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Drive Innovation with Psychological Safety

A Q&A with Amy C. Edmondson

Psychological safety. It may be one of the most important components of a great business, but you don't hear much about it. And in an economy that rewards agility, innovation and disruption, psychological safety is more important than ever, says Harvard Business School professor Amy C. Edmondson. In The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation and Growth (Wiley, 2018), she draws on 20 years of research and fieldwork to make the case for trust, respect and clear communications at work. She answered a few questions for HR Magazine's Book Blog about her new book.

What is psychological safety at work?

It is a feeling that you are able to speak up, ask questions, seek help and acknowledge mistakes. It's an interpersonal climate in which speaking up is expected and valued.

How common is it for employees to hold back questions and comments?

It is far more common for them to hold back than to freely offer their observations, questions and concerns. Silence is instinctive and safe in any hierarchy. In my research, nearly everyone could think of a time when he or she held back a comment―despite believing it could be important to the work. People fail to speak up not just with bad news or dissent, they also withhold ideas for improvements―unless they are extremely confident the ideas will be welcome. The gravitational pull of silence can be overwhelming. The implicit logic is that safe is better than sorry.

What's an example of a company that was harmed because people didn't speak up?

There are many, of course. Wells Fargo is one that dominated the headlines last year. Company executives formulated a strategy that emphasized cross-selling additional products to current customers. The strategy eventually stalled. But salespeople believed senior managers would not tolerate underperformance, so they found it easier to create false accounts than to report disappointing sales results. The widespread nature of the behavior strongly suggests that the fraud was not the result of some corrupt salespeople. Rather, it points to a system set up to fail—by the pernicious combination of overly specific and unrealistic targets and executives who seemed unwilling to hear bad news.

What can leaders do to create a psychologically safe workplace?

They must clarify why speaking up is valued and reinforce that through ongoing messages and behaviors. They can invite participation and respond appreciatively to input they receive. It is not a one-and-done thing.

Yet, perhaps the single most important thing is to celebrate a company's successes while also acknowledging the immense challenges that lie ahead and the limits the organization faces regarding its knowledge, resources or capabilities. That makes it clear that others' inputs are needed. When leaders admit that they don't know something, this micro display of humility encourages others to follow suit.

What are some advantages of a psychologically safe culture?

Psychologically safe companies are able to fully engage employees in the organization's shared mission. People can contribute what they know at that critical moment at work when it's needed. That's important when learning, knowledge sharing, error reporting or innovation are crucial for a company's success.

Most importantly, today's workers—at all levels—spend far more time collaborating than they did 20 years ago, and collaboration is difficult without psychological safety. When people hold back and worry about their image and saving face, they are not teaming effectively. HR's job is to help inspire and engage employees in teamwork and learning. To make this happen, HR leaders must partner with their colleagues in other functions to build psychological safety.

John Scorza is associate editor of HR Magazine.


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