Psychological Safety and Learning Organizations

This Learning Agility series began with the aim of exploring how organizations and people can thrive and adapt in our era of accelerated change. Today’s installment marks a significant step forward on that journey, thanks to input and insights from Amy Edmondson.

Edmondson is the Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at Harvard Business School and has been repeatedly recognized by the bi-annual Thinkers50 global ranking. Her thorough research has been presented via popular articles, TED talks, and, most recently, her new book The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth—so I was excited to interview her for this column.

Learning Organization 101

I began by asking Edmondson how she defined a “learning organization.”

“A learning organization is continually adapting and adjusting to remain viable in a changing world,” Edmondson told me. “Doing this obviously involves people, and more specifically involves people working interdependently with each other, in teams, projects, and other collaborative forms.”

Edmondson points to our “complex, uncertain world” requiring the rise of knowledge economies and dependence on teamwork, which has put the question of effective collaboration to the fore.

In her latest book, Edmondson notes: “For knowledge work to flourish, the workplace must be one where people feel able to share their knowledge! This means sharing concerns, questions, mistakes, and half-formed ideas.”

This understanding has fueled Edmondson’s work over the last two decades as she continues to explore and champion psychological safety as a key enabler of learning organizations, innovation, and performance.

Psychological safety

The notion of psychological safety received some popularity with Charles Duhigg’s 2016 New York Times article outlining the initial results of Google’s Project Aristotle initiative. Google’s in-depth study revealed that their highest performing teams were first and foremost based on psychological safety—that is, on team members’ ability to feel safe, take risks, and be vulnerable in front of one another. Or as Edmondson describes it, a “climate in which people are comfortable expressing and being themselves.”

Edmondson was considerably ahead of this curve, having “stumbled upon” the topic years previously as a first-year doctoral student studying medical errors in several hospitals as part of a broader research team.

Growing understanding and myths

It’s in large part a testament to Edmondson’s work that psychological safety is becoming more widely known. However, its growth has also led to a number of misconceptions.

“Probably the most important one is that psychological safety is not about being nice!” Edmondson explained. “It’s not cozy or easy, but rather a sense of responsibility to have difficult conversations and to speak up without confidence that what one will say will be right or valued. It is also not about lowering performance standards, which is another common misconception.”

And how has Edmondson’s own view of psychological safety shifted over her decades of research into the topic?

“Over time, I have become more excited about the possibilities to alter psychological safety,” Edmondson told me. “Recently I have become confident that small things that people can do make an enormous difference in building psychological safety in the workplace.”

Leading psychological safety

In terms of improving psychological safety, Edmondson highlights the crucial role of leaders. “Leaders must call attention to uncertainty and ambiguity,” Edmondson said. “They must celebrate it as the new reality and make sure everyone realizes the implications.”

And what are the implications?

“That questions are more powerful than answers,” Edmondson told me. “The answers keep shifting, and the power of good questions is how we arrive at good enough answers, quickly enough, to make progress.”

This touches upon one of my biggest takeaways from The Fearless Organization, where Edmondson argues that organizations should “frame strategy as a hypothesis rather than a plan.” Edmondson expands on this: “When strategy is seen as a hypothesis to be continually tested, encounters with customers provide valuable data of ongoing interest.”

Leadership toolkit

The Fearless Organization goes into some detail about how to lead psychological safety, including outlining a practical “leadership toolkit.” Some of the techniques explored in the toolkit and associated self-assessment include how to:

  • Frame the work: Supporting language and expectations around failure, uncertainty, and interdependence, as well as the nature of the work itself.
  • Demonstrate situational humility: As Edmondson told me, “Nothing could be more foolish than thinking one knows all the answers in a volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous world.”
  • Practice inquiry: Asking “good” open-ended questions where you don’t know the answer, which helps to support others to sharpen and share their thinking.
  • Use processes: Creating forums for input and sharing, such as Google’s “g2g” (Googler-to-Googler) network-enabling peer-based learning and support.

When leaders let you down

Of course, there are countless examples where leaders are part of the problem—adding to a psychologically unsafe environment through blame and command and control styles—so what can others in such organization do?

“Focus on what you can do,” Edmondson suggested. “It’s natural and very human to feel stymied by a lack of leadership support. But wherever you are, you can make a difference in your own learning journey and that of others.

“Getting bogged down in the factors you cannot control is unhelpful and simply frustrates and discourages. Instead, focus on how you show up and what difference you can make in the lives of friends and colleagues.”

Doing so creates what Edmondson refers to as “pockets of psychological safety,” which can continue to grow and spread influence.

Where to start?

Amidst the practical advice outlined in her book is Edmondson’s encouragement to use simple, uncommon, and powerful phrases, including:

  • “I don’t know”
  • “I need help”
  • “I made a mistake”
  • “I’m sorry”

Edmondson explains: “By being willing to acknowledge that you are a fallible human being, you give others permission to do likewise. Removing your mask helps others remove theirs.”

And on that note of vulnerability and openness, I’ll make my ongoing request—please share your comments, questions, stories, and feedback and be part of this learning agility project.

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