The Harvard professor talks teamwork, healthy dissent, and the importance of "psychological safety."
In her book The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth, Amy C. Edmondson, a professor at Harvard Business School, looks at ways various organizations can thrive by encouraging individuals’ creativity while at the same time fostering a supportive, pro-teamwork environment. She discusses some of her findings here.
What does fear do in a work environment?
Fear inhibits learning, creativity, and improvement. Fear harms the quality of products and services. Fear makes people unable to point out a potential error on the part of a colleague — especially one with greater status or rank in the organization. And that reluctance puts patients at risk. It also inhibits true teamwork and effective coordination among people jointly responsible for delivering care — or any other interdependent, shared task.
Is there an obligation to dissent when you disagree with what your company is doing?
A company can implement a policy in which people have an obligation to dissent. McKinsey, for instance, is well known to have such a policy. However, having a policy is not the same thing as building a workplace reality that’s conducive to dissent. Creating that kind of interpersonal context takes additional work.
You talk about how leaders in the middle of an organization set the climate. How does that work when they must report up?
My emphasis on “leaders in the middle” comes from the impact that those who lead the actual work activities that make up the operational core of any organization have on those engaged in getting the work done. Leadership influence on psychological safety and speaking up comes from these middle-of-the-organization leaders because they are proximal and present. How they behave, what questions they ask, and how they react when things go wrong are all powerful forces in shaping the interpersonal climate.
As for “reporting up,” indeed, leaders in the middle all report to someone else — and these relationships influence how they manage those below them. It’s a diluted influence, shaped in part by their own managers, as well as by many other factors. In the very best-run organizations, senior executives are such powerful and effective role models — conveying an infectious learning orientation — that leaders below them are also able to show up in positive and effective ways.
Are trust and psychological safety the same thing?
Trust and psychological safety are closely related concepts, but they are not the same thing. In short, trust is about giving others the benefit of the doubt. Psychological safety is about having confidence that your colleagues will give you the benefit of the doubt.
When employees try to contribute all the time, it can be exhausting for those managing them. How can employees find the critical moment when their input will do the most good?
Psychological safety allows people to contribute. This does not mean that contributing more and more and more is a good thing! Effective workplace conversations also require discipline and discernment, which everyone can develop more of, with practice. Psychological safety is about reducing interpersonal fear so speaking up is possible. It’s about making it less heroic to ask a question or admit an error. But it’s not about making people contribute all the time, exhausting their colleagues. Psychological safety is a precondition for effective teaming and decision-making in groups, but it’s not meant to be the entire solution to effectiveness.
Is “teaming” something that should always happen?
Teaming is necessary when the work is interdependent — meaning when achieving desired results requires more than one person working together or requires more than one type of expertise or perspective. Teaming can be frustrating at times, such as when people disagree about what should happen next, or don’t listen to each other carefully, or feel others are letting them down. However, the good news is that teaming also enlivens work and can be enjoyable. We are naturally social creatures, and it is satisfying to work with others in accomplishing work that we believe matters.
Does the political/social environment influence whether America will value psychological safety in the future?
I suspect, as the question implies, that the broader societal environment will indeed influence whether we value psychological safety. Psychological safety is all about candor and learning, about being direct and willing to take interpersonal risks in the pursuit of something larger than oneself. If those pursuits are not valued by society, then psychological safety may in turn not be valued by society. A culture of selfishness or entitlement tends to devalue learning just as it devalues sacrifice.
Tyler Cymet, DO, is the chief of Clinical Education at the American Association of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine. He is currently a Change Management Consultant with Michigan State University and a clinical professor at the New York Institute of Technology.