Amy Edmondson on psychological safety and the future of work

Ep. 45


Amy Edmondson is the Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at Harvard Business School and the author of “Teaming” and “The Fearless Organisation”. We talk about her journey of researching psychological safety and teaming, as well as the paper she co-wrote about self-managing organisations. Amy shares insightful and practical lessons about leadership, how to be a good team member, and the future of work.

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Lisa Gill: I think most listeners will perhaps know you from your book “Teaming” (2012) and your research on psychological safety. It’s been a number of years since you’ve been working with different teams and organisations around this subject so I’m curious to know, what has your journey been with this topic and why is it important to you personally?

Amy Edmondson: Oh my goodness. Well, I would say that journey is such a good word for it. It’s a journey that started with an accidental finding. I didn’t set out to study psychological safety. I set out to study the learning organisation. I wanted to know what you could do to make organisations better at learning from their experiences. I got an invitation to participate in a study of medical error and I thought, well, errors are really important for learning — we learn from mistakes, it’s one of the core mechanisms of learning for human beings and probably should be an important phenomenon for organisations as well.

So I came in to study… [and] I realised intuitively that where the learning happens is in teams because teams are doing the work. There’s some work, of course, that’s still done very much by individuals working alone, but an awful lot of it is done by people coordinating and collaborating and communicating with each other in very important, rich ways. So, I thought: “OK I’ll study how teams learn from mistakes” and what happened was I got data on mistakes, or at least experts in the medical setting had collected these data over a six-month period, and I had data I collected on team properties using a survey instrument. And the relationship between these two data sources was kind of odd because it fundamentally was suggesting that the better teams were making more mistakes, not fewer. And I had fervently believed it would be the other way around. I then, after my surprise, started thinking about the nature of the data on error and I realised it could only be collected through human beings — either willingly reporting them, or at least not covering them up. Because in a lot of work settings, the mistakes that do get made can be covered up — unless they lead to something awful, they can be covered up.

So I started thinking, maybe the better teams aren’t making more mistakes, maybe the better teams are those where people are more willing and able to talk about mistakes. And so I didn’t have a name for it at that point, but I thought this was at least a reasonable possibility. And it turned out to be something that, from a research point of view, took a little effort to show the plausibility of it, but ultimately I was able to do that both in that study and in many other studies. And at first I was thinking of it as openness, as interpersonal climate, as error climate, all sorts of terms, but ultimately drawing on older literature I decided it was really this phenomenon called psychological safety at work. And the more I thought about learning and learning environments, the more I thought that learning environments are those that are characterised by psychological safety.

So I wanted to study it in other contexts: in manufacturing, in service, not just healthcare (although I’ve done quite a few studies in healthcare). And so the journey was one of stumbling into the phenomenon by accident and then developing a robust survey measure of psychological safety that has since been used in hundreds of studies, in and out of healthcare, and finding that it has all sorts of connections to learning behaviours, but also to performance… And so, it’s been a kind of meandering journey and when you publish a paper that gets attention, other people pick up the measure so many people have picked up the measure and found, thankfully, lots of other things that I hadn’t done. So part of the journey has been that the concept and the measure have gotten a lot of attention, and that is good, I think, for the work world. So part of the journey has been sort of just stepping back and going: “Wow, this is great to see it take off a little bit”.

And then personally, to me, I do have a personal connection because I think often I’m interpersonally risk adverse. You know, I don’t want to make a mistake, I wanna be seen well in the eyes of others. I’m a little bit more fearful than I wish I were, in terms of holding back. So I understood and empathised with this experience of being at work and… in some settings, you’re not sure you can be yourself, and in other settings, you’re absolutely sure you can be yourself, and I thought: “What is it? What’s the difference? Who’s doing what to make that possible?” because it’s so much better to be in a workplace where you can be your real self, and contribute; contribute to the work in a meaningful way.

LG: And that’s a good lead into talking about leadership because managers and leaders of course are really influential in creating that environment, that climate of psychosocial safety, or not. And my sense is that, especially today, psychological safety intellectually makes sense to most people. Nowadays it’s not radical. But in practice, my feeling is it’s more challenging. Perhaps because we’re not practiced in doing it. So for those managers or leaders who are thinking: “Psychological safety sounds good, but how do I do that?”, what are you finding is most helpful in terms of supporting them in that shift?

AE: You know, many managers don’t have enough emotional intelligence to be aware that other people may be holding back, or feeling afraid, or not asking for help when they need help, or not making an observation or offering an idea, even though they have something that could be quite relevant… And so many managers, in fact maybe even most at least initially, are sort of blind to that.

And there are some things I think that anybody can do to create a more psychologically safe environment. But first I wanna say, you started out by saying managers or leaders and I think being a manager is an official job, someone says: “You’re a manager, you’re gonna manage those people or that process” and that’s what you do. But leaders, I think leadership is a function. Leadership is an activity that can be done by anybody. We often think of leadership as maybe even a higher level or form of management, but that’s leadership with a capital ‘L’, maybe, it’s the CEO or the business unit manager. But leadership with a small ‘l’ is the small things you do to make a difference, to influence others… Even a subordinate can exercise leadership that makes your life at work better.

So what managers can do is exercise more leadership, and exercise leadership over the culture or the climate. To me, the most important thing they can do is just start out by just being more open themselves, being more open about the challenge that lies ahead, you know: “Wow, we’ve got this really challenging project. I’m excited about it but I’m nervous also.” So when I say something like that as a manager, I just make it so much easier for other people to say that too. I like to call this “framing the work.” Like, “it’s challenging and it’s exciting. And by the way, no one’s ever done a project like this before.” So I’m framing the work and by saying “no one’s ever done anything quite like this before”, I’m saying: “It’s gonna be natural and normal to get some things wrong and some things right along the way.” So in other words: “I’m all ears — I wanna hear about all of it.” You’re framing the work in such a way that it’s both clear how much uncertainty, how much possibility there is of things going wrong, but also how important everybody else’s input and engagement is. If I can really let you know that I believe you matter, you’ll show up. Most of us are waiting for an invitation to make a difference. So that’s framing the work.

The second thing is being quite explicit about asking for input. I can frame the work and say: “It’s the kind of work for which we’re gonna need everybody’s help”, but if I actually say: “David, what’s on your mind?”, that makes it very hard for David not to respond. If I say: “Lisa, I think you were on call last night. What did you see?”, you’re gonna feel a sense of embarrassment if you have nothing to say, rather than the other way around.

And then of course the third thing is to respond in a productive way. When someone brings forward bad news or a question that you might at first think is kind of a stupid question, you clearly don’t say that, you say: “I’m so glad you asked.” Because you are! And then you say: “Here’s how I think about it.”

LG: Yeah, that’s really helpful. Circling back to what you started talking about with your original interest in learning organisations… for me, a really useful model you have in your book “Teaming” that I share with people all the time is this four-box model about how to create what you call a “Learning Zone”. Because I think, especially when I‘m talking to people about exploring more self-managing or Agile ways of working, sometimes the misconception is to swing in the opposite direction — abdication, free-for-all, laissez faire. And so this model I find is a very useful way of distinguishing that it’s not just psychological safety as in taking care of people, it’s also really about accountability and really relating to people as adults, as capable…

AE: Yeah, in fact it’s the opposite of “making things comfortable.” I want people to be willing to take risks, but I don’t want people to be in the Comfort Zone, is one of the boxes in that model. And so the Learning Zone, as you point out, is the zone where you feel both very motivated to do a good job — and that means you probably care; maybe you care about the end result, the purpose of it, maybe you care about just your own sense of mastery, but you really feel engaged and motivated by the work and by the goal — and you feel that you wouldn’t be willing to hold back because this is a safe place to take risks.

Source: Amy Edmondson’s “Teaming”Source: Amy Edmondson’s “Teaming”

Risk-taking by definition is going to involve some things going well, but some things not going well. That’s part of work in a volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous world. Things will go well and not well at different times, and not always in a predictable way. So the Learning Zone, it’s a little bit like the research by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi who talked about ‘flow’, where you have this sense of the challenge and your ability to meet the challenge being in a nice state of balance. You know, this isn’t off in a hammock with a glass of lemonade, this is really feeling that you’re being put to good work, good use.

LG: A key piece in what you’ve shared in those two answers for me is about transparency and facing things as they are, instead of what I think we’re conditioned to do, often as managers, which is trying to pep talk or take care of people or set expectations that things must go smoothly, and it’s really not that at all.

AE: It’s not the world we live in. The world we live in is one that’s gonna require of us to keep striving, keep being ambitious about what we think we can get done, what problems we think we can solve and in order to do that, recognise our profound interdependence with other people. There’s very little of any real importance that can be found all by oneself. Even writing a book isn’t done all by oneself, you need a publisher, you have an editor, you have readers, sometimes you have people helping with some research. Really anything that’s got any sort of meatiness to it has multiple voices.

LG: One thing I’m really excited to talk to you about is the research that you’ve done with Michael Y. Lee, and I’ve spoken to him as well, but it’s so interesting to talk to you and see, not only what your insights have been from the paper you wrote on self-managing organisations but also how it fits with your work around psychological safety and teaming. What can you share?

AE: I love that work with Mike and Mike is continuing to do really interesting work in this domain. I’d say both of us were quite inspired by, and it’s not the first book we read, but Frederic Laloux’s ‘Reinventing Organisations’, and there are some very profound case studies in there. The self-managing organisation to me as a construct is much like the learning organisation in that it’s huge. It’s huge, it’s important, it’s aspirational, it’s what so many of us want.

So those are huge aspirations, and psychological safety… that’s just one small, but important, piece of these larger goals. So the idea of the self-managing organisation is something we can readily imagine — and there are examples of it — existing as a fully fleshed out, real-world phenomenon. And psychological safety is just this sort of psychological, interpersonal experience that I would argue, it’s hard to have a genuinely self-managing organisation or learning organisation without some level of psychological safety. But they’re very different research targets — one has got lots of moving parts, you’ve gotta really think it through, you’ve gotta describe it, and then the other is this very small construct — it can be measured, it can be used in normal science research, and you can show relationships with it. I’m more drawn toward the bigger picture — I really am excited by the work of Mike and other people who are trying to reinventing work, or think: “How can work be better? People spend a lot of their waking hours at work, how can it be better?” And of course there’s room for lots of different bits in answering that question.

LG: Yeah, and for me why that paper was so exciting when I read it was because I come from a field where people are practising organisational self-management in various different ways, so to see the academic world starting to grapple with it was really interesting to me. And also, in terms of starting to distinguish what is a self-managing organisation and what is it not. I think there are a lot of myths and misconceptions, and the organisations that you include in the paper are on different scales on different aspects of self-management. And as you say, the psychological safety piece for me, is something that’s being talked about less, the less tangible stuff, the interpersonal stuff, the mindset shift or the skills, the human piece, as opposed to the practices, structures, processes. So I think that’s a really valuable dimension to talk about.

AE: And I love how you just put that because to me that’s exactly right. There’s the structures, systems, tools and then there’s the human. And they both are equally important. I mean you can’t just come in however you might do it and sort of alter the climate but then don’t have any tools or structures that help people rise to the occasion that they’ve been invited to participate in. But you also can’t do all those tools without worrying about and thinking about and massaging the climate.

LG: Exactly. I wanna pounce on something because you mentioned a couple of times this term ‘climate’ and I know that it’s not that widely used. And I think sometimes people conflate it with culture. What would you say are the distinctions between culture and climate and why is that important?

AE: It’s not like one is a table and the other is a chair — there is some overlap in the concepts. Culture is more enduring and more holistic. So it’s perfectly reasonable to say: “What’s the culture at Harvard Business School?” We tend to think of culture as a set of taken for granted beliefs and assumptions about what’s appropriate behaviour around here. And you could answer the question: “What’s the culture like at Harvard Business School?” and there would be a lot of very useful information in that answer. But if you said: “What’s the, say, psychological safety climate at Harvard Business School?”, you couldn’t get a sensible answer, because it is so local. It’s this department and that team and this location over there all have different levels of psychological safety, in part because it’s so greatly influenced by leaders in the middle. And so the climate is something that’s a bit more ephemeral, like the weather. It’s what I feel I can do right here. And it’s gonna be consistent with our culture — like if there are things our culture absolutely says are just never done, it’s not gonna be done in this little group here either. But the climate can be changed overnight sometimes. Let’s say you have a new team leader — we’ve all had an experience like that — or you join a new team. Boom! Totally different climate. You absolutely feel you can roll up your sleeves and be yourself. The culture is more enduring and just more general.

LG: That’s helpful. You mentioned before about this distinction between management and leadership and that anyone, regardless of their role, can step into leadership of some kind. And I’m thinking about in a self-managing team or organisation, it’s kind of essential that people step into leadership, that it becomes leaderful. What would you say are some things that if I’m a team member and I’m perhaps used to being a bit passive, or waiting for instructions, or relying on someone else to solve things for me, what things could I do to start to become more leaderful, to start to take more responsibility for the climate in my team, for example?

AE: It’s a great question and I think the answer has to start with deciding that you want to do that. Because if you are at some level committed to being passive or kind of skating through and waiting to be told what to do and making sure you do it adequately, probably nothing I and others could say will be helpful. So I think you have to recognise that there’s a better game to play, and by game I mean the game of playing not to lose: “Tell me what I need to do, I’ll put in my hours, I’ll go home and that’s when I have my real fun or my real life and I’m playing not to lose. I don’t wanna fall on my face but I’m also not really striving to do anything all that great either.”

But if I decide instead that I’m willing to play to win — and I don’t mean win like vanquish the other people, I mean win like go for it and have a more meaningful and fuller existence and contribution here — then I recognise there are things I can do. And if I look to my right and look to my left and see colleagues, it does not take long for me to recognise that the needs that others might have. Like somebody’s a little quiet and I see it, so I recognise suddenly it’s possible for me to ask: “Hey, what’s on your mind?” And that’s leadership, because I am doing something that was voluntary to influence someone else in a positive way.

The point is, decide you wanna play a bigger game and then look around and diagnose what seems to need doing. Particularly in the interpersonal realm, but also in the task realm. Now, you might diagnose poorly sometimes. You might look around and think something needs to be done and you step right in and do it. And be prepared for feedback! Because maybe someone else will find it unhelpful. That’s OK. Each and every one of us must be willing to learn from our missteps as well as from our successes. This is gonna be a learning process. Someone decides: “OK, I’d like to exercise a little more leadership at work, make a bigger difference for others, and for the task at work.” Do not expect to get it right every time. Expect to get some of it wrong and that’s part of this journey, it has to be.

LG: It strikes me that, as you said, the systems piece and the human piece are both important, and it’s also the case that it’s not just leaders that are responsible for creating this climate of psychological safety, but it’s also about the non-leaders, if I can use that term, stepping up in a way, a mindset shift to seeing themselves as active players in that game…

AE: To be the change that you wanna see and realise — and I’m often reminding my sons of this, they’re 18 and 20 — that you don’t have to be just a victim of both the bad and the good that comes your way. You can choose how you wanna respond, and the most important choice is how you wanna respond emotionally. And to illustrate, you can sprain your ankle. That is really a drag, especially if you’re an athlete and you love to be active. And you can respond by saying: “This is the end of the world,” or “I’m miserable” or “This is not how I wanted this semester to go.” Or you can respond by saying: “This is really inconvenient. I wish this hadn’t happened and it did, so now what? Hey, maybe I’ll read that really long book that I never seem to get around to reading that I’ve wanted to read.” Because it wasn’t my first choice, but you might as well have as healthy a response as you can to the bad things that happen. And that’s easy to say and not easy to do, and I think all adults, and children, struggle with this. But once you recognise and then enact the fact that you really do have choice over your reaction, it’s incredibly liberating I think.

LG: Definitely. I’m curious, as someone that teaches leadership at Harvard, so you’re really with the next generation of leaders, what are you finding is increasingly important in terms of building leadership capacities for the teams and organisations of the future?

AE: You know I think it’s this — I don’t know what the right word is, but the kind of emotional muscle to deal with adversity. Psychological safety fundamentally is all about candour — creating conditions whereby people can be far more candid than is normal or natural, but if we’re gonna be candid, then we’re gonna find some things hurtful. Because a lot of times at work, it’s all nice talk and the things that we think that you don’t do well, we don’t tell you, we tell someone else instead and that’s not nice. So it’s this emotional resilience, the muscle of being able to bounce back quickly when things don’t go exactly the way you wanted them to, is much more important than ever. And I’m not sure…whether this next generation is even as well-equipped as the people in my generation were because I think a lot of them have grown up in the era of “everybody gets a trophy” and helicopter parents and being praised all the time in ways that didn’t use to be as fashionable, so I worry sometimes.

But I think the coming generation of leaders does recognise that the challenges that lie ahead are huge. So as long as you can get beyond the “It’s all about me” mindset, the writing is on the wall that this is gonna take everything you’ve got. And it’s not all about you, but it is all about others and I think that’s fundamentally the job of leaders is to be other-oriented, and other-focused, and not just because I wanna care for you and develop you but because, in fact, the only way great things are gonna happen is if others follow. So leadership is about harnessing the efforts of others to accomplish great things and you can’t harness the efforts of others if you don’t know what makes them tick.

LG: I think that’s interesting and I guess that’s why your work is so useful, and I really hope that business schools and people who are doing leadership trainings are practising it because I think those two polarities — psychological safety, and motivation and accountability — it’s both those things, not one or the other, that really creates an environment of learning and high performing teams. And that starts with thinking about more than just myself and seeing myself as being responsible for what shows up around me.

So some people listening will be on journeys of their own — many listeners I know are exploring being a self-managing organisation or they’re on some stage of that journey. It would be great if you could share some advice or wisdom in terms of some pitfalls people can avoid or some key principles that might help them on their way…

AE: I think the biggest pitfall is thinking you’re supposed to be perfect. Now no one thinks that consciously, but right below the surface it’s: “Yeah, I understand this learn from mistakes thing, but not for me.” We have this very strong desire to look good and be good. And so the biggest pitfall is not allowing yourself the permission to learn and grow, and you can’t learn and grow if you’re already there. So I think it’s just: forgive yourself, be good to yourself. Be good to others as well, but be good to yourself as well. And then I think the most important advice is to be willing to go for it, to be willing to just care enough about something else. It could be an athletic ambition, it could be a creative project, it could be just the type of industry you really wanna get into — but just to care enough to keep reminding yourself that this is a journey and you’ve got some aspirational goal, and remind yourself that the only way to get there is gonna be to try things, and learn from them, and then try something else.

I like to think of it as tacking up wind in a sail boat — you wanna go to that mark but it’s directly into the wind and sail boats can’t sail directly into the wind, so you just go this way for a while, then you go that way for a while. And that’s literally how it’s supposed to be, but often we don’t think it’s right that we’re experiencing that in our lives — “That was the wrong direction.” No! That was the tack that allowed you to learn those next few things that allowed you to tack over this way.

LG: I think that’s good advice, and it’s counter to the way that change has been implemented in the past which was large change initiatives or reorganisations, and it’s much more incremental or experimental…

AE: Yes, it’s not a big road map or master plan, it’s much more iterative because our lines of sight are not that long. When the pace of change picks up, you just can’t see quite as far into the future. And that’s Agile. I love the notion of Agile and I think everybody recognises that we need to be agile, we need to be vigilant, we need to be quick, we need to be willing to change. But then they don’t realise that the reality of that means it’s gonna be messier, there’s gonna be wrong and right, there’s gonna be stumble and fall parts to it. So the opposite of agile is non-agile — stuck or phlegmatic, and everybody recognises that that’s bad. But the opposite of agile is also planned out and scripted — which have no place in Agile.

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LG: And also I think if you’re experimenting with self-managing ways of working, it’s easy to try something, have it not work, and say: “Oh, self-management is wrong or bad or dangerous or it didn’t work for us” rather than: “OK, that’s interesting, so that didn’t work, so what did we learn from that? What else could we try? And what contributed to that not working?”

AE: And what people don’t realise is that often plain old top-down management isn’t working but we don’t know it because no one’s speaking up about the parts not working.

LG: Exactly. I think Gary Hamel is really good at highlighting the cost of bureaucracy and if someone brought out the tried and tested model of pyramidal, hierarchical organisations today, with all the data of how costly and slow, people would say: “Never!” But it’s funny that anything new, it’s like: “Oh that doesn’t work”, but the way we’re working now doesn’t work either.

AE: Exactly. We underestimate the degree to which the old model doesn’t work. And then we think: “Let’s try something new like self-managing teams, let’s try Agile — oh it didn’t work, so we go back to the old way.” But the old way wasn’t working, we just didn’t know it wasn’t working.

LG: In starting to wrap up our conversation, what is next for you on the horizon and what are you most excited or curious about in the future?

AE: You know, I’m most curious about how do we take these research-based ideas, and that includes psychological safety and teaming and self-managing organisations… and maybe this will sound contradictory, but I really would like to develop more of a playbook. And of course, we’ve been talking long enough that you know I don’t mean a playbook like a recipe for a cake, it won’t be that kind of playbook. But if an organisation and its leaders have decided “Let’s go on a journey”, then what’s the best advice we can give them and what does that look like? What does the journey look like and what tools are absolutely critical to implement? This is what I’m excited about and what I’m working on next. I want to find one or more organisational partners to experiment together. The problem with this is it doesn’t submit very well to normal science research. You can’t just say: “OK we’re gonna test, make sure A causes B.” It’s gonna be much more: “We’ll try things, but we’ll never be able to know if the path not taken was better. But we will be able to reflect together on what seemed to be more effective than other things.”

LG: That sounds really interesting. I know there are so many people dying for such a playbook, and as you say, not as a recipe, but as sort of encouragement, to embolden them with some things that have been tried and could be useful.

AE: Right, because I think one thing we know is that it won’t be the same. Two organisations’ journeys will never be exactly the same and yet I think there are some principles that will be the same. So, for example, a principle might be: it has got to be focused on the work. Another way to say that is focused on the customers’ needs and what we are trying to produce to meet those needs. It can’t be focused on change for change’s sake, or culture change for culture change’s sake. Or even, as important as this is, it can’t just be focused on employee experience. Because I think we are all inherently excited about doing something that is about getting something done. It’s gotta be work-focused, it’s gotta be driven by the work — the opportunities and the gaps that the work presents.

I think another example of a principle will be: it will be iterative. It will not be a beautiful blueprint that we then stick to, it will be iterative. It will need input from above, below, beside, and the data — it will be data-driven.

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LG: In closing, are there any final words or a lasting principle or piece that you’d like to leave listeners with?

AE: I think the most important one that comes to mind is: bring your full self forward. You can make a difference. I think so many people, and my heart goes out to them, think: “I’ve gotta wait for some boss to fix it or the CEO to change hands.” In fact, most of us underestimate the impact we could have if we just decided to be brave and committed to making a difference. Everybody can have an impact.

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