Speaking up powerfully and bravely today has taken on a brand new meaning for thousands of women (and men) this year, given the #MeToo movement and the continued revelations being shared by employees about their workplace cultures of fear and suppression and the toll they’re taking. As we all know, speaking up is not without risk, but the degree and scope of that risk varies widely, given the context and situation.
As Edmondson – the Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at the Harvard Business School – explores, companies have squandered millions of dollars of value when employees believed they could not speak up to the boss. In situations where employees see in front of them that the punishment for speaking up and saying “no” to intolerable or damaging behavior outweighs its gains, people become less and less likely to speak up. Yet speaking up is vital to a healthy, functioning social system – whether that’s a nation, company, or family.
I was excited to catch up with Edmondson to learn more about how an organization can move away from promoting a culture of fear, to one of psychological safety.
Here’s what she shares:
Kathy Caprino: In your book, you focus on a workplace factor you call psychological safety. What distinguishes psychological safety from policy safeguards against employee discrimination and harassment?
Amy Edmondson: In a psychologically safe workplace, people feel free to share ideas, mistakes, and criticisms. They are less worried about protecting their image and more focused on doing great work. That is, they’re free to focus on and contribute to the company’s mission.
I think it’s fair to say that policy safeguards at work are helpful contributors to psychological safety – in that such safeguards help prevent the painful distractions of discrimination and harassment, which present obvious sources of harm to people and also make it difficult for them to perform at their best. But, freedom from harassment or discrimination is not enough, and policies for addressing these challenging workplace issues is not the same as creating psychological safety. It’s a starting point, perhaps, but it doesn’t go far enough in terms of truly encouraging people to fully contribute what they can to the work that they do.
Caprino: How do leaders perpetuate fear in their work cultures instead of psychological safety and what damage does that do?
Edmondson: To begin with, it’s often the case that leaders are not creating fear on purpose. In a hierarchy, we spontaneously experience fear, when power is not handled in a thoughtful way.
Research shows that lower-level employees generally feel less psychologically safe than higher-level employees. Other research finds that people are constantly assessing their status. That is, we monitor how we stack up against others, mostly not consciously, and when we believe we have relatively low status or power, it activates fear.
With that said, it’s also true that some leaders do believe that fear is a good motivator; they believe people won’t work hard unless they’re a little afraid of the boss. But this belief is outdated. Research in neuroscience shows that fear consumes cognitive resources, diverting them from parts of the brain that process new information. When we experience fear, we are less able to engage in analytic thinking, creative insight and problem solving. In short, it’s hard for people to do their best work when they are afraid.
Finally, how psychologically safe people feel powerfully predicts how much they share information, ask for help, and offer creative ideas. Afraid employees are also less satisfied at work – harming employee retention and giving rise to unnecessary recruiting costs. The damage created by fear-based management styles shows up in at least two forms: employees are less able to put the brains they have to good use in support of the organizational goals, and employees are less likely to experience job satisfaction – even leading to the loss of good people.
Caprino: Why do psychologically safe employees tend to be more engaged and creative and how is psychological safety different from employee empowerment?
Edmondson: Empowerment is the freedom to make decisions within a given role, as opposed to being told exactly what to do and needing to check with a manager before deviating from clear instructions.
Psychological safety is the freedom to speak up without fear of interpersonal sanctions. It seems obvious that empowerment will be more effective when people feel safe enough to take the risks of offering new ideas, or experimenting, or seeking help when they need it, but empowerment and psychological safety are two different constructs.
Caprino: Would you share some real-world examples of how excessive confidence in authority can result in dangerous fear and a workplace code of silence?
Edmondson: Sure. This is a great question that points to a challenging tension for many managers.
On the one hand, people want to feel confident in authority figures and those in leadership roles often try to appear confident so that others will trust their credibility and follow their lead.
On the other hand, when people are excessively confident in authority, they risk assuming that people above them have (or think they have) the answers and don’t want to hear dissenting opinions, or other pertinent information. This assumption points to the risks of excessive confidence in authority. No one, today, has all of the answers. The world is changing too fast. Yesterday’s answers are in constant need of updating. And when people at work remain unquestioningly confident in authority, this puts everyone at risk. It creates business risks from failing to innovate fast enough to keep up – and human safety risks when customers or employees get hurt because someone didn’t speak up with a question or a concern.
Caprino: What about “failure.” We all say we should not be afraid to fail, but from my coaching work with hundreds of professionals around the world, most organizations still punish failure. What can leaders do differently?
Edmondson: The most important thing to recognize with respect to responding to failure is that all failure is not created equal. Some failures are indeed “bad” – in the sense that they’re preventable and present us with minimal new information.
I’ve created a typology of three types of failures. In addition to preventable failures, organizations face complex and intelligent failures. Complex failures happen when new, often unprecedented, combinations of events or actions come together – like a supply chain disruption in a hurricane. Intelligent failures the results of experiments – of genuinely thoughtful forays into new territory. When the only way to learn more about what works is to try something new it can be called an intelligent failure. And, although it’s important to learn from all three kinds of failures, only intelligent failures are worthy of celebration, because they bring genuinely valuable discoveries.
Because most organizations are not good at making the distinctions between intelligent failures and preventable or complex ones, they tend to habitually punish failures of all kinds. I believe organizations have a responsibility to work hard to avoid preventable failures – but punishing either of the other kinds of failure makes the workplace less safe for reporting what’s really going on.
And this doesn’t help anyone – least of all the senior leaders whose effectiveness depends on having a clear line of sight to the customers, technologies and more that are shaping the possibilities for the organization’s future. Punishing failures often postpones the inevitable discovery of painful truths.
Caprino: What are some shining examples of organizations that create cultures where psychological safety is nurtured?
Edmondson: Among the examples I write about in The Fearless Organization, two of my favorites are Barry-Wehmiller, an amazingly successful manufacturer of industrial equipment, and Eileen Fisher, in the very different industry context of women’s fashion. It’s hard to imagine two more different industries than industrial machinery and the design and retail operations of women’s clothing, but both companies – and both company CEOs – have created psychologically safe cultures.
In both workplaces, employees readily speak up, offer ideas, ask for help, and work hard. Both have studiously built organizations where employees can learn and grow – where their potential as professionals and as human beings is nurtured by the company. They share a belief that growing the company starts with growing the employees.
Caprino: What are three strategies leaders can take today to begin to build a culture of psychological safety?
Edmondson: Building a culture of psychological safety, paradoxically, starts with being open and explicit about the many challenges that lie ahead. I call this “setting the stage.” Most companies today operate in complex and uncertain environments. They face constant risks – risks of obsolescence, of new nimble competitors, of employee burnout, and more.
It may seem strange to argue that leaders should emphasize such risks but doing so builds psychological safety by clarifying the rationale for speaking up. It helps people understand that their eyes and years are viewed as critical to the company’s ability to keep learning, as it must, to remain viable. Leaders need to make sure people know that they’re operating in complex knowledge-intensive businesses that live and die based on thoughtful input, and intelligent risk-taking.
Second, leaders must be proactive in inviting input. Setting the stage must be followed by a habit of expressing curiosity and asking people questions to invite them to share their observations and ideas.
Third, leaders must respond to good ideas and bad news alike with appreciation. All three of these practices help build – and reinforce – the culture of psychological safety that is vital to organizational learning and innovation, as well as to employee growth and development.
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