Building a Psychologically Safe Workplace: Amy Edmondson (Transcript)

And I thought, “Maybe” – in a kind of blinding flash of the obvious – I thought, “Maybe the better teams aren’t making more mistakes, maybe they’re more willing to discuss them.”

What if the better teams have a climate of openness that allows them to report and even get to the bottom of these things? Now, having that insight was a far cry from proving it.

SO WHAT DID I DO?

I sent out a young research assistant to study these units very carefully. He had to have no preconceptions, he didn’t know the error rates, he didn’t know how they scored on the team survey, he didn’t even know my hypothesis.

And I said, “What did you learn?” And you know what he found? He found that these units, these eight units were wildly different in terms of whether they were willing and able and did in fact talk about errors. Some of them were actually actively talking about them all the time and in the process of trying together to work together to find new ways of reducing them. Much later, I called this psychological safety.

Now, you might want to know: What was the sorting rule in this chart?

It looked at first like I was trying to get it from highest error rates to lowest, and I’m just not very good at math and got mixed up in the middle. No. These are sorted by the research assistant’s ratings of the openness of the climate. As you can see, the correlation is very high indeed.

Okay, so how do you build it? What do you do? If you’re a leader and you say, “Wow, I want to have psychological safety in my workplace”?

Let me just suggest three simple things you can do so that that nurse does make the call, the pilot does speak up, the executive even reveals his concern about the takeover.

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First, frame the work as a learning problem, not an execution problem. Recognize, make explicit that there’s enormous uncertainty ahead and enormous interdependence. Given those two things, we’ve never been here before. We can’t know what will happen. We’ve got to have everybody’s brains and voices in the game. That creates the rationale for speaking up.

Second, acknowledge your own fallibility. You know you’re fallible. Say simple things like, “I may miss something I need to hear from you.” This goes, by the way, for subordinates and colleagues, peers alike. That creates more safety for speaking up.

And third, model curiosity. Ask a lot of questions. That actually creates a necessity for voice. And so, these three simple things can go a long way towards creating the kind of workplace where we can avoid the catastrophes you saw coming in those three opening vignettes.

Now, at this point in describing and teaching about these things most managers I talk to start to get a little nervous. They say, “I get it, I understand how this could really help people learn. I understand, and I don’t want to hear about errors. But are you saying I have to dial back a little on excellence? Is it not longer possible to hold people accountable for great results? To hold their feet close to the fire?”

And I say, “No, in fact, I don’t think it’s a trade-off. I think it’s two separate dimensions. Two dimensions that you have to think about.”

In fact, when I’m talking about psychological safety, I’m essentially talking about letting up on the breaks. I’m not talking about the gas. I’m not talking about motivation. There’s a lot out there on motivation, and it’s really important, and it’s important to understand it.

But I’m talking about it’s equally important to free people up, to really engage and not be afraid of each other.

So if you don’t do either, by the way, that’s the apathy zone and that’s quite sad, so let’s move on. If you only do psychological safety, yes, well, it’s possible, you’re creating a comfort zone, leaving money on the table.

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But this is the one I’m more worried about, and I wish more managers were worried about it too. If you’re only talking about people’s accountability for excellence and not making sure they’re not afraid to talk to each other, then they’re in the anxiety zone.

This is where the nurse was, this is where that young pilot was, even the senior executive was in this place, and that’s a very dangerous place to be.

Of course, where do I want you to be? I want you to be high, high in the learning zone. And let me just say, in case it wasn’t clear yet, that this is also one and the same as the high performance zone as long as there’s uncertainty and interdependence.

If you have no uncertainty and no interdependence, it’s fine. You don’t need psychological safety. It’s fun to have, but not necessary.

But if you have both uncertainty and interdependence, it’s absolutely vital that you have psychological safety. So the workplace out there, the complexity, the interdependence, it’s not going to go away any time soon.

We need people to bring their absolute full selves to the challenging jobs ahead, and I hope you will help me create those kinds of workplaces so that they can learn and become their full and most contributing selves.

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