Amy C. Edmondson :


085 – Fearless Outperformance: Creating Conditions for the Very Best Teams to Excel with Amy Edmondson

Amy C. Edmondson :


085 – Fearless Outperformance: Creating Conditions for the Very Best Teams to Excel with Amy Edmondson

Share this podcast

In this episode, we are joined by Amy C. Edmondson to discuss her latest book, The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth. Amy is the Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at the Harvard Business School and is a world expert on psychological safety, a topic recently made famous by the findings of Google’s Project Aristotle, the quest to build the perfect team.

  • How leaders can create psychologically safe environments in the workplace, in service of innovation and profitable growth
  • The ‘fearless’ organization, and why fear-based leadership strategies are a recipe for failure
  • How leaders leverage approaches from indigenous cultures to deal with some of the worlds more pressing VUCA challenges

Key Takeaways and Learnings

  • Psychological safety: why workplaces should be safe spaces for employees to explore, experiment and solve problems
  • Uncertainty and interdependence: why human and interpersonal fears create unsafe work environments
  • Silence: why keeping quiet can be dangerous and result in enormous mistakes and value destruction, as well as lost market opportunities

Links and Resources Mentioned in this Episode

Summary

In this episode, we are joined by Amy C. Edmondson to discuss her latest book, The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth. Amy is the Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at the Harvard Business School and is a world expert on psychological safety, a topic recently made famous by the findings of Google’s Project Aristotle, the quest to build the perfect team.

Amy C. Edmondson

Amy C. Edmondson is the Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at the Harvard Business School, a chair established to support the study of human interactions that lead to the creation of successful enterprises that contribute to the betterment of society. She studies teaming, psychological safety, and leadership. Her latest book, The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth has just been published.

Before her academic career, she was Director of Research at Pecos River Learning Centers, where she worked on transformational change in large companies. In the early 1980s, she worked as Chief Engineer for architect/inventor Buckminster Fuller, and her book A Fuller Explanation: The Synergetic Geometry of R. Buckminster Fuller (Birkauser Boston, 1987) clarifies Fuller’s mathematical contributions for a non-technical audience. Edmondson received her PhD in organizational behavior, AM in psychology, and AB in engineering and design from Harvard University.

What Was Covered

  • How leaders can create psychologically safe environments in the workplace, in service of innovation and profitable growth
  • The ‘fearless’ organization, and why fear-based leadership strategies are a recipe for failure
  • How leaders leverage approaches from indigenous cultures to deal with some of the worlds more pressing VUCA challenges

Key Takeaways and Learnings

  • Psychological safety: why workplaces should be safe spaces for employees to explore, experiment and solve problems
  • Uncertainty and interdependence: why human and interpersonal fears create unsafe work environments
  • Silence: why keeping quiet can be dangerous and result in enormous mistakes and value destruction, as well as lost market opportunities

Links and Resources Mentioned in this Episode

So, Amy, your new book, The Fearless Organization has just come out, I think, and in the intro, you talk about how you discovered the concept of psychological safety by mistake, so how did that happen?

I was lucky enough to be a part of a team of medical researchers. I was a second-year PhD student and the goal of this larger project was to measure the prevalence of error in hospitals and they decided they might as well have someone who knew something about teams on the project, so to answer a very small, specific question which was just do better teams according to a standard team effectiveness instrument make fewer errors, and the rationale for that hypothesis which, of course, makes sense on the face of it anyway was that research in the aviation context had shown that that was the case. So, they’d shown that pilots with equivalent amounts of sleep, or preparation, or training, in simulators mind you, not in real flights, but in simulators, when they found ways to work effectively as a team, they made fewer errors as cockpit crews. So, these physicians thought it might be nice to replicate that finding in the health care space, so I was asked to play that role and it seemed like a pretty good…you know, I thought it would be almost an easy research paper. I’d use the survey and I had these wonderful independent researchers tracking the error rates and I’d simply run the correlation and that’s exactly what happened. Six months of data collection on their side, a day or two on my side early in that process and lo and behold there was a correlation, and lo and behold it was in the wrong direction. So, that was sort of startling and a little bit upsetting and I didn’t at first know quite what to do because it just seemed so wrong that the better teams according to this well-validated instrument were having more mistakes in their vicinity. So, I thought about it and it suddenly occurred to me that maybe the better teams were more able and willing and kind of thoughtful in being able to talk about error and hence report them and have thoughtful discussions about them because this is after all complex customized work where any reasonable person will realize things will go wrong. So, that became my new idea. So, I went to the principal investigators physicians and they were far less happy to hear from me than I might have anticipated. I mean, they thought this was just dead wrong because they had been assuming that their measure was absolutely objective and valid, and I was essentially saying it may be biased and systematically biased based on something very squishy which is people’s ability and willingness to speak up and engage in these discussions. So, to make an already long story not much longer I had to hire an independent sort of anthropologist, a young researcher to look at these teams from a very objective perspective not knowing the hypothesis, not knowing anything about the data, just to see whether there were climate or cultural differences across these teams and indeed they were stark, they were quite visible, and so what we ultimately saw was that these small work groups, not really small but in the dozens, very substantially in their climate particularly related to error and speaking up. It wasn’t for a couple of years before I labeled that difference ‘psychological safety’ but it was palpable, and it was stark, and I was able then to show through a variety of different methods that it was extremely predictive. This climate variable was extremely predictive of the error rates, and by the way, not at all predictive of random bad things happening. So, the beauty of that study was for me a surprise. It was a turnaround. It was unexpected. I then had to kind of track and follow up and try to figure out a way to show what might be going on and I was able to publish a paper, but ultimately it was a surprise finding. It wasn’t what the study design was meant to find, so I knew that I had to design a study going forward more rigorously and systematically to show that this difference might exist in other settings. So, it was at first a sort of moment of terrible disappointment, almost fear, you know? ‘How am I going to tell my advisor?’ and then it turned around to be this wonderfully interesting and new idea about the workplace and especially a workplace where there’s uncertainty and interdependence, so that launched a whole lot more research after that.

And much of that is captured in your book, The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation and Growth. So, you’ve touched on it but what’s your working definition of psychological safety?

Psychological safety is the belief that I can speak up at work with work-relevant content of any kind no matter how potentially interpersonally threatening and, of course, that includes asking questions, asking for help, talking about mistakes and offering ideas, maybe even wild ideas, things that I’m not confident will be well respected. Now, all of those things sound like what you would expect people at work to do especially in the knowledge economy but what we know about the human being is that we have a very deep interest in looking good and especially looking good in front of the boss, and there are instinctive responses there. I don’t want to ask for help, I don’t want to ask a question that might make me look stupid, so a psychologically safe environment is one in which we find ways to overcome that natural tendency to engage in face-saving or self-protection. Self-protection dominates excellence really. Sometimes my primary goal but not entirely consciously is to look good rather than to be good, rather than to do the kinds of things that we need to be great.

And I think you described this is as a group property versus trust which is one-to-one and then, I guess, versus individual fear. I mean, there’s almost a hierarchy of this theme, right?

Yes. So, there are individual differences and one well known individual difference that is related but it’s not the same thing is neuroticism, that some people are simply more neurotic than others meaning they’re simply more likely to think the world isn’t a safe place and yet psychological safety emerges as a group level property meaning that if you and I worked together for a while with some interdependent activities like in a hospital unit or in a branch bank, we will develop a similar sense of psychological safety simply because of the things that happen around here. So, we’ll have a similar kind of hypothesis if you will about what happens to us when we take interpersonal risks, that nothing bad happens or something bad does happen. So, for that reason, it tends to be very local. It’s a group of interdependent people in an organization. It’s not the organization as a whole.

Right, and we’ll come back to this later on, but this is good news, I guess, for the individual leaders because it means they might be working in an organization dominated by someone who wouldn’t be described as creating a safe environment but nonetheless, they can within their own workgroup create their own safe environment for themselves and their colleagues?

They absolutely can. In some sense, they can be a buffer. Sometimes you hear in organizations this described as air cover although you usually use that phrase with executives that are at or near the top, but I think any unit leader, or project leader, or branch manager can create a wonderfully safe and engaged and energized workspace where they live, where they work.

Okay, and let’s come back to that later on. Before we get there, we touched on this before we came on air, as it were, but why is this such an important topic in today’s kind of VUCA world, and I guess the answer isn’t just sort of politics and nationalism? I guess there’s a bigger answer there, right?

Absolutely. I think that it’s so important in today’s world because we know this. We live in a knowledge economy, we do knowledge work, and we know that, everybody’s heard that but what does that really mean? And when you start to think deeply about what that means, it means that the most valuable resource we have are things that live inside people’s heads and unless those things are coming out, we’re leaving value behind, as it were, so in order to do work that is interdependent, meaning you have to have to talk back and forth with each other to do a good job, or uncertain, meaning we don’t have a crystal ball on exactly what will work, then interdependence or uncertainty is leveled on both. We’ve got to be willing to take interpersonal risks, we’ve got to be willing to ask for help, ask questions and so on or we’re at risk. We’re at risk of things that range from human safety, worker safety, customer and patient safety to business risk, terrible failures, products that get launched that are no good and people knew that but were afraid to say so. So, it’s more important than ever because there’s more uncertainty and more interdependence than ever.

Right, right. So, let’s get into what bad and what unsafe looks like, and then we’ll move to the positive side, because you’ve got lots of great stories, and one of the things that I love here are the taboo topics, the assumptions that you don’t speak up if your boss’s boss is present. What are some of the really bad, unsafe environments that you’ve come across look like?

Well, I’ve come across unsafe environments in organizations ranging from hospitals to automotive and I write about them in the book, and some of them, of course, well known. The one that always seems to me to come to mind first these days dominated the headlines a couple of years ago which is that VW Diesel story. To me, that is a story where I am confident that VW has among the brightest engineers on the planet and that those engineers figured out at a certain point in the process, and this is well documented now, that these engines could not pass the California emissions tests and yet their boss and their boss’s boss and so on had made it absolutely clear that they must. So, this is a recipe for failure. Like, a stretch goal and closed ears, because what’s going to happen is human fear and interpersonal fear and the sort of spontaneous fear of the boss let alone the boss’s boss will lead me to believe almost erroneously that I just have to produce it even though nature and science say no, but I have to do it anyway. Imagine what must go through the minds of an engineer or engineers who decide that producing cheating software is better than speaking up. It almost seems implausible when you describe it that way and yet that’s what happened. So, to me the object lesson here is that interpersonal fear, first of all, prevents actual news from going up the hierarchy and second, it leads to distortions that in fact can make it look like we’re doing great work for a while, right? So, in a sense, it just delays the inevitable. So, that was a story of where fear dominated. This is a culture of fear, and we might even be willing to back up and say once upon a time a culture of fear worked when knowledge was clear, causal relationships were clear, it was absolutely clear what everybody needed to do to get the result we wanted then I might as well scare them into doing it, and if what you do is utterly transparent, again then there won’t be a big loss if what the employee has to do can be readily, transparently, objectively assessed, then you can get away with fear. But in a VUCA world as you say, in a knowledge-intensive world, in a world with complex technologies, uncertainty, interdependence, it’s a recipe for failure. So, in the VW story we end up with scandal and massive failure, massive loss of business value and a catastrophic embarrassment really which I think was the direct result of creating a fear-based culture and/or believing that fear is the way to motivate and get excellence.

I don’t know how many employees Volkswagen has, probably a quarter of a million, maybe half a million but it’s a huge enterprise. The assumption is that everyone is remaining silent here. I mean, silence plays a huge role in the story, doesn’t it?

Yes. Silence to me is the flip side. I mean, silence and fear often go hand in hand. Silence when voice would be appropriate is a shame and yet it’s far more common I think than most people realize, and why is that? It’s because we can’t see the thought bubbles. If I’m holding back with an idea or a concern, you can’t tell. You see the silence and your brain will naturally code the silence as I don’t have anything to say. You know, it’s a natural and spontaneous conclusion and it’s dangerous, so silence kills, silence is dangerous and silence – because it’s not always life and death – but silence is often just lost value, the good ideas that didn’t get shared because I wasn’t sure they would be approved of by the boss or welcomed by the boss.

Well, and it also has a corrosive impact on the individual remaining silent over time as well, doesn’t it?

Absolutely. If I am not offering what I have to offer I start to feel more disengaged and the more disengaged I feel the less I’m happy, the less I’m fully working hard and the more likely I am ultimately to leave.

And you touched on the Volkswagen one but there’s a great example of Wells Fargo, you also talk about Nokia as well. You touched on it earlier on, are there some business environments today or some well-known companies where they don’t need this safety? I’m thinking of a kind of distribution center for Amazon, for instance? Are there places where it’s still okay owed to not embrace this philosophy?

Let me put it this way. There is a spectrum of how able you are to get away with leading through fear and intimidation and it’s directly correlated with how well understood, transparent, and objectively assessed the work outputs are. So, for example, an Amazon warehouse or an automotive assembly line, you can tell fairly objectively whether people are doing what you wanted them to do and a lot of that work can be seen as quite individualistic. There’s not a lot of reciprocal back and forth for us to figure out what looks good as there might be in creating a brilliant animated film, right? We’re going to have a lot of back and forth. So, anytime the work is very individually accomplished and very transparently assessed you increase the chances that you can get away with fear and intimidation as a viable management strategy and yet I still think you’re going to be leaving value on the table even there. When people’s hearts aren’t in it, when people don’t feel valued by the organization, when they aren’t likely to pour their hearts and souls into the works of the work and their colleagues wellbeing, you’re going to lose opportunities at the very least for continuous improvement, for kaizen, for, ‘Ah, you know, if we just went about this a slightly different way we could shave seconds off that task.’ It might not seem like a lot, but it adds up to a lot in high-volume operations. So, when you’re not treating people as human beings who have something to offer I think the odds are pretty good you’re losing something, it just won’t be as radically lost or as obviously lost in highly creative innovation settings.

Yeah. So, let’s switch into the more positive side of the conversation now. What does good look like? I mentioned earlier on there are three which I’m really interested in talking about. The first is the Eileen Fisher fashion company which I don’t know whether they’re in Europe, I think it’s a US company, right?

It is a US company. I believe their sales are global but I’m not 100% sure and it’s not a large company but it is a very successful fashion company that was started by an introvert and objectively speaking you would not have expected her to be a phenomenal business success because she was so introverted and experienced so many early failures in trying to get her line picked up in some of the big department stores but ultimately prevailed, and in part because the clothing is truly different. It’s very comfortable and sort of artistic or different, and it’s a line that appeals to many people and so it has a following, it has a customer following and Eileen Fisher has very deliberately, and not through going to management training programs but through, I think, following her own instinct, created a culture shaped a lot by her, by the top. She has a phrase, be a ‘don’t knower’. She’s extremely willing by temperament or logic, I don’t know, just to say ‘I don’t know,’ and create that environment where it’s absolutely clear to everyone around her and really everyone in the company that their ideas are welcomed, that their concerns are welcomed, and they engage in rituals and processes that make it easier for people to be heard and to listen to each other.

And one of them, and we mentioned earlier on as a former anthropologist, I mean the talking circle right down to handing, I think, a gourd or some kind of talking stick from person to person to let everyone’s voice be heard in the creative or the co-creative discussions, right?

Right. So imagine, it seems kind of hokey to pass around a gourd or a stick or something else but it is a phenomenal device to help us with our human instincts because my human instinct is when you’re talking… there’s two instincts that are counterproductive. One is, I want to chime in and it’s meant in the most supportive and helpful way, but I want to chime in and say, ‘Oh yeah, me too,’ and ‘I’ve had that. Oh, but what about?’ so I’m trying, in a sense, I want to be helpful, but I want to chime in and I interrupt you. And the other human instinct is as I’m listening to you what am I really doing? I’m thinking through my points and through the argument I’m going to make but the object that you hold is just this stark reminder that it’s your turn, so I keep catching myself and it helps me discipline myself to just listen. I look at that, I look at you speaking, I look at that object and I say, ‘Ah, my job is to listen and listen intently.’

Interesting, and if you’re trying to tap into the diversity, the cognitive diversity in the group as opposed to the biological diversity then this is a very powerful methodology as well?

It really is because diversity comes in many forms. Some of them visible through demographic differences and some of them not at all visible through, first of all, expertise, but then even more deeply, just past experiences and what I’ve seen and what ideas I might come up with, or at least we would argue, or I would argue that there is great value in accessing that diversity, and instinctively you said something that’s different from my original thoughts so my instinct is going to be to hold back because I’m not sure, maybe I’m wrong or maybe it won’t be welcomed so I hold back but if we explicitly recognize that that diversity of thought is a source of value then we’re going to go after it. It’s like a treasure hunt. Who’s got the treasure? I don’t know who has that great new idea for the new line of fashion or the new color or whatever it is, but I know someone’s got it.

Yeah, it’s a unique process that they use but beyond the process, this is creating this culture of psychological safety and there are lots of other ways of doing that, I guess, to tap into this expertise and to encourage people to sort of unload their knowledge in service of solving the problem at hand?

Right, and part of it is just continually reminding people that the problem at hand is hard. It’s challenging so it’s going to take all we’ve got because there’s a sort of taken for granted assumption that the workplace is one where applying the formula that we’ve had for years or our job is just to execute. Bosses have the answers, we show up, we execute. I mean, we don’t think about that consciously that way because that’s obviously absurd but it’s the old programming. Boss has answers, we execute and so why would I speak up? Why would I speak out? Why would I take any interpersonal risks?

Interesting. The other example I was keen to talk about was the Anglo American example of trying to overcome labor disputes in South Africa. Fascinated just to hear your description of that because again there’s another anthropological element here which I’d just like to sort of tap into, I guess?

Yes. It’s an extraordinary story because it starts with a new CEO coming into Anglo American, Cynthia Carroll, who is the first woman CEO and that’s just striking in the history of the company. It’s also striking in the industry. That’s not a typical expectation and then-

And this is extractive industries? It’s a mining company for those who-

The mining industry, sorry, and certainly the mining industry in South Africa, a long and unfortunately, dangerous occupation, and this was a company with a high level – as most companies in the industry had – a high level of worker safety issues including many, many deaths and so when Caroll took over, the first surprise is that this is a very unusual choice for the CEO. The second and arguably far more surprising surprise was that she decided to make as her number one priority reducing worker safety issues, reducing deaths, reducing harm to the employees which people found strange in one obvious way which is that can’t be your first. Your first priority is to make money, your first priority is the product, is the profit, that might be sort of nice to have but no, she put that front and center, and the second reason they found it strange and unexpected is that this is just considered a given. That this is a very dangerous workplace. It’s dangerous work and like it or not people get hurt, and related to that is one of the main reasons people get hurt is that the workers just can’t be trusted to follow safety protocols or wear safety equipment. It’s the issue of work or lack of safety was taken as just par for the course, as a given, and if you did want to attribute blame you didn’t attribute it to management, you attribute it to the employees themselves for not doing what they were supposed to do to stay safe. So, Caroll, I think, was strongly advised against pursuing this but she stuck to it and insisted that this was what they were going to do and in fact took the extraordinarily bold move of shutting the mine down and that, as you can readily recognize, that’s money not flowing in four days. Shut the mine down and brought the workers together to discuss in a sort of a stadium like environment because there’s many of them to discuss this issue. Now, at first the workers, they’ve lived in a climate of fear for generations, they don’t actually believe or trust that management actually wants to hear from them and they know they’re blamed for safety issues so they’re not really quite willing to speak up about that. So, she asked them and organized a structured process in smaller groups and larger groups to talk about what they saw and what the work environment was like and slowly but surely, they started talking about what they saw and out of that long dialogue came ideas for making the work safer as well.

And this dialogue, I think it was based on a way of tribal council methodology from that part of the world, right?

Exactly. It’s such an important thing because if you’re going to engage people in a new kind of conversation it’s got to resonate with something in their own culture, in their own history that makes sense. It can’t be some new idea from management that says, ‘This is what we’re going to do now.’ So, it resonated deeply because it did have that place in the tribal history of the region and it started to unlock ideas and commitment, I think, almost more than anything to each other, that the employees could recognize their responsibility to themselves, to their families and to their colleagues to find ways to work more safely.

Yeah. So, it’s a good example because it’s psychological safety and it’s physical safety as well, bundled up. So, let’s get back to something we touched on a few minutes ago, earlier on, Amy, about what can a leader sitting listening to this at the moment, let’s say someone with twenty people reporting to them, maybe the leaders themselves are feeling unsafe psychologically but also relies on their team to bring ideas, to bring creative solutions, to engage 100%. What can they do? What does Creating Organizational Safety 101 actually look like?

I think the scenario you’re describing is a leader not the CEO but a leader with people reporting to him or her and wondering, feeling maybe unsafe looking up and yet also so responsible for people who report to him, and so there is this absolute human instinct that at least in every organization I’ve been in that people have which is to look up. They get intrigued by these ideas, there’s something appealing, they understand that we’re in knowledge-intensive and they absolutely know that they want people’s full brain in the game and yet their first instinct is to say, ‘They won’t let us,’ pointing upwards, looking upwards saying, ‘They don’t do this,’ and my response back is, ‘Forget about them for the moment. Just look down.’ Think about the opportunity you have to create. You could think of it as a bubble. You could think of it as a kind of a safe container for the work that you lead and it’s utterly doable because in some sense your job, that leader’s job, is to buffer his or her people from whatever the forces up there might be and your job is always to buffer anyway because there are things that people at the top have to worry about and think about that would be a distraction from simply doing great work on the project or the work that we do, so how do you do that? I think it starts, essentially, with the first and most important job any leader has is to create the rationale because you’re trying to help people overcome human instinct, the instinct to agree with the boss the instinct to stay safe, to hold back, to remain silent unless you’re really confident what you have to say will be welcomed, so you have to do a good job of describing that rationale and sometimes that means just referring back to the term you used at the beginning of our conversation, you know, the VUCA world. You’ve got to be the person that reminds people of what we’re up against. We’re up against volatility, uncertainty, complexity. Whoa, what does that mean? Well, it means that things will go wrong. The only question is how quickly will we be able to react and do something productive instead? And so, if I’m reminding you whether I’m running a hospital department or a new product development team, I’m reminding people all the time of what’s at stake and why excellence requires all of us. In a sense, I’m setting the rational foundation, the case for voice. And then the second – because you get it, I get it, we’re on the same page about what we’re up against, and you still may be holding back, that’s why I say I’ve got to go even further and be proactive in inviting you into the conversation – I’ve got to say, ‘Mark, what’s on your mind?’ or ‘What have you seen out there that might inform this decision? This particular decision?’ So, I’m asking good questions and a good question is the kind where I actually don’t know the answer, I’m genuinely curious or at least I’m going to force myself to be genuinely curious to hear and it helps you or us focus on something that matters and gives you room to respond.

Yeah, I’ve got Hal Gregersen coming on the program tomorrow actually as it happens-

Oh, perfect!

With his new book, Questions Are The Answer. So, asking the good questions and then I suppose listening as well, right? Intense listening.

The response of the leader is absolutely critical, and response starts with listening. I shouldn’t be checking my watch or looking at my cell phone when you’re speaking. I should look interested, I should be interested and then beyond listening, how do I respond? I think there has to be a modicum of appreciation in that response, even if it’s just nothing more complicated than, ‘Thank you for that idea. I don’t want to go in that direction, but I so appreciate the idea. Thank you so much for that clear line of sight.’ It’s never fun to report bad news to the boss so we’ve got to make it fun. Well, not fun, but we do have to make it at least tolerable.

Okay. So, this is kind of setting the stage then, as you say, inviting this participation and then the final piece?

The final piece is responding appreciatively. So, I’m listening and then I’m responding in a way, and a productive response could be as simple as, ‘Thank you for that clear line of sight,’ or as large as, ‘Okay, wow. Let’s form a task force to get on that. What do you need? Who do you need? What resources do you need to address this, right?’ So, it can be a viable response to realize that, ‘Ah, we’ve got an interesting challenge here. Let’s roll up our sleeves and work on it together.’

As you talk, Amy, I remember talking to a CEO who said, ‘We don’t do failure here,’ and this is an R&D company believe it or not which when you go onto their website it’s all about innovation and stuff and you know, I was kind of lost for an answer to that, but in your book you have this lovely typology of different types of failure which would’ve been very helpful had I had that to hand a couple of years ago.

Exactly, because failure comes in at least three types and one type is preventable failure and those we should try to prevent. We should do everything we can through communication, training, support to prevent preventable failures and those are the ones where we actually do have a process or a protocol or the resources to achieve the result we want, and for some reason we felt someone didn’t wear their safety glasses or someone didn’t follow the protocol, we figure out why and we help but we don’t celebrate that, we don’t say, ‘Wow! How wonderful a failure.’ The second kind are the complex kind where despite fairly mature knowledge about how to get some result, we also have uncertainty, or customization, or variability of some kind that will often lead to an unexpected confluence of factors and a failure. Those still are not good news and yet again your primary job is to learn from them, but the third kind of failures which I call intelligence failures are legitimately and genuinely good news. They are the still undesired, unwanted result of a novel experiment, a novel foray into new territory. We go somewhere in a scientific experiment or a product experiment that no one’s ever done before and those we have to learn to actually celebrate and welcome and in fact, have them as often as possible because that’s where new ideas come from, that’s where tomorrow’s revenues and profits come from, and so often when leaders say things like, ‘We can’t have failure here,’ or ‘Failure is not an option,’ it doesn’t change nature, it doesn’t change human nature either. It doesn’t make failure go away, it just drives it underground.

Yeah, and the couple of companies you touched on the book, Google, Google X, and also Bridgewater, they seem to hunt out failures and they hunt out that third category and do a lot of work on making sure they learn from those so they’re not repeated essentially.

And they have awards. Some companies will have wonderful rituals like Failure of the Month Award and again those will all be intelligent failures, they won’t be stupid mistakes, they’ll be intelligent failures and they celebrate them why? Well, it continues to reinforce the climate where people know we’re in the innovation business in VUCA world, we better be failing. It’s like never falling on the ski slope, you’re not taking any risks.

Yeah, you’re not trying hard enough. Yeah, absolutely.

You’ve you got to be out there. You can’t just be engaging in safe experiments because the competitors are going to be doing the wild-eyed stuff and they’ll ultimately steal your customers because they have better ideas and exciting new things.

Wonderful. So, Amy, before we go to my last three questions I sent, the book has been just launched. I presume this is resonating in the marketplace. Are you surprised by the response you got or is it premature at this point?

Well, the book, I think, comes out officially tomorrow but what I am surprised by and gratified by is that psychological safety has been getting a lot of attention recently. It’s just resonating. I think it’s resonating because of the era in which we live because more and more people are recognizing that this really is a new world, right? This is not your grandfather’s automotive company. This is a world where human beings genuinely are our most valuable resources. We want their hearts and minds. So, that’s resonating and people are realizing that this fear doesn’t work very well, and I have to say this recognition got a big boost from Google from the well-publicized study that they did internally to try to understand well, what explains the difference between high performing teams and lower performing teams and after a great deal of work and a great deal of data analysis their resounding response was psychological safety. That got a lot of attention and so more and more people started talking about Google’s idea of psychological safety. That’s when I thought, ‘I better write this book, it’s overdue. It’s overdue anyway but I better write this book.’ So, I guess I’m a little surprised but also very gratified that people are talking about this topic because I think it’s more than just business performance which I certainly care about, I care very deeply about what the workplace is like. You know, if you think about how many of the waking hours of most people around the world are spent at work, that better be a place where you can show up unafraid and feel that your voice is welcome and that you really can contribute to something larger than yourself. I don’t think you can do that when it’s a fear-based culture.

Yeah, and I’m curious, the language, you talk about the ‘fearless organization’. Words are very, very important and I’m wondering why, and I can’t think of a better word to use, but it’s a negative word, fearless, so there’s less negativity. Did you wrestle with that because you could call it an enabling word but that’s a bit dull, but I’m just interested in the choice of words there?

It’s such a tricky thing because psychological safety is a term in the academic literature and I think people understand what it means, because that could have been the title, ‘The Psychologically Safe Organization,’ but the problem is I think people instantly hear an implication of cozy and nice and maybe even polite and, of course, that’s not what I mean at all. What I mean is candid and clear and willing to have tough conversations, so the problem is I can’t change the academic term and the literature on it to be something else, but I wanted to convey quickly what I meant before I had more time in the pages that followed to explain more clearly what I meant. So, to convey quickly I wanted to say fear less. It makes you sit up straight just to think about it. I don’t mean there’s going to be no fear. What I mean is we’re not going to be afraid of each other. It’s fine to be afraid of the competition, it’s fine to be afraid of the massive challenges that lie ahead in our marketplace. It’s not helpful to be afraid of the boss. So, it was the best shorthand I could come up with and I know it isn’t negative and it is probably an extreme statement.

But as you say there are a few options and also, it’s grounded in the literature. So, the three questions I sent across which I think you admitted to be a little bit tricky, so let’s go for it. What have you changed your mind about recently, Amy?

Well, I really thought about it. The thing that I can’t stop thinking about and what I have recently change my mind about was a long-standing belief and maybe even conviction that it was wrong or unnecessary to self-publicize. So, right out of college I worked for Buckminster Fuller who was a great inventor, architect, futurist. He thought a lot about very big questions. How do we make a better world? How do we make sure Spaceship Earth functions for everyone? So, I worked for Bucky as his engineer designing new structures and he had a religious conviction about he was not allowed to self-publicize. The only thing he could do was say what he thought and if people were interested, they’d read his books, they’d invite him to speak and so on, and so the idea was good ideas speak for themselves, you don’t need to be proactively out there pushing them. I have tried to adhere to the spirit and the intent of that like good ideas ought to speak for themselves and we shouldn’t have to publicize them. In the era of social media, and maybe just it was a naive idea in the first place, I’ve come around to the idea that it’s okay for me to try to sell, to try to sell these ideas to try to sell books, to be a bit more proactive and even to ask for help in that.

I think it is okay. It’s a tough world out, there a lot of books out there and it’s-

Crowded.

Crowded but also, when you use the word ‘sell’ I sensed you felt something a little bit sort of vulgar or dirty about it-

But it’s not, it’s not-

No, it’s not. It’s sharing.

The best kind of selling is, how do I help you solve a problem that you have? I really believe that. I’m not trying to pull the wool over your eyes, I’m trying to be helpful.

I was going to say a transfer of enthusiasm.

Exactly. Oh, I love that. That’s right. I’m enthusiastic about this so I hope you are too.

I can tell you are. Exactly. So, I’ve liberated you from having to sell. So, the second question – where do you go to get fresh perspectives to stay innovative and creative?

Well, books, of course. I love books and articles. I love reading and certainly reading about things that happened recently or long ago are both sources of great freshness and respective. So, for example, we were talking about worker safety in the mining industry with Cynthia Carroll and Anglo American, and this summer I read a book called The Radium Girls that absolutely blew me away because it’s such an extreme case of worker unsafety. It’s the story of the girls, and they were young teenagers, who worked in the radium dial industry, the watch industry, and they had to paint the radium which is radioactive onto the watch dials and they had these little tiny paint brushes and the only real way to make the work clear enough was to use their tongue and a great many, really the majority of them ended up with horrifying cancers and they lost their jaws and everything, and the company went to great lengths to try to deny any responsibility for this even though there was a great deal of knowledge about how deadly this material was. These were, by and large, young women, poor young women, and the book was extraordinarily, beautifully written and it led to the creation of OSHA, so it literally was the case that it took years to fight for the responsibility of the company and to help these women because none of them had any money, there was, obviously, no available health care back then, so it’s a beautiful story that just shows what you can do when you look into history to find out things about the workplace some of which resonate today and some of which obviously don’t. So, I did come away from it thinking first of all, ‘Okay, we have come a long way.’ As challenging as some of the stories I have written about, it’s nothing like 100 years ago, what people put up with in the workplace. It also gave me a sense of just great admiration and a desire – I’d already finished this book – but a desire to bring more of the personal stories into-

Into your work?

My writing and work going forward because these are just extraordinarily gripping and engaging stories.

Lovely, lovely. Well, we’ll put it in the show notes and I’ll add it to my shopping list. Final question because I know time is tight, what’s been your most significant failure or low, what have you learned from it and how have you applied that learning, Amy?

This is just a tricky one. I mean, failure and low are two different things. I guess, here’s the one that comes to mind. When I finished my PhD, I had this accidental discovery of psychological safety and in my dissertation was a well-designed study that showed far more conclusively that psychological safety varies from group to group in an organization and that it predicts learning and performance. So, I was done, I was going to graduate, I was excited. Now, I needed a job, and, of course, I wanted very much to get a job in my own field, organizational behavior, and my husband who’s a scientist had just started a new lab down the road at MIT, so I really was quite constrained. I had to find a local job. So, I applied to the organizational behavior unit at Harvard Business School and some other local schools as well and to my dismay, not surprise but dismay, I didn’t get hired. I not only didn’t get hired by the organizational behavior group, and I understand not being first choice or many strong candidates out there, but they hired an unprecedented three faculty members that year. So, I wasn’t first choice, I get that, I wasn’t second choice, I wasn’t third choice, and they said, ‘We don’t think your work is interesting. We don’t think it will go anywhere,’ so that felt terrible, but unbeknownst to them there was a funny little group at the school called Technology and Operations Management who had heard about what I had done and maybe in part because it was in factory settings they were very eager to hire someone who, this is their term, not mine, was a ‘behavioral scientist who wasn’t afraid of technology.’ They just thought it would be fun to have someone in their group who knew about people, so they essentially asked me to compete for a job, they hired me which was a great surprise, but the being hired in my own field did leave me feeling quite insecure about whether my ideas would be taken up and would be published and whether in fact, I’d ultimately be able to survive at all as an academic, and I felt quite low about it, and what forced me to work very hard to get the paper, the main paper published, so I think it led to hard work. It certainly led me not to feel, arrogant is the wrong word, but even confident. I was excited about the results of my dissertation, but I wasn’t confident.

Interesting. Well, you know nothing is as powerful as an idea whose time has come but by the same token something a little bit premature, it could be the best idea on the planet but if people aren’t ready for it…

Yeah. I mean, when the Google study was published in The New York Times, the cover story of the magazine by Charles Duhigg in February of 2016, I was pretty excited because it, actually, in the online version it links through to my original published paper in 1999, and then I did the math and I thought about it. That is a 17-year-lag from published academic article to mainstream recognition, it’s a long wait.

Yeah. You wrote about exponential technologies a little bit, so apply the exponential curve over the next five years and who knows where this could go, right?

Right. What I would hope is it would go to where most managers recognize that this is indeed one of their responsibilities is to create a psychologically safe workplace.

Yeah, absolutely. Super. Amy, this has been fantastic. I’ll give you an opportunity now to sell yourself. Where can people get in touch with you if they’re interested in following your work? And we’ll put that in the show notes.

You can find me at www.hbs.edu. Just search Amy Edmonson. I have a faculty page there and, of course, the book is coming out tomorrow, November 20th it will be. It’s already available on Amazon or wherever else you’d like to buy your books and I hope that people will read it and find just a few tips and tools they could put to use at work.

And you’re on LinkedIn-

Oh, yes. I’m on LinkedIn and Twitter @amycedmondson, but LinkedIn is probably a good place to find me.

Okay. Well, we’ll all those in the show notes but many thanks for your time and very much enjoyed our conversation, and have a great day, Amy.

You too. Thank you, Mark.

Thanks a lot. Bye.

Bye.

Follow us & Join the Community