higher status don’t show a genuine interest in what their team members are bringing to the table.
“I’m not saying that hierarchy is bad, but it’s about how hierarchy is managed.”
The team hierarchy needs to be managed in a learner-orientated way from the top down, she adds, otherwise it’s “a huge barrier to candour [and] psychological safety”.
Employees and leaders also need to be okay with the fact that a psychologically safe approach might mean work takes a little longer to complete, as teams pause periodically to evaluate the situation or invite other perspectives in. A small investment of time now will pay you back tenfold down the track.
Leaders’ mindsets can also get in the way. For a variety of reasons, they might be quick to jump down people’s throats or be averse to negative feedback. One easy way to start shifting this way of thinking is to remind them that no one wakes up and wants to do a bad job.
“Nobody likes to look ignorant or incompetent in front of their colleagues, and certainly not in front of their boss. That’s a very fundamental desire. Unfortunately, in highly uncertain and highly interdependent environments, we’re going to look incompetent and stupid at times, and we’re going to make mistakes or ask questions that someone else believes to be a stupid question.” So we need to train ourselves, and our leaders, on how they should deal with this.
A three-step process to facilitate psychological safety
Most people buy into the idea but might struggle to put it into action. For these people, Edmondson has pulled together three steps to get started. They include:
1. Model fallibility and invite participation
Leaders need to own up to their knowledge gaps or admit to mistakes in order for their teams to feel safe enough to do the same. Part of this is modelling the behaviour, but equally important, according to Edmondson, is remaining curious.
“People make a lot of statements, but they don’t ask enough of the right questions. By asking questions, it would make it very awkward for me to not answer you… because you’ve invited me to speak,” she says.
“By asking [certain] questions, you’re also modelling fallibility because you’re saying, ‘I don’t know. I want to know what you think.'”
2. Framing the work
This step is about getting people onto the same page.
“It’s about explicitly calling attention to the challenge that lies ahead. You might say, ‘This is going to be hard because there’s so much uncertainty or because no one has ever done this before, so all ideas are welcome.’ Or you might say, ‘This [project] really matters to our customers, so we’re going to depend on each other to get this right’. That’s framing that the work is interdependent and important.”
Putting a layer of meaning around the work clarifies why other people’s voices matter.
“So if I say something like, ‘Catching an error early is really important’, I’m framing [the work] in such a way that I’m saying, ‘I need your voice.'”
3. Embrace the messenger
The final step is for team leaders to be aware of how they respond when people come to them with a mistake. Are they biting people’s heads off? Or are they treating mistakes as a part of the journey towards innovation and betterment?
“How do leaders respond [to a mistake]? Do they respond with annoyance, disappointment or frustration? Or do they respond with appreciation and say, ‘Thanks for telling me and for that clear line of sight’? I always say a productive response is appreciative and forward looking.”
Fighting the instinct to say, “How the heck did this happen?” doesn’t mean we shouldn’t set aside time to get to the root cause of a mistake. However, Edmondson says leaders need to be cautious of when and how they say this.
It shouldn’t be the first response and it shouldn’t be accusatory because “your initial reaction really matters”; it sets the tone for future interactions not only with that individual but any bystanders, or colleagues they speak with.
With this three-step process in mind, if organisations are still unsure where to start, Edmondson says to focus on one goal.
“Whether that goal is to grow the business by X per cent or to move into a new market, start by articulating that and getting everyone on the same page about what it is that you’re trying to do. From there, explain that it might not be easy and so that’s why you’re going to need to have very candid, learning-oriented conversations.”
Amongst all this, leaders need to be skilled in asking good questions, listening thoughtfully and having the skills to gain perspective on the bigger picture, she says.
“And then the work of developing the team competencies is best done by using the actual work we have to do as the playing field. It’s not going to an offsite to do a simulation – although, I do like those team exercises – but using the actual team context and the actual work we have to do as an opportunity to get better.”
What’s the next step?
Edmondson has previously described psychological safety as the means to arrive at excellence.
“It’s just one dimension, albeit an important one, that [we need in our workplaces], especially in this volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world. There’s another element that I sometimes think of as motivation or setting high standards or, you know, this shared ambition of purpose.
“There are different ways of thinking about the rocket fuel that makes us take off, right? And so, what I always want to be clear about is you need both the freedom from holding back [and] interpersonal fear, and something else. And so what is this something else that makes workplaces really engaging or enriching?”
The answer to this question is very context dependent, but Edmondson invites HR professionals and workplace leaders to think about it.
Once you’ve secured the baseline for your people’s psychological safety, ask yourself: ‘What next’? How can we continue to ensure our people bring their best ideas to the table? How can we encourage them to be bold and fearless in their idea generation? And, perhaps most importantly, how can we ensure they’re doing work both we and they are proud of?
HRM will be further exploring the next steps after psychological safety in the October edition of HRM magazine. If you have any thoughts on this topic that you’d like to share, feel free to get in touch.
Interested in taking a deeper dive into Amy Edmondson’s work on psychological safety? Register to attend AHRI’s Conference Transform 2021, and read more about Amy’s presentation here. Registrations close 9 August 2021.