On day two of the 2020 Global Leadership Summit, Harvard professor Amy Edmondson, author of The Fearless Organization, challenged leaders to encourage innovation and to risk “intelligent failure.” When all voices and ideas are valued and dissent is considered healthy, she says, learning occurs and performance soars.
Although humans prefer and expect predictability and fairness, Edmondson says, the world is volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous. Accepting this fact helps leaders acknowledge that anyone’s voice can be what she calls “mission critical.”
Signs of Psychological Safety
A psychologically safe workplace, says Edmondson, features “a belief that the context is safe for interpersonal risk-taking—that speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes will be welcomed and valued.” It’s not merely niceness or a license to whine, she notes, adding that the approach is exciting but not easy.
In a psychologically safe workplace, teammates are willing to speak up when something goes wrong, when they disagree with what’s being said, when they have a half an idea, and when they need help. Unless an environment feels safe, many smart employees might feel stymied or fearful of one another. As an example, Edmondson describes investigating the 2003 Columbia tragedy. The re-entry explosion might have been prevented if an engineer who’d noticed a possible problem at liftoff 16 days earlier had felt comfortable speaking up to more people.
Taking that type of “interpersonal risk” is scary, says Edmondson, because no one wants to look ignorant or incompetent at work. Management, meanwhile, often doesn’t want to deal with questions or admit weaknesses. The outcome, while not always catastrophic, involves some type of loss, including decreased innovation.
Edmondson emphasizes that a psychologically safe workplace encourages the type of failure that can lead to discoveries and innovation. In so-called “intelligent failures,” teams explore significant opportunities, the outcome is informative, the cost and scope are relatively small, and key assumptions are articulated. Smart failures aren’t mistakes or accidents; instead, teammates are pursuing something meaningful and learning every day, much like scientists.
How Leaders Build Psychological Safety
To achieve psychological safety, says Edmondson, leaders must be humble, curious, and empathetic. Moving toward a safe workplace that encourages risk-taking and innovation requires a framework shift in which leaders:
View employees as well-intentioned and trustworthy rather than as self-interested and untrustworthy
Give all employees access to information and ideas rather than assuming that only top management knows best about issues of organizational importance.
Prize disagreement and dissent rather than unity, agreement, and consensus (which are actually signs of organizational weakness, not health).
The key to inviting engagement, Edmondson says, is asking good questions—which, by their nature, make silence awkward. To broaden and deepen discussions, leaders should ask questions such as:
What do others think?
What other options could we consider?
Who has a different perspective?
What leads you to think so?
Can you give us an example?
What do you think might happen if we did x?
After listening to answers, leaders need to respond productively by thanking people for input and pointing toward the future. Honest feedback should be a positive experience for employees, says Edmondson, who maintains that psychological safety is “more important now than ever.”
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