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amy edmondson fearless organization

Harvard professor on how the best bosses run a fearless workplace

Workplace psychological safety is "not about being nice"

amy edmondson fearless organization

Some workplaces are scary places* to speak up.  They are not psychologically safe workplaces.

Take a look at some examples of a psychologically unsafe workplace:

•   If someone on the team makes a mistake, it’s held against them.

•   Team members can’t bring up problems and tough issues.

•   Some team members are rejected for being different.

•   Team members feel it’s unsafe to take a risk.

•   They find it difficult to ask other team members for help.

•   Some team members deliberately act in a way that undermines others’ efforts.

•   Members feel their unique skills and talents are not valued or used.

But, to be a great boss, one who has learned about the benefits of psychological safety at work, you know it's important for your people to talk frankly. 

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It’s not easy. Who wants to speak up when you have a boss who can fire you, and peers who can shun you? 

Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at Harvard Business School Amy Edmondson (pictured at top) says if your people don’t feel safe to speak up, you may create an illusion of success that will turn to bite you later. 

“Early information about shortcomings can nearly always mitigate the size and impact of future, large-scale failure,” she writes in her latest book The Fearless Organization.

She cites examples of this, including those at Nokia, Volkswagen, and Wells Fargo.

So if you want to be a better boss, do your safety homework. 

3 tasks for leaders to create a psychologically safe workplace:

•   Set the stage. Set expectations around failure, uncertainty, and interdependence to clarify the need for voice. Identify what’s at stake, why it matters and for whom. 

•   Invite participation. Show humility. Acknowledge the gaps. Ask good questions. Model intense listening. Create forums for input. Provide guidelines for discussion.

•   Respond productively. Express appreciation (listen, acknowledge and thank). Destigmatise failure by looking forward and offering help. Discuss consider and brainstorm next steps. Sanction clear violations. 

But remember. 

Nice is not synonymous with psychologically safe. 

Before you start shutting down the office argy-bargy, know that a fearless workplace does not mean that people always agree with one another for the sake of being nice. 

“You could say it’s the opposite,” says Amy Edmondson.

In fact, she says, psychological safety is about candor, which is about speaking up about something that you think sucks. 

“Psychological safety does not imply ease or comfort,” says Amy. “It’s learning from different points of view, and that comes from a willingness to engage in productive conflict and to speak candidly.” 

The myths of a psychologically safe workplace

Psychological Safety is not a personality factor

Amy says whether you’re an extrovert or an introvert, you’re affected by your workplace in roughly the same ways. 

•   Psychological safety is related to the work climate. 

•   In a safe climate, people will offer their ideas and voice their concerns regardless of whether they tend toward introversion or extroversion. 

Psychological safety is not just another word for trust

Amy reckons they’ve got a lot in common, but trust and psychological safety are not the same. 

A key difference is that psychological safety is experienced at a group level.

•   You might trust one colleague or another. However people working together tend to have similar perceptions of whether or not the climate is psychologically safe. 

•   Trust is about giving others benefit of the doubt. Psychological safety relates to whether others will give you the benefit of the doubt when you’ve asked for help, or admitted a mistake. 

Psychological safety is not about lowering performance standards

It’s not “anything goes” or becoming “comfortable” at work, stresses Amy. 

•   By allowing people to admit mistakes, a safe workplace is not relaxing performance standards. Rather, it is using the opportunity to learn so that the same mistake is not made again. 

•   It’s best to think of psychological safety as an environment of mutual respect. It means that people believe they can, and must, be forthcoming at work. 

* Based on real survey questions used in a scientific study measuring psychological safety in the workplace – Tucker, A.L., Nembhard, I.M., & Edmondson, A.C. “Implementing New Practices: An Empirical Study of Organizational Learning in Hospital Intensive Care Units.” 

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