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.
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.