For a recent episode of Transform Your Workplace, I spoke with Amy C. Edmondson, Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at the Harvard Business School and author of the groundbreaking books Teaming: How Organizations Learn, Innovate and Compete in the Knowledge Economy and The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation and Growth. In her research, Edmondson looks at how fear-based workplace cultures stifle creativity and how employee-to-employee trust is required for creating not just workplaces that work, but products and services that do, too.
“Teaming with strangers, or teaming with people you don’t know well or have longstanding relationships with, is an inherently challenging thing to do,” Edmondson said. “We feel reluctant to say things when we’re not sure they will be well received. But if we’re teaming, we’ve got to be fearless, right? We’ve got to be speaking up and listening and processing what each other has to say, and we simply can’t do that if we’re holding back due to fear, if we’re holding back due to concerns about what someone else might think of us.”
In The Fearless Organization, Edmondson looks at numerous companies across industries and how cultures of fear created big problems for them. A major controversy at Volkswagen, for example, involved a desire to increase the presence of their diesel engine in the United States, a market that was at the time beginning to lean toward eco-friendly options. So engineers were put to the task of making their diesel engine more environmentally friendly than a standard gas engine.
“It turns out that technologically, that wasn’t feasible,” she told me. The diesel engines could not be made efficient enough to meet the necessary emissions standards.
But the engineers on the project were terrified of being reprimanded for not finding a solution. So instead of notifying senior executives of this critical issue, they designed software that fibbed the numbers so it seemed like the engine wasn’t emitting as much as it was.
“They thought it was more feasible in a sense, psychologically and intellectually, to design deceitful software than to tell their boss it simply couldn’t be done,” Edmondson said. “It’s a perfect illustration of how dangerous fear at work is. What happens is through your fear tactics, you can end up with something that looks like good performance, but isn’t at all.”
Instead, Edmondson said, organizations should work to create what she calls “psychologically safe” environments. In a psychologically safe workplace or team, “I can speak up without fear of reprisal,” she said.
“If you’re going to be highly innovative in a competitive industry,” she added, “you need a set of behaviors that require psychological safety. You know, if the organization doesn’t allow people to send bad news up the hierarchy, then you’re not getting the right signals and you’re not authorizing the right projects.”
This isn’t just important for encouraging speaking up when something is wrong, though. It’s also necessary for coming up with radical new ideas, as without that safety, employees might be afraid to share something that isn’t quite perfect yet. Very few great ideas start out perfect. They require drafts and feedback and more drafts. As Edmondson put it, “it’s a deeply iterative, messy process and you can’t do iterative, messy processes without psychological safety.”
While each organization’s needs will vary depending on their industry and their specific projects, Edmondson held up Edwin Catmull, cofounder and former president of Pixar Animation Studios, as a great model for creating psychologically safe workplaces. She encouraged all companies to consider implementing these three things he did to help his employees feel fearless:
When your top executives share their mistakes, more and more employees down the line will feel safe doing so, too. “Catmull says often, ‘If as a leader I’m not willing to talk about my mistakes, how can I expect others to?’”
“He frames the work in a wonderful way,” Edmondson said. “He says all the time, ‘early on, all our movies are bad. The way you get a good movie is by starting with a bad movie and iterating the heck out of it.’” To get to that great final version, employees need to feel safe sharing something incomplete so lots of others can then come up with their own ideas on how to make it better. “You need to put it out there for people to throw stuff at it—first and foremost, criticism,” she said. When teammates can point out what isn’t working without the creator feeling demeaned or attacked, then the team can move forward together on how to fix those identified problems.
“No matter how much we talk about ‘we need to hear your voice, we need criticism, we need crazy ideas,’ it still can be a little hard for people to come forward,” Edmondson said. To get around this, you can pull small groups of people together regularly and moderate with specific questions to guide discussion. You can also set ground rules for these meetings so everyone knows what to expect and how to respect each other’s ideas.
Amy Edmondson on Creating Better Organizations by Building Psychological Safety in the Workplace