Amy Edmondson has been studying teams for many years. Early in her work she was intrigued by the apparent paradox of the highest performing medical teams also being the ones that had the highest rate of reported negative incidents. How could that be?
It turned out that these high performing teams had a culture that encouraged them to put up their hands when they noticed a problem. Rather than cover up mistakes or let concerns remain silent, the members of these teams spoke up confidently, asked for clarifications when they weren't clear on something, and acknowledged when they had made a mistake. In turn, this openness produced earlier responses to problems and enabled them to recover more quickly and learn from mistakes.
There's a certain "common sense-ness" to that sort of approach. But how do teams like that and the individuals who make up those teams move from common sense to common practice? Because while it may sound like common sense, experience tells us it's all too rare. And that gets expensive.
Edmondson and others use the term "psychological safety" to describe the environment that enables teams to perform to high standards. Edmondson describes it as "a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking". Google's work on high performing teams also identified psychological safety as the number one thing that separated high performing teams from others.
"Psychological safety was far and away the most important of the five dynamics we found -- it's the underpinning of the other four," wrote Lazlo Bock, former senior vice president of people at Google. "How could that be? Taking a risk around your team members seems simple. But remember the last time you were working on a project. Did you feel like you could ask what the goal was without the risk of sounding like you're the only one out of the loop? Or did you opt for continuing without clarifying anything, in order to avoid being perceived as someone who is unaware? Turns out, we're all reluctant to engage in behaviors that could negatively influence how others perceive our competence, awareness, and positivity. Although this kind of self-protection is a natural strategy in the workplace, it is detrimental to effective teamwork. On the flip side, the safer team members feel with one another, the more likely they are to admit mistakes, to partner, and to take on new roles."
So this isn't just an academic phrase to describe an unrealistically "nice" workplace. Psychological safety and its absence plays out in everyday workplace interactions, including high-stakes environments. In addition to the life and death medical context Edmondson has studied, the principle is practised and contracted in the air traffic control industry.
While air traffic controllers are chosen for their superior ability to concentrate and operate under pressure, they are still human and face the same fear of failure as the rest of us mere mortals. So the European air traffic control body actively practises an approach called "just culture". It manages the way mistakes are reported and responded to. It's about encouraging controllers to admit mistakes rapidly and candidly. And they're encouraged to do so in the knowledge that the consequences for human error aren't blame or punishment but learning, training and support. (You can read more about it here.) Recognising that it takes more than sentiment, good intention or words to make this happen, the process is a formal agreement between management, staff and unions.
Edmondson reflects the "learning" response in her work, which she also applies to the concept of "teaming" where individuals are thrown together in short-term or ad-hoc responsive situations and must quickly get up to speed and cooperate. "Teaming, by its very nature, is a learning process so we have to expect some uncertainty, and even sometimes some chaos along the way," she says. The only way such groups can perform effectively is when they feel safe to ask questions.
"First, frame the work as a learning challenge. By default we tend to see the work ahead as an execution challenge. That is, a job that just needs to be done, done to spec. Framing it as a learning challenge instead means from where we stand right now, we don't have a blueprint, we don't have a script.
"The second thing leaders need to do to create psychological safety is acknowledge your own fallibility. It's not only the path ahead that's uncertain, it's you. Simple, small phrases like 'I might miss something', 'I need to hear from you', let others know that you know you're fallible. When people in positions of power do this funny things happen. First, they seem more, not less, confident. And second, it makes it safe for others to speak up.
"The third thing that leaders need to do to create psychological safety is ask questions, show curiosity. This creates a requirement for speaking up. As Eric Schmidt, the CEO of Google has said, 'We run the company by questions, not by answers'."
These ideas are not difficult to appreciate. But neither are they natural or default behaviours in most organisations and teams. They need to be practised, and leaders need to model the way.
I've just started reading a new book by Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey (they wrote Immunity to Change, 2009). It's called An Everyone Culture: Becoming a deliberately developmental organization. The book offers this food for thought:
"In an increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous world (the so-called VUCA world) - a world of new challenges and opportunities - organizations naturally need to expect more, and not less, of themselves and the people who work for them. But our familiar organizational design fails to match that need.
"The distinctive quality of business challenges in a VUCA world is that they are as often adaptive as technical. Technical challenges are not necessarily easy, but they can be met by improvements to existing mind-sets and organizational designs. Adaptive challenges can only be met by people and organizations exceeding themselves."
Exceeding ourselves means breaking through the typical safe, self-protective, even defensive processes and relationships that shape our work as teams and organisations.
Assessing and investing in psychological safety is a crucial first step to doing this. Edmondson's three principles offer practical tools for starting that process.
Situational Leadership® Master Trainer and Australia and New Zealand Affiliate for the Center for Leadership Studies
Kegan, R. & Lahey, L.L. (2016). An Everyone Culture: Becoming a deliberately developmental organization. Harvard Business Review Press.
© Copyright Aubrey Warren 2017