'Psychological safety' and organizational performance

Steve Kelman stresses the benefits of creating space for questions and push-back.

teamwork (SFIO CRACHO/Shutterstock.com)

A number of years ago, Google did a study of the company’s highest performing teams to see what distinguished them from other teams in the organization. The result, published in The New York Times and garnering significant attention at the time, was that the super-performing teams were characterized by high levels of something called “psychological safety.” A colleague of mine at Harvard Business School, Amy Edmondson, coined the phrase and has been doing research on it for 20 years. She has published a book, The Fearless Organization, summarizing what she’s learned and presenting prescriptions for managers about how to create it in teams and organizations.

Psychological safety refers to the willingness of people in a team or organization freely to “speak up, offer ideas, and ask questions without fear of being punished or embarrassed.” Edmondson gives lots of examples of the fear in organizations of speaking up, particularly up the organizational hierarchy and unwillingness to challenge the boss. Many associate this with groupthink, the presence of conformity pressures within groups where minorities don’t want to dissent from what they believe is the majority. Edmondson argues that this unwillingness to challenge may grow out of a lack of psychological safety in the team or organization.

Edmondson first began researching the topic while doing her PhD dissertation. She discovered that in hospitals with high levels of what she came to call psychological safety, teams reported more medical errors than in other hospitals. But their effectiveness as teams was higher. So what seemed to be happening was that psychological safety made teams more willing to report errors, but those reports could then be discussed within the hospitals and acted on, so performance improved. When psychological safety was lacking, people feared speaking up and errors were covered up, so they couldn’t be corrected.

For whatever this is worth, I have always regarded myself as being more willing than most to speak up, even in the face of a lack of psychological support for doing so. This got started when I was in college many years ago and spoke up against the then-dominant student radicalism on campus during the Vietnam War. Having said that, I realize that speaking up in these situations is an unnatural act, and I regarded it at the time more as an unpleasant duty than anything else, though I worked to make the best of a bad situation by trying to feel proud of myself. In an environment with insufficient psychological safety, speaking up takes courage.

Since Edmondson sees the existence of psychological safety as unnatural, the prescriptions in her book center on practical things managers can do to promote psychological safety in the workplace. The first involves “framing the work,” presenting failures when trying new things as natural – emphasizing that “it is not possible to get something brand new ‘right the first time’” and that “small failures are the currency of subsequent improvement.” (Some organizations, especially in R&D, actually hold “failure parties” to recognize the good but risky effort that did not succeed.)

The second involves “inviting participation,” including making sure “that people know that I don’t think I have all the answers” and “emphasizing that we can always learn more.” “Research shows,” she writes, “that when leaders express humility, teams engage in more learning behavior.” It also involves “asking good questions rather than rhetorical ones, questions that generate curiosity, surface underlying assumptions, and focus inquiry. And it involves responding productively, by thanking speakers for bringing up ideas or questions, and trying to make sure that sharing bad news is a positive experience. (Edmondson adds the caveat that sometimes errors are blameworthy moral failings, and tells managers to “respond to clear violations in an appropriately tough manner.”)

For Edmondson, psychological safety is fragile and thus needs “continuing renewal.” Sounds like a important job for managers.

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