Podcast #356 — Amy C. Edmondson on Psychological Safety and “The Fearless Organization”


My guest for episode #356 of the podcast is Amy C. Edmondson, Ph.D.

She is the Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at the Harvard Business School. She is the author of three books on teaming and her most recent book is the topic of conversation today: The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth.

In the episode, we explore the incredibly important concept of “psychological safety,” which means, as Edmondson defines it:

“…a climate in which people are comfortable expressing and being themselves.”

This is necessary for Kaizen (continuous improvement) and it's also a huge contributor to people being able to speak up about patient safety risks (or other problems in the workplace).

One thing I love about her book is that she doesn't just diagnose the problem (that fear of speaking up is bad), but she also lays out a plan for how leaders can create a more psychologically-safe environment and culture.

From her bio: “Edmondson received her PhD in organizational behavior, AM in psychology, and AB in engineering and design from Harvard University.”

Streaming Player:

For a link to this episode, refer people to www.leanblog.org/356.

For earlier episodes of my podcast, visit the main Podcast page, which includes information on how to subscribe via RSS, through Android appsor via Apple Podcasts.  You can also subscribe and listen via Stitcher or Spotify.

New! Subscribe and listen with Spotify:

  • LinkedIn and Twitter pages
  • HBS Faculty Profile
  • About your background… what inspired you to get into academia to study organizational behavior?
  • How have previous degrees in engineering and psychology affected your views on workplaces and leadership? (that's a rare combination?)
  • Why is fear a problem in organizations?
    • “Driving fear out is mission critical”
  • Some famous startups sound like fear-driven environments from news reports…
    • Are some organizations are successful in spite of fear?
  • Has any of your work been influenced by W. Edwards Deming, who famously wrote about eliminating fear in organizations? Was aware of him 25 years ago
  • How do you define “psychological safety” in a workplace? Has that evolved since 1999?
    • “Psychological safety is broadly defined as a climate in which people are comfortable expressing and being themselves.”
    • What about arguments that nurses and others have a “professional obligation to speak up”?
  • In terms of creating a safe environment, does this necessarily start at the top of the organization?
  • You write about humility… can leaders actually become more humble?
    • “I think of it as a trait, not a skill”
  • What are some misunderstandings about psychological safety?
    • What does it mean to “sanction clear violations”?
  • Why is it important to make it “safe to fail”?
  • Is there a difference in response when teaching seasoned execs vs. younger MBA students?
    • Younger students are more worried about “yeah, but I'm not the boss”
    • Older execs – aha moment as a risk factor for their firm
  • What's the most interesting or surprising thing you've learned since the book was published, on this subject?

Video of Amy C. Edmondson:

Thanks for listening!

Automated Transcript (May Contain Defects)

Announcer (1s):
Welcome to the Lean Blog Podcast. Visit our website www.leanblog.org. Now here's your host Mark Graban.

Mark Graban (13s):
Hi, this is Mark Graban. Welcome to episode 356 of the podcast. It is January 22nd, 2020. And my guest today is Amy C Edmondson PhD. She is the Novartis professor of leadership and management at the Harvard Business School. She's the author of three books on teaming and her most recent book is on the topic, it's the topic of conversation today for the episode, her book is titled The Fearless Organization, Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning Innovation and Growth. So today we explore what, what I think is an incredibly important concept of psychological safety.

Mark Graban (53s):
That's a phrase that means as Edmondson defines it, quote a climate in which people are comfortable expressing and being themselves. So in my view, in my experience, this is very necessary. The psychological safety it's necessary for Kan or continuous improvement, and it's also a huge contributor. People need to be psychologically safe to be able to speak up about patient safety, risks, or other problems in the workplace. I've really, really enjoying her book. One thing I love about the book is that she doesn't just diagnose the problem. The idea that having fear of speaking up is bad and we're, we're not blaming the people who are afraid of speaking up. This is about leadership and culture. She also lays out a plan for how leaders can create a more psychologically safe environment and culture.

Mark Graban (1m 38s):
That's really where it starts. Edmondson received her PhD in organizational behavior in am, in psychology and an AB in engineering and design from Harvard university. So if you would like to learn more about Professor Edmondson and her work and, and her books, you can go to leanblog.org/356. Again, we are joined today on the podcast by Amy Edmondson. Amy, thank you so much for taking time with us today. How are you?

Amy Edmondson (2m 11s):
I'm well, thank you. I'm glad to be here.

Mark Graban (2m 13s):
Well, I'm really excited to talk about your, your research and, and your work and your book and, you know, context for people who are doing work, you know, the realm of lean and continuous improvement and otherwise, but I'm curious if you talk a little bit about your background, you know, from reading your bio, it sounds like you, you went from industry into academia and I'm curious, you know, about that shift and, and why, why your interest in organizational behavior?

Amy Edmondson (2m 43s):
Well, you know, I started out life as an engineer, so right out of college, I worked as an engineer, but I worked in a very peculiar setting. I worked as the chief engineer for architect, inventor, Buckminster Fuller. And so he was kind of a quasi-academic anyway, he had was best known perhaps for inventing the geodesic dome, which was what I spent most of my time doing was, was sort of perfecting and developing some of the mathematics for geodesic do design, but really Bucky Fuller was all about making a better world.

Amy Edmondson (3m 24s):
And his, his overarching theme was how do we use our minds to design things and solve problems that need solving to make life better for everyone? I know that's kind of a little bit overarching, but yeah, nonetheless, it was quite inspiring for a young person. He was exactly four times my age when I started working for him. So I don't think too many people have their first boss, four times their age. I was 21 and he was, you know, 85 and, and, and he was just a remarkably inspiring, generous, inclusive person.

Amy Edmondson (4m 4s):
So, so that's spoiled me when he died, which he did very suddenly at the age of 88, I decided to write a book about his work, which is called A Fuller Explanation. And in the process of writing that book, I think I registered in the back of my mind that the combination of writing and thinking and trying to make material as clear as it can be, and then periodically coming out to give a presentation or a workshop or teach a course, you know, that rhythm was just right for me, right. I, I, I liked spending time alone with ideas and I also liked coming out and trying them out.

Amy Edmondson (4m 45s):
And yet when I finished with that book, I wasn't, I, I knew I was a sort of a teacher thinker, but I didn't have a field really. I didn't think engineering was my field. And so I got a job and I got a job with a consulting firm, a kind of a boutique consulting firm that worked in the organizational development, organizational change space. And this is what got me into organizations and into businesses, which had not been a, a natural interest or place for me. But I found that the people working in mostly large companies where we did our work were incredibly curious and generous and eager to make their organizations better.

Amy Edmondson (5m 30s):
And they got frustrated. They got frustrated by bureaucracy. They got frustrated by the pace of change. And so I became interested in those kinds of problems in the, in the problems of well-meaning people trying to make things better and getting stuck and not necessarily knowing how to get unstuck. And somehow I got it into my head that I should go get a PhD. Not sure why that made sense to me at the time, but, but I thought I'd get smarter and I thought I'd get more able to be helpful. And it, it took a long time before I think I was either smarter or more helpful, but it turns out to be the right choice for me.

Mark Graban (6m 13s):
Yeah. Now, you know, these organizational challenges that, that you've researched and, and helped people with, I would put those in similarly in a category of problems that matter important problems to make workplaces and people's lives a better place. That's high mind, but important goal.

Amy Edmondson (6m 31s):
Yes. Especially since so many of us spend so much of our waking time at work.

Mark Graban (6m 38s):
Yeah. And, and I, I don't know if you've seen studies as, you know, other, other people's fields, but I've seen things that suggest that, you know, you know, a toxic, dysfunctional, if not toxic workplace can have, you know, serious physical health effects on, on people. So it's not just and connections to happiness, right? Yeah,

Amy Edmondson (6m 59s):
Exactly. I mean, Jeffer wrote a whole book on how work is killing us through the stress and the anxiety and the, I think toxicity of, and not the physical toxicity, but emotional toxicity of many workplaces.

Mark Graban (7m 14s):
Yeah. So then, you know, I saw in your bio that you, I guess, in between engineering and your PhD, you have a master's in psychology, correct?

Amy Edmondson (7m 23s):
Yes. That's it, that turns out to be just something that happens to you in most PhD programs. So I, I don't get any extra credit for that. I, as a, as a PhD student in organizational behavior, when you satisfy your sort of masters level coursework and a, a kind of a thesis master's level thesis, it's not called that, but you automatically get a master's degree in, in the discipline.

Mark Graban (7m 52s):
Okay. So that, wasn't a separate that wasn't separate stop in your academic journey, but, but I mean, it's, it's somewhat a rare combination. Wouldn't you say, you know, engineering and psychology together in someone's head? I

Amy Edmondson (8m 5s):
Think it is. And yet it, it, it goes together in my mind because engineers, you're drawn to engineering because you want to make things work and, and you like the math and you like the, you know, the tangibility of it and organizational behavior may seem very different, but researchers have to use math and, and, and fundamentally, at least in the field of management and organizational behavior, we're interested in figuring out what works.

Mark Graban (8m 35s):
Yeah. I, I, I would agree with that characterization and I don't wanna give a thanks and a shout out to our, our mutual friend, Tom Feld. Who's probably listening to the episode for introducing us. And you might not know much about my background, Amy, but I'm, I'm also an engineer, industrial engineering.

Amy Edmondson (8m 51s):
There you go,

Mark Graban (8m 52s):
Mechanical engineering, but tell you, like, from my exposure, you know, to the work of W. Edwards Deming who sometimes labeled a statistician, I mean, in his work, he says the most important thing for a leader is to understand psychology. And, and that's something I've, I've tried studying even informally.

Amy Edmondson (9m 10s):
And indeed, I mean, it's all it's, for me, it was really about shifting my interest from things, you know, structures to people. And it turned out, I was just far more interested in people. And of course, people are far more complex as well. So we sometimes, you know, are banging our heads against the wall, but it is about, I think damning is right. It it's about people and having the emotional intelligence and the self-awareness to be able to thoughtfully influence people to engage in the right kind of work.

Mark Graban (9m 46s):
Yeah. And, you know, maybe, maybe before, and maybe this is partly a, a flip side to psychological safety, but, you know, Dr. Deming, you know, famously recommended that organizations eliminate fear and, and there there's, you know, maybe different interpretations what that means. And you write about the idea of fear, but, you know, how would you summarize to people, you know, why fear today? Why is fear a problem in organizations, or why does fear hold organizations back?

Amy Edmondson (10m 18s):
Well, first of all, I just, I can't help saying that I was aware of Deming's eighth point 25 years ago. I think, I think maybe Larry Wilson, who I worked with between before graduate school pointed it out to me, but, you know, it's, it's the eighth point of drive fear outta the organization is kind of stuck right there in the middle of a long list of more technical sounding things. And of course, that jumped out at me and I didn't really give it direct thought very often, but periodically I come back to that and I think, oh, I guess that's where it came from. I absolutely would give him credit.

Amy Edmondson (10m 57s):
But to me today, even far more than when ING was writing fear, driving fear out of the organization is mission critical because more and more of the work is both fast paced and shifting complex, right? So literally anyone can have something to say or might notice something that could matter greatly like the, the, the vital input could come from anyone. So driving fear out. So that, that vital input put will be heard is, is absolutely crucial. And secondly, we have more and more of an emphasis on innovation and innovation requires being comfortable, raising wild ideas that might not be right, be being comfortable, experimenting in ways that are smart, but might end in failure.

Amy Edmondson (11m 54s):
And all of those things that just don't flourish when there's a high level of fear.

Mark Graban (12m 1s):
And, you know, especially when, when you talk about innovation, I find it fascinating that, you know, there are some famous startups now DET that at least from books or, or different accounts really sound like extremely fear driven environments without naming names, or I know come, come to mind for, for you, but you know, it, it seems it's ironic, or it's troubling that in organization, whether it's in Silicon Valley or otherwise could, could preach innovation, but at the same time, be creating an environment that, that seems reasonably stifle innovation, or at least limit potential.

Amy Edmondson (12m 42s):
I agree. And so it, it requires us to theorize well under what conditions will an organization do. Well when it's being led in a, in a very fear invoking way, and a few possibilities come to mind, you know, possibility one, the genius at the top really is a genius, right. And has such a clear vision of everything that needs to happen, that he usually, he, he or she can, you know, sort of divide and conquer and then tell people you better do this or else, and they'll do it and it will happen. Right.

Amy Edmondson (13m 21s):
So, so that's, that's one possibility. It certainly doesn't sound like the norm in most organizations that we know today. Sure, sure. And then of course the other possibility is we don't know what the upside would have been had more and more diverse voices been in the mix. So sometimes we point to the success of some company ruled by fear and say, see, you know, they didn't find, but we don't know how they would have done with a more inclusive, more generative, less fear based climate. And we also, the third thing that comes to mind is oftentimes there isn't an obvious competitor, right?

Amy Edmondson (14m 4s):
They're, they're really unique in a new space and, and no one else is there, so they can almost do what they want and still succeed in a competitive market, especially for, for, for labor, for employees that mode won't work for long.

Mark Graban (14m 20s):
Yeah. And, and to, to your second point, you know, it seems like there are maybe some organizations that have been successful or at least still exist in spite of that culture of fear. And it sounds like you're describing sort of this, this unwinnable thought experiment of well, would they have been more successful it's unprovable

Amy Edmondson (14m 40s):
That's right, right. It's unprovable. We don't have the counterfactual,

Mark Graban (14m 46s):
But, but now in your research and, and maybe talking, you know, if you can help share how you drew some of your conclusions about the, you know, the criticality of psychological safety there, there were some fairly direct, is it fair to say, you know, kind compare and contrast studies or at least looking within Google for example? Or was it primarily

Amy Edmondson (15m 6s):
Google? Yes. Well, Google, the great thing about Google, at least great for me is that I didn't do that study. Oh, okay. So I mean, why, why is that? Sorry for, it was great because yes, no problem. I mean, it, it, for me, it was great because they used my variable, which was published in an article, an academic article in 1999 in administrative science quarterly. And which was titled that my, my article was titled psychological safety and learning behavior and work teams. And it, it showed that in a, in a single Midwestern manufacturing company teams differed, phenomenally in psychological safety.

Amy Edmondson (15m 46s):
And that difference was associated with more learning behavior, you know, higher, psychological safety, more learning behavior. And with higher performance as judged by outsiders, you know, either the recipients of the team's work or the managers of the team's work, depending on what kind of team it was and Google in its famous project, Aristotle, you know, 10, 12, almost 15 years later was trying to figure out what accounted for persistent performance differences across teams. They had a sample of 180 teams and no variable was really popping up to explain the variance until they looked at psychological safety and found that that was the single factor that explained the sort of performance differences in teams.

Amy Edmondson (16m 41s):
That's really what put this concept on the broader map, I would say, as opposed to just the academic map. And it was enormously reassuring to me because I have to say my priors about a place like Google would be that these folks are so smart. You know, the team members, they're just not gonna be holding back. They're not going to have the experience that most of us have of gee. I'm not sure if I should speak up now. I mean, maybe, maybe that won't be welcome. You know, they're not gonna be reading that leaves the way many other people might be because they're gone to top schools.

Amy Edmondson (17m 20s):
They're, you know, they got hired by Google, which is famously hard and so on. Well, I thankfully did wrong in my priors because in fact, Google, we had pronounced differences in psychological safety and indeed they were predictive of performance. So it was, it was quite a, a stunning confirmation of something I'd been working on for a long time. Originally my, my very early work in sort of stumbling into this concept was done in healthcare delivery, in the hospital setting. And, and there, I wasn't, I didn't set out to look at psychological safety.

Amy Edmondson (18m 0s):
I set out to look at differences in, in learning and performance. And the narrow focus of the study was, was medication errors, which of course are not a good thing. We don't want them. And just as we want in, in all of lean and all of quality improvement, we always wanna catch and correct errors early so that they don't continue down the process. And what I found without having set out to look for it was that there were really profound differences in reporting climate, across units, even in the same hospital. So that in unit over here, people are sort of speaking up and going, wait, wait, let's check.

Amy Edmondson (18m 42s):
That, is that the right dose? You know, and over here you had people kind of hiding and putting things under the rug if they could get away with it, because it was so threatening interpersonally. Yeah.

Mark Graban (18m 53s):
Yeah. And, and in, in reading your description of that in the book that, that jumped out at me as somebody who's worked in healthcare a lot, and you know, really, really cares about, you know, these issues of, of patient safety and, you know, reducing preventing, eliminating errors and harm. So I was at a hospital. I had opportunity earlier this month to visit two hospitals in Japan. And I'm sure that's think it'd be pleased to hear what they're doing. So it's two different academic medical centers. One of which has gotten very direct coaching from Toyota executives because their hospital is not that far from Toyota city and wow.

Mark Graban (19m 38s):
They, they they've been focusing on and, you know, they've been learning, you know, what? You might call technical problem solving methods, but they are also focusing on basically creating a culture of safety and the one physician champion for their, their whole effort, very proudly showed a chart on screen that showed this dramatic increase in reported incidents.

Amy Edmondson (20m 0s):

Mark Graban (20m 1s):
They, so I figured you react that way. Cause that, that seemed to be your it's

Amy Edmondson (20m 6s):
Wonderful. Yeah. I mean, that's the,

Mark Graban (20m 8s):
They view it, view it as wonderful. I'm sorry.

Amy Edmondson (20m 11s):
Good. Sorry. No, no, I didn't mean to interrupt.

Mark Graban (20m 14s):
Well, sorry. Or, or excitement jumping. Right. Shared excitement and Peter, but

Amy Edmondson (20m 20s):
Peter's saying you called that. I mean that, that general phenomenon, or at least I'll describe this general phenomenon as the worst before better effect. If you're trying to really tackle a problem, like patient safety, the first thing that has to happen is that people have to become more willing and more open to, you know, to talk about what's not working. And if you pull that off, that first part, then the data will look worse. They aren't worse, but they will look worse. And so the, the fact that a, that was happening and B they recognize that that was a good sign, are both tremendously good signs in their own. Right.

Mark Graban (20m 59s):
Yeah. Because, you know, they're, they're, you know, the other part of the story was that, well, you know, we, we can't apply these problem solving skills. We're learning if we're not identifying, if we're not openly identifying the problems to, to work on. But so, you know, whether it's, you know, in healthcare or in other settings, I mean, I've, you know, without going into I've, I've when I started my career manufacturing, I, I was in workplaces that were generally not psychologically safe for, for frontline workers or even, you know, myself as an engineer or an improvement person. And, and, you know, I think that's one reason, you know, this is all personally interesting to me, but I'm, I'm, I'm curious, you know, what, what's your definition of psychological safety has that definition evolved since your publication in 1999?

Amy Edmondson (21m 52s):
Yeah. So in 99, I defined it as a belief that the workplace is safe for interpersonal risk taking, like, speaking up with a mistake or asking a question or asking for help or offering an idea today, I think it's simpler. And, and maybe it communicates more clearly to define psychological safety as a sense of felt permission for candor. And it it's because I think often that other definition sounds a little academic. Most people don't think a lot about interpersonal risk. We intuitively are aware of it. You know, we intuitively will hold back if we feel threatened or anxious about what others might think of us.

Amy Edmondson (22m 38s):
So it's, we're always gonna air on the side of silence, like, you know, yeah. Nobody got fired for silence, for example. So, but the, but to reframe it, or at least reexplain it as permission for candor, I think speaks more directly to what I'm talking about, which is, you know, it's, it's, it's about believing that not only can I say what I'm thinking or worrying about, but it will be valued, right. That that's what people want me to do.

Mark Graban (23m 13s):
Oh, it's interesting that you say felt permission because the, the, the follow up question to that is seems like an important way to say it because leaders in an organization might tell people,

Amy Edmondson (23m 24s):

Mark Graban (23m 25s):
We, we want you to feel safe to speak up. That doesn't mean people really feel…

Amy Edmondson (23m 28s):
It. No, no. Because leaders in organizations are often they have good intentions and I don't think they're lying when they say things like that. And they may be unaware or blind to the impact that either aspects of their behavior or aspects of their role have on others. And they can be blind to the kind of residual beliefs that people bring in from other companies or other, other roles or other jobs.

Mark Graban (23m 60s):
Sure. Kind of the, the past wounds and scars that

Amy Edmondson (24m 4s):
Exactly. I mean, the problem is there's such an asymmetry, you know, if I, if I speak up and, and it's welcome, great, I'll do it again. You know, but if I speak up and I'm humiliated publicly in front of my colleagues, it's, it could be a while before I do it again.

Mark Graban (24m 22s):
And, and I've seen situations where, I mean, I think we can all picture and I've suffered through examples where the, the humiliation was obvious and overt, but, you know, I think, you know, sometimes it's more subtle. I'm curious your reaction to a situation where let's say a well intended kind, thoughtful healthcare executive, you know, very high ranking organization. Who's not known to the frontline staff, really. They don't.

Amy Edmondson (24m 48s):

Mark Graban (24m 50s):
And, and, and they, they, they come around and I've seen, I've seen this happen where, you know, they come around and they see a review of either a Kaizen improvement or a project and frontline staff, you know, have spoken up and they've helped test and implement something. And they're sharing what they've done. And the executives have to asking a question that they, they might think is humble inquiry, or, you know, a form of this, or they're trying to learn, or they might, and the question that comes out is something like, well, why didn't you do such and such,

Amy Edmondson (25m 20s):

Mark Graban (25m 21s):
And that ends up feeling humiliating. Right.

Amy Edmondson (25m 24s):
Right. Right. And, and that might be an okay question after three others. Right. Which would be, oh, tell me, help me understand why you did this. Or how did you think about that? Right. So you're sort of asking about what they did do and expressing genuine interest in what you hear and then, oh, I'm interested in, did you think about doing X and, and yeah. Most of the time, none of us are pretty particularly aware of the why we didn't do the things we didn't do. Yeah.

Mark Graban (25m 57s):
Yeah. And, and even when, and the, the version of the question that came to mind, why didn't you yes. Just inviting.

Amy Edmondson (26m 4s):
No, I know, but I mean, why didn't you focuses on the gap? You know, Hey, it's basically the frame is, here's a gap. I see. What's the matter with you.

Mark Graban (26m 14s):
Yeah. But you, and I think there's a difference or there's softer ways. You, you, you used a little bit different language where like, you know, former Toyota mentors of mine would say in, in sort of reviewing problem solving or coaching, a favorite question of Toyota leaders would, would be, well, tell me the three other things that you considered. And, you know, I could see where that question in a certain environment is not threatening. It's not dangerous. It's a lot of it has to do with context. Right.

Amy Edmondson (26m 39s):
And it's such a respectful question if you think about it, because it assumes you considered other things, which is of course, proper practice and, and it expresses curiosity about what they were.

Mark Graban (26m 54s):
So one of the question, I'm kind of thinking specifically to healthcare, where there are a lot of situations and I've seen organizations, whether they're drawing on lessons from aviation and then, and the cockpits or other, other high reliability organizations, you know, I've seen organizations teach, not just lecture people, they should speak up. You know, they're trying to create an environment. They're trying to teach people constructive ways, you know, of how to speak up. And, but, you know, so there, there sometimes events where somebody doesn't speak up and errors occur and, and, you know, I've, I've, I've heard people sometimes in these debates say, well, let's say, you know, the nurse now is getting blamed for some role in something.

Mark Graban (27m 36s):
Right. You know, I've, I've seen people get on a soapbox, I'm showing, sorry, I'm asking a question, showing my bias. I'm asking questions, but say, well, oh, you know, but they have a professional obligation to speak up and like, well, I don't think it's that easy.

Amy Edmondson (27m 50s):
This drives me crazy. And to be generous, let's just put it this way. You can agree with the statement. And in fact, I suspect both of us do agree that one has a professional obligation to do such and such having that professional obligation doesn't mean it's possible to do it. Right. So that's a, having a professional obligation is in a sense, a values statement, but let's look at the efficacy of it. Right. So the efficacy statement would be to what extent is it possible, realistic, easy, enabling for people to do it. And I think in lean and in healthcare in general, where you get really good outcomes is when there is both a felt obligation and a felt permission one without the other is not enough.

Amy Edmondson (28m 40s):

Mark Graban (28m 42s):
Right. And so it's not, it's not as simple as, you know, we frame the question in, in terms of why aren't people speaking up, which, and I, and, and that sounds true. Why aren't people coming forward with ideas, like kinda a blaming way of framing it, instead of asking, maybe pointing back at leadership, what can leadership do to make it safe? And, and that's what you're looking at, right?

Amy Edmondson (29m 10s):
The problem with blaming the nurse is that I think those with higher responsibility and maybe higher pay in some cases have, have, and should have a greater obligation to ensure that the climate is really genuinely enabling a voice. It's, it's not right to blame those who didn't speak up. It. One has to look inward first and say, oh, what did I do to make it difficult?

Mark Graban (29m 44s):
That's an uncomfortable thing for people to reflect. Right.

Amy Edmondson (29m 47s):
Right, right. But this is, you know, we're talking about work, not talking about your next dinner party. Right. This is, you know, you're at work. You're, you have an, an obligation to have yourself be a little bit uncomfortable when you're in a leadership position. Yeah. Otherwise it's just everyone else who has to be uncomfortable. That's not fair. Yeah.

Mark Graban (30m 7s):
So in, in, in terms of working toward creating a safer or safe environment, I mean, does, does this necessarily start right at the top of the organization because otherwise, maybe middle managers are being caught in the middle, just the same as frontline staff or not feeling safe. Right.

Amy Edmondson (30m 27s):
You know, it certainly helps when it starts at the top. I mean, it helps when all of us can look to the very top of our organization and see a role model, see a role model who is, is curious, who's passionate about improvement, who is acknowledging his or her own failures and shortcomings and owning it. You know, when the company has a failure, which we all do at various times, hopefully not big ones. They, they take responsibility for it. Like that is really good role modeling. And that has a, that casts a, a wide and, and, and, and magnificent effect on others.

Amy Edmondson (31m 9s):
And that said, anyone anywhere, you know, leaving a team, heading up a plant charge of a, a restaurant and a chain can do things that makes their little part of the world, their pocket as, as psychologically safe as, as possible. But you don't have to wait if you don't have one of those fantastic role models at the top. That doesn't mean your hands are tied in terms of making your proximal work environment as, as good and learning oriented as it can be. And, and if you do, you still can get pockets of tyrants here and there either unbeknownst or beknownst to, to executives.

Amy Edmondson (31m 53s):
So, so it's, it's not gonna explain all the variants, you know, how, how the top acts, but it may explain some of it.

Mark Graban (32m 2s):
Yeah. You know, one other thing you write about, and, and there's parallels to, you know, language that, that Toyota uses talking about humility and, and leading with humility as, as you know, important part of this type of culture. I, I think the, the, the can leaders become more humble or has some of that just ingrained or is that a, a rollercoaster once humility is lost? Can it ever be regained?

Amy Edmondson (32m 36s):
I think it can. And maybe I'm an optimist on this point, but I like to think of humility, not as a trait, but as a skill. Mm. I think, and whenever you, you know, if you pause to think about the pace of change today, the remarkable amount of, of knowledge and expertise that exists of which each and every one of us can only master a tiny bit, it's a rational stance to be humble. You know, it's a terribly irrational stance to be arrogant, right. Because none of us know everything and none of us has a crystal ball. So when, when one is sort of confronted with reality in that way, that it's, even if I have a lot of confidence about what I know about this situation right here, right now, still stuff is, you know, coming at us.

Amy Edmondson (33m 27s):
Right. So I've gotta always be humble in the face of that uncertainty. And, and so I think that can be learned. I think people can be reminded to be humble in a way that isn't self effacing. It isn't, it isn't to say I'm useless. It's to say I have knowledge and experience, and I am almost certainly missing something. And with that recognition comes a, a deep desire to keep filling in the gaps. So I think this can be taught and I think it must be taught.

Mark Graban (34m 5s):
Yeah. And then it seems like there's an opportunity then for follow up coaching for yes. An executive coach to either pull someone aside and point out, or, you know, slip ups in, in their attempt to be more humble if they've made a commitment to that.

Amy Edmondson (34m 23s):
Absolutely. Or just to even, just to let them know, because oftentimes coaching that says here you, this, you, that you messed up is, you know, it's, it's, it might be informative, but perhaps more powerful is to say, you couldn't possibly have seen the impact of that move or that in, in the same way I did cuz I'm sitting on the sidelines, it makes it easy. And when you're in the thick of it, it's hard to see the impact. I can't see the impact I'm having right now on you or on the, on the listeners. Whereas someone who's on the sidelines listening and watching can see it better. So it's a gift to share with me the impact that I'm having.

Amy Edmondson (35m 6s):
That I didn't know I was having yeah. You know, for better or for worse, I can, I can learn from the things that went well and I can learn from the things that didn't go well.

Mark Graban (35m 16s):
So maybe along the lines of learning from things that don't go well and, and any field or approach there, there are misunderstandings, this happens in the context of lean, go to hospitals and, and, and people somehow have developed misunderstandings about lean, but are, are there misunderstandings? I know, know you write about this in the book, but what, what's, what what's the first or the most important misunderstanding about psychological safety that comes to mind?

Amy Edmondson (35m 47s):
That's easy for me to answer because it's become so clear to me, you know, in retrospect, the most important misconception is that psychological safety is about being nice. You know that, oh, oh, Google, the Google study proved. And I saw this in an online digital article, the Google study just said, oh, better teams are ones where people are nice to each other. No. Right. Because the problem with that statement and I'm not against being nice for sure. But the problem with that statement is in organizational life, nice often means we will say to each other's face what we think each other wants to hear.

Amy Edmondson (36m 28s):
And then, you know, in the hallways or with others, I will say what I really think. And, and so, and in many ways, nice, therefore means tiptoeing and psychological safety is if anything, it's the opposite of tiptoeing. So it's, it's risk. It's being willing and feeling that it's okay. In fact, it's expected around here. I'll air on the side of speaking up when I'm not

Mark Graban (36m 56s):

Amy Edmondson (36m 56s):
So that's that, that's the biggest one. And probably the second biggest one is that, oh, okay. Psychological safety means we can't, we have to sort of dial back on ambition. We can't hold people. You know, we can't, we can't expect people to really stretch and, and accomplish great things. No, you know, nothing could be farther from the truth. In fact, I'm, I'm suggesting that only with psychological safety, can we stretch and accomplish great things together.

Mark Graban (37m 27s):
Yeah. And you, you sketch that out very nicely in the book, kind of a, you know, classic two by two matrix of kind of aiming high and having professional safety, as opposed to not AMIC high, you, you called that comfort being

Amy Edmondson (37m 41s):
Comfort, the comfort zone.

Mark Graban (37m 43s):

Amy Edmondson (37m 44s):
And I, I don't wanna work in the comfort zone. I mean, there are days when I really would love to work in the comfort zone, but most of time I feel much better about myself and my colleagues when we're really, you know, doing, getting challenging things done together.

Mark Graban (37m 58s):
Yeah. And you, you talk about, you know, the misunderstanding about being nice. I, I think there's a parallel. I hear similar things when people talk about Toyota's principle of respect for people. And, you know, I think what's been taught, emphasized to me, is that like, you know, respect being respectful means sometimes challenging people because you believe in, right. And that might not feel like being nice, aren't being pushed to

Amy Edmondson (38m 23s):
Achieve. Right. And if I never res if I don't, I wouldn't, I wouldn't challenge you if I didn't respect you because I wouldn't expect to get much from it. So the very active, challenging someone is, is an of respect.

Mark Graban (38m 39s):
And, and then you said something a couple minutes ago, you know, it came back to some other language from the book where you talked about, you know, within this context of psychological safety and respect, there is a time and a place to sanction, clear violations. I was wondering if you could talk about yes. That a little bit.

Amy Edmondson (38m 57s):
Yes. I think that's the other, you know, somewhere between a misconception and just something that we don't think about enough, which is oddly, I, I will argue that it makes the workplace more psychologically safe, not less when MIS or way outside the bounds behavior is treated harshly, because if there are no negative repercussions from really in doing the wrong things, then people don't know where the boundaries are and they, you know, how can I feel safe? You know, if I know where the boundaries are, I can feel safer within those boundaries. But if sort of anything goes, then, you know, it's just a little bit of a, of a walk on eggshells type of environment.

Amy Edmondson (39m 45s):

Mark Graban (39m 46s):
So I, I, I think of Bob Sutton's work that, you know, the, the no rule, psychological safety shouldn't mean, I feel empowered to be a raving, a,

Amy Edmondson (39m 57s):
A total jerk. Yes, exactly. Right. Exactly. Because that's just think that's a stance that basically says the world revolves around me because it's a stance of being inadequately aware of other people's, you know, feelings and experiences.

Mark Graban (40m 17s):
Yeah. So there's just comes back to the, to the questions around not just humility, but empathy being, not a leader, not being a narcissist.

Amy Edmondson (40m 31s):
Right. Right. I mean, it couldn't be more important if you think about leadership as the activity of influencing others, you know, to do hard things for the better, for the greater good. And you're a narcissistic jerk that doesn't influence others to do anything but hide or the bare minimum.

Mark Graban (40m 56s):
So it's just couple other questions before wrapping up here. Just wondering if you could talk a little bit about why it's important to make it safe to, and in what context failure is, is acceptable, if not beneficial to an organization.

Amy Edmondson (41m 15s):
Sure. So failure's an encompassing term actually, because failure technically includes such things as small mistakes. You know, I, I failed to set my alarm clock the right way and I was late for work. Right. That's a failure, but it's a mistake. It's a human error that all things being equal, we'd like to find ways to prevent, you know, sort of small preventable errors from happening. So that's, that's, that's kind of one category, but way over on the other side of the spectrum are failures that happen when we engage in experimentation and thoughtful experimentation, where we had a really good hypothesis based on existing knowledge at the time that by the way we hoped would work, but it didn't, it failed.

Amy Edmondson (42m 6s):
And there was no way to get that new knowledge that we now have without doing it. So that's, you know, that's what scientists have to do all the time. And so clearly those are, you know, two very opposing meanings of the same term and the latter, the failures that happen when we are in new territory with hypothesis-driven experimentation are mission critical to innovation and to creating new value, right? So that's organizations need more of that. And when people are reluctant to engage in any kind of failure, because the consequences seem so severe, they won't do that kind of failure.

Amy Edmondson (42m 48s):
And sometimes you get a management style that just says, if we're really tough on people, you know, when things go wrong, then things won't go wrong. Yeah. But things won't go right. Either in terms of, of innovation and new knowledge. So the first, you know, the first task here is to be discerning about the kinds of failures we want more of, and then the kinds of failures that we'd all love to work together to avoid, you know, the preventable failures that are in relatively known territory, neither kind of failure should be subject to shame or blame. Right? Both kinds of failure are worthy of, or learning opportunities and worthy of diagnosis and learning as much as we possibly can from them.

Amy Edmondson (43m 35s):
So I'm still anti shame and blame, no matter, no matter what, but, but it's not proper to call, you know, preventable failures or mistakes. Good news for the organization. They're not.

Mark Graban (43m 50s):
So yeah, there, there's a lot of talk about failure, connecting it to innovation in the lean startup community of, you know, fail early fail often, right before you try to scale, if you will, but you know, then I've heard some people say, well, okay, wait a minute. Now this gets taken to an extreme and you know, people are fetishizing failure. And you know, like there, there's, there's kind of a happy medium in that spectrum.

Amy Edmondson (44m 21s):
I don't think it's a happy medium. I think it's more of a map. Right? I think it's more of a, of a discernment. So I, what, what you really want and including in the Lean Startup space is smart failure. So it, it's just plain stupid to have a failure that one could have done a tiny bit of research and known in advance, right. Would not work. Right. So that's, I would call that a preventable failure, but the person might not feel like it was preventable cuz they just didn't even do their homework. So, and number, so that's number one, like first make sure it's a really good hypothesis. And number two is it needs to be the right size.

Amy Edmondson (45m 2s):
And what does right size mean? It means is big, just big enough to learn, but no bigger, because then you get into the territory of wasteful. Yeah. And so you don't bet the farm on some product that you don't have any real idea of whether it's gonna work. You, you test it out at the, at, with a, with a pilot, with a smart pilot that's designed not to succeed, but to, to break in, in, in the right places so that we can figure out how to make it better.

Mark Graban (45m 33s):
Yeah. And, and I'm afraid when it didn't cut out very long, but, but when I asked, is there a, a happy medium? And you said it's more like,

Amy Edmondson (45m 41s):
Yes. Oh, okay. That's an important bit.

Mark Graban (45m 43s):
Yeah. What was that word? I mean, it was just that one kinda cut out.

Amy Edmondson (45m 46s):
It's it's, it's, it's not a, it's not a happy medium. It's about discernment. It's about being smart and thoughtful in advance. So it's not, is more failure, good or bad or, you know, find the right sweet spot on that spectrum. It's what kind of failure and what kind of homework did you do and what size did you do it?

Mark Graban (46m 8s):
Yeah. Cause that, so that, that all came through that broader message came through. So good. Good. But yeah, I mean, I, I, I took a picture. I travel a lot and you know, blogged about this, where your story, or you're talking about, you know, failure to do your research. Like there was a, a phase where American Airlines redesigned the look of their signs at the gate and like the text, it was all I'm sure, very fashionable, you know, like the text was very thin and it was just really, it was much harder to read. It looked prettier, but it was harder to read compared to the old version. And eventually I may, I, I think, you know, they, somebody must have eventually yeah.

Mark Graban (46m 51s):
Enough feedback to say, like I can't read the signs at the gates anymore. And I would, and I, when I wrote about it, I said like, you know, the ability to iterate, isn't an excuse to do good sign up front, which is what I hear you saying

Amy Edmondson (47m 3s):
Spot on, spot on. And that was probably, I don't know how many hundreds of thousand dollar mistake right. To, to roll out all that new font and then unroll out all that new font and, you know, 10 people in a laboratory setting could have told you, oh, not gonna work,

Mark Graban (47m 25s):
But they might not have been an environment, high, psychological safety.

Amy Edmondson (47m 30s):
That's true. And we just hired this, you know, expensive designer who says here's the, you know, the best new thing, who am I to say? Hmm. Well, I'm not a designer, so I'll just, I'll just lay low.

Mark Graban (47m 42s):
Yeah. All right. Two, two other questions here before wrap up one. I'm curious if there's a difference in the response that you get, if you're, you know, teaching more seasoned executives versus a classroom with younger MBA students in terms of their reaction to the need for psychological safety and the role of in creating that.

Amy Edmondson (48m 7s):
Not really. I mean, the one difference that I do see is that the, the let's say MBA students or younger students are immediately worrying about yeah, but I'm not the boss. Right. How do I get now that you've told me this matters? How do I get it for myself? I mean, they aren't, they aren't thinking about the people who will be reporting to them as, as much as they're thinking about the layers above them. Whereas the senior executives kind of are a bimodal group. Anyway. Some of them are just, you know, this is interesting. And some of them are really seem to be experiencing an aha moment, right.

Amy Edmondson (48m 52s):
That they, you know, that there's this awareness that this really is a risk factor for them, for, for the, for their firms. You know, that there's a wow. You know, I there's this assumption that they know what's going on. And then when, when confronted with just the thought, it's not a surprising thought really, but you know, I might not know what's going on because the very power of the office might lead people to hold back.

Mark Graban (49m 18s):
Hmm. And it's interesting, they frame it as a risk to the firm as opposed to like, oh, well this epiphany, this is how I should be treating people. They're framing it in terms of, oh, we, we could fail or we're not gonna be as successful.

Amy Edmondson (49m 31s):
Right. As we could be. Right. And I think that's okay, cuz they're, they're, it's not about them as people. Right. It's about their ability to lead an organization to create value, which is a pretty challenging activity if you think about it.

Mark Graban (49m 46s):
Yeah. No, I, I, I think it it's, it's, it's probably helpful to frame it in those terms instead of, you know, kind of saying, well, this is how it should be pointing to examples like Google or other companies to show. Well, here's the data, here's the evidence.

Amy Edmondson (50m 1s):

Mark Graban (50m 4s):
Last question for you here. I'm just curious since, since your book was published, since The Fearless Organization was published, what what's the most interesting or surprising thing that you've learned about all of this? Since if you could go back and magically insert something into the book?

Amy Edmondson (50m 20s):
Oh gosh, that's a tough question. I think, you know, I, I, I, it's been such a journey, you know, wrote the book. I felt the book was overdue. I know it was time to get this out there in, in an accessible format. And then in the year, since it's come out, I've, I've just had so many conversations with people like you, that help me make connections that just enrich my own thinking. So I don't think, I guess the thing about a book is it ends, you have to finish writing it and it has to get out there, but the ideas, you know, moving forward, I suppose the thing that's most striking to me is the need for, I mean, I think I, in, in, at the end of the book, the last two chapters, I give practical suggestions for what you can do, you know, to make your organization, your team better.

Amy Edmondson (51m 21s):
Yeah. But now I think my, my idea of practical suggestions needs to be made even more concrete and maybe more context, specific, more industry specific. So as a result of this journey, I now see a kind of a, an opportunity for, or need for more of a, more of a workbooks and playbooks, you know, how do you really, where do you begin? How do you get started and what, what do you do? What do you do next?

Mark Graban (51m 50s):
Yeah. Well, well, thank you. Thank you for, for sharing reflections about that. I, I, I really do like the book very much and excited. We had the chance to talk today, the, the title, again, encourage everyone to go find it is The Fearless Organization, Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth, really important challenges and important things to be working on. Any, any final thoughts that you'd like to, to share Amy?

Amy Edmondson (52m 20s):
Well, I guess I would just say, because we've been having such a wonderful kind of conceptual conversation that the book is full of stories, and I think that's what makes it reasonable as opposed to merely academic, right. There's probably 25 case studies in it, of, of companies that both have been missing tragically, psychological safety, or who have worked hard to put it in place. And, and I think it's the stories that make it come alive.

Mark Graban (52m 50s):
Yes. Yes. So thank you. Thank you for those stories. Thank you for the book and, and Amy, thank you so much for taking time to be a guest here today.

Amy Edmondson (52m 59s):
My pleasure. Thanks for having me.

Announcer (53m 1s):
Thanks for listening. This has been the lean blog podcast for lean news and commentary updated daily visit www.leanblog.org. If you have any questions or comments about this podcast, email Mark at leanpodcast@gmail.com.

What do you think? Please scroll down to post a comment or share the post with your thoughts on LinkedIn. Don't want to miss a post or podcast? Subscribe to get notified about posts via email daily or weekly.

Get New Posts Sent To You

Select list(s):
Leave A Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.