Creating Psychological Safety from the Inside Out

Organizations that seek to stay relevant through continuous learning and agile execution must cultivate a fearless environment that encourages speaking up. In any company that thrives in our complex and uncertain world, leaders must be listening intently, with a deep understanding that people are both the sensors who pick up signals that change is necessary and the source of creative new ideas to test and implement. Amy Edmonson, The Fearless Organization

I finished reading Amy Edmonson’s new book, The Fearless Organization, a few weeks ago. It’s about psychological safety–what it is, why it matters and how to cultivate it. As I read the book I had two alternating thoughts. At times it felt simple–almost too simple. Speaking up matters. A lot. Psychological safety is all about speaking up. On the other hand, it’s complicated–even complex. Speaking up doesn’t come easily for many people and, in organizational settings, it can be exceptionally difficult. Creating the conditions for psychological safety is an intentional act of leadership.

Edmonson first stumbled upon the importance of psychological safety while researching medical errors in hospitals. The initial results showed more errors in the teams that scored as “better.” That’s not what she expected. So she dug deeper and discovered that the better teams were willing to speak up about mistakes and address them. The less effective teams hid errors–there was a lack of psychological safety. It’s important to note that Edmonson is not presenting psychological as a silver bullet– it does not guarantee team or organizational success. Without psychological safety, however, it is much harder to succeed–to produce innovative, powerful results. So, to reiterate the first point above, psychological safety matters a great deal.

Now here’s the thing that really struck me as I read Edmondson’s book. Psychological safety could be strong in one team and weak in another–in the same hospital. Local leaders (in this case, primarily doctors) determined the level of safety. This points to the role of individual team leaders in influencing the level of safety in their teams–making it safer or less safe than the dominant culture.

Let’s go back to the simplicity and the complexity of establishing psychological safety. What is it that individual leaders can and must do to encourage their team members to speak up–to share ideas, speak about their challenges, be willing to say what they aren’t sure others really want to hear? Edmonson’s Leader’s Toolkit (Chapter 7) provides specific suggestions and practices for creating the conditions, inviting participation and responding when people speak up. (An excerpt from this chapter is available in Strategy and Business.) While this toolkit is made up of deceptively simple actions, for these actions to be effective leaders must have the capacity to execute them, and that is anything but simple.

Creating and supporting the conditions necessary for psychological safety requires the capacity to say one does not know and to listen with interest and openness to other views. It requires the ability to appreciate ideas that don’t jive with one’s often strongly-held opinions (and the willingness to hold those opinions lightly.) It requires the capacity to hear the words someone is speaking even when the delivery is poor or the timing less than perfect. It requires that we recognize that our view is one view only and that we could be wrong. It requires that mistakes and failures, even the preventable and careless ones, are discussable. (Edmonson offers up a useful taxonomy of failures.) It requires that we abandon the misbegotten and widely promoted idea that we shouldn’t bring up problems if we don’t have solutions. It requires that we make it easy for people who struggle to speak up to do so–that we solicit input from the quieter people on our teams–that we as leaders practice inquiry as much, if not more, than advocacy. It requires that we allow ourselves to be vulnerable.

These requirements demand that we look at the ways that we respond (or react), day in, day out–and honestly assess our own performance (and ask for feedback from others.) They demand that we start with ourselves and the ways that we are showing up as leaders. They demand that we develop tools to manage our state–to catch ourselves before we react defensively. They demand that we recognize the power that we have to influence the psychological health and safety of the teams we lead–that we recognize the power we have as leaders to positively or negatively influence our teams.

If you are already someone who tolerates uncertainty well, who embraces not knowing, who can listen without defensiveness and who can be vulnerable–it’s likely that your team already experiences a high level of psychological safety. It’s also likely that there’s even more you can do and that, by working on how you self-manage and self-regulate and on your relationship to not knowing and to uncertainty, that you can take that to even higher levels. And, if you read this and recognize that you are not yet there–know that you can develop these capacities. Through practice (and practices) you can develop new habits and behaviors. And if you’re not sure how you’re showing up–one of the ways to begin to increase the level of psychological safety in your team is to get curious–to have candid conversations and solicit feedback.

So take some time as we begin a new year to think about where you are now and what you can do to cultivate your capacity to support your team’s psychological safety.

Related posts:

Overcoming Your Habit Nature: Embrace Your Saboteurs provides suggestions for working with some of our more entrenched habits–including the ones that are limiting our capacity to support psychological safety.

The Age of the Uncertain Leader speaks to the necessity of embracing uncertainty and some practical ways to do just that.

 

 

 

A Tribute to My Teacher

PBLIn the spring of 2013, Amazon suggested that I read The Mindful Coach by Doug Silsbee. I did–on a 15 hour plane ride to Hong Kong. I was so excited by what I read that the first thing I did upon arriving in my hotel room was to go online and find out if Doug taught in person. He did. And, the program he ran, Presence-Based Coaching, sounded wonderful.

Doug’s work combined many of the things I was already exploring (mindfulness, neuroscience. adult development) with other domains I’d never heard of (somatic work, polarity management, and more ) in a way that was both fresh and familiar. I would be able to deepen areas I wanted to work on and gain new ways of putting it all together.

So began five years of study–in person at a beautiful retreat center near Asheville, North Carolina and through a variety of online courses. Throughout that time, Doug kept building, adding, growing and expanding his understanding of leadership, coaching, our place as humans on this planet. He was generous enough to include us in his journey. And I was fortunate enough to be his student.

The most important distinctions and insights that I’ve gained in recent years came from my work with Doug, and his partner Bebe Hansen. (Bebe has recently taken the reins at Presence-Based Coaching–meaning that the work is in great hands.) Doug introduced me to polarity thinking, which is central to my work as a coach, facilitator and human being on this fragile planet. When, on the last day of one of our retreats, Doug offered up the polarity of humility AND confidence to replace the dichotomy of confidence OR arrogance, I felt a shift and sense of possibility in that moment. Doug is one of those coaches who, with just a few words or an incisive question, delivered with compassion and humility, helps you see what was previously invisible.

Doug’s newest book, Presence-Based Leadership:Complexity Practices for Clarity, Resilience, and Results That Matter, was published in March. The book builds on Doug’s interest and exploration of complexity. The essential idea is that complexity –which is more and more a part of our reality–requires work with our bodies, hearts and minds, together, to be more fully present. Developing our capacity for presence, writes Doug is “possibly the most fundamental life and leadership competency.” Doug describes presence as the “conscious, intentional awareness that connects our deepest heartfelt essence to the furthest reaches of societal contribution.”

Unlike Doug’s previous books, which were written for coaches, this one is written for all leaders–which, in Doug’s definition, is all of us. The book is simultaneously practical and profound. It’s built around a model for cultivating presence, which he calls the nine-panes model, and supported by a myriad of accessible practices. Each pane is a window into a part of how we see and experience reality and, as with all elegantly systemic models, the panes are interdependent. They operate together, as a system. Being aware of them and working on them individually can influence how they operate together.

A few months before the book was published, Doug was diagnosed with a rare cancer. I wanted to believe that he would beat it. Doug was a healthy person–rugged, strong, balanced. Instead, Doug, perhaps sooner than the rest of us, recognized that this was not going to be “beaten”–it was going to be lived. And, he embraced it as the ultimate “complexity challenge.” For eight months now, Doug has been on this journey. He has been generous and courageous enough to share it with his community, including his students. He and his wife have authored a blog that has invited us into this journey. Even as Doug is consciously letting go of his professional identify, he remains a teacher. He embraces that role with wonder and humility. Just a couple of weeks ago, in reflecting on his choice to document his dying process, he wrote:

“I really don’t know how to do this, this dying thing. I’m (drum roll….. yes,  the rumors are true!) a first-timer. Any actual knowledge I might profess about dying hasn’t yet been fully earned. So, it’s not expertise that I am offering.

Rather, it’s my lived experience, day by day, as it unfolds. Is it not true, at the end of the day, that our fullest selves and our lived stories are what we have to offer anyway?

Almost certainly, I will only get to die once. Not that I would wish cancer on anybody. More like, if I’m here, I might as well explore the unique perspective on living that is revealed by dying.

Doug’s curiosity, his willing to share his own experiences, his ability to bring humor (and reveal when he’s in deep pain,) has had an extraordinary effect–it’s the first time in my life that death, itself, has seemed just a bit less scary. That is an amazing gift. I know, because I’ve talked to many of his students (and read the beautiful comments on his posts,) that it’s shared by many of us. It is a testament to the truest power of vulnerability. Doug has embraced dying as a space for practice and decided to share what he’s been learning along the way.

If you don’t know Doug, read his books, listen to podcast interviews of with Amiel Handelsman. They were recorded as the book was being published and as he was coming to terms with his new reality. If you do know him, then I’m sure you and I are having many of the same feelings and sensations. It’s wonderful to have a teacher and hard to lose one. I’m grateful that Doug is guiding us in the journey.

Update: Doug passed away on July 30. May his memory be a blessing.