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.

 

 

 

Strong Opinions, Lightly Held

People TalkingWhat’s the key to turning a difficult conversation into a productive one? Years ago I studied with the people at Action Design–exploring this exact question. How do you have a productive conversation based on honesty, trust and transparency? How can you transform difficult conversations into opportunities for learning and understanding? The phrase “strong opinions, lightly held,” is a reminder for me of how to enter into a conversation that is difficult–or how to respond when a conversation becomes challenging.

“Strong opinions, lightly held” connects to one of the most powerful and practical distinctions I’ve ever learned–between advocacy and inquiry. Advocacy is about speaking up and inquiry is about asking questions–seeking to understand. Inquiry is about curiosity, listening and asking. While the benefits of inquiry are probably the subject of much of the leadership development work you’ve done–perhaps because it’s not all easy be an expert “inquirer”–advocacy is also important. Having a voice, expressing a view and being able to effectively express ideas is critical to effective leadership.

Expressing your view (strong opinions) while knowing that your view is just one view–and being willing to open your view up to inquiry by others (lightly held)–is one of the keys to productive, powerful conversations–and leadership. It’s one of the primary ways that difficult can become productive–and positive. Advocacy and inquiry are a polarity–both are critical, it’s not an either/or. Our work is to leverage the positive aspects of each–to speak up and also be willing to ask, to listen and also be willing to let go.

Living into “strong opinions, lightly held” is the work of a lifetime–a journey, not a destination. In recent years there’s been a host of research about our brains that demonstrates–over and over–that we are wired to crave certainty–to want to believe that we know, that we are right. (See On Being Certain by Robert Burton.) That need for certainty creates in us a false sense of knowing that blinds us to the fact that we might just be wrong. The need for certainty–and its corollary–the need to be right, ultimately get in our way, doing a disservice to the people around us, and preventing our organizations from thriving. It is part of why advocacy, rooted in a sense of knowing, can come so much more easily than inquiry. Inquiry requires that we be comfortable with not being certain that we are right, with being willing to hold open the possibility that we are the ones missing something.

It’s a hard thing to shift. We can begin by noticing when we’re holding a view tightly, when we are not asking questions or have ceased to be curious. We can notice when we are not allowing questions to be asked or making space for others to speak up. We can listen to ourselves when we say (or think) “we know” and check to see if it is really true. We can try on the language of “I believe” vs. “I know” and see what happens.

As we notice and as we make small shifts, we can work to become leaders who are clear rather than leaders who are certain, leaders for whom “strong opinions, lightly held” is an aspiration–one we are always moving towards. We can practice in every conversation. 

Updated, June, 2018.

 

 

 

A Medley of Resources

For the past few months I’ve been writing posts for Actionable—the same organization that also creates wonderful (and numerous) book summaries—including twenty or so that I’ve authored. While my original intention was to write posts both here and for Actionable—those posts have ended up being my focus. It’s been wonderful to have an editor and a schedule! So, this post is a placeholder whose purpose is to point you in the direction of the these resources.

Here’s my post about complexity. It expands on what I’ve shared on these pages. Working with complexity is a requirement in a world of VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity.)

And here’s a post that explored polarity management. This is the tool in my toolkit that I find most meaningful these days (and is another way to manage complexity.)

My post about the distinction between assessments (opinions) and assertions (facts) was written on November 10. I really appreciated having an editor with the wisdom to notch it down a bit and still keep it relevant to the unique moment we are in.

Finally, here’s my latest post–one of the most personal and simultaneously most practical I’ve written. It explores the topic of listening–a skill that is at the very core of what effective leaders do. I share a practice that is now becoming a habit for me—which I call “the pause.”

And, here are links to the summaries I’ve written for Actionable Books in the last couple of years. They are listed in the order that they appeared. Kegan’s An Everyone Culture and Laloux’s Reinventing Organizations are particularly provocative. Haber’s Business of Good is inspiring. Duhigg’s new book on productivity and Halvorson’s book on biases continue to shed light on how we can be more effective in our day-to-day lives.