The Leadercast Podcast
The Leadercast Podcast

Episode · 2 years ago

45. Amy C. Edmondson on Building a Psychologically Safe Workplace


A work environment that stifles ideas and inhibits people from asking for help or sharing problems is a symptom of fear-based leadership.


Psychological safety, on the other hand, is a sense of permission for candor at work.


In this episode, I interview Amy C. Edmondson, Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at Harvard Business School and author of The Fearless Organization.

What we talked about:

  • What a psychologically safe workplace looks like
  • Examples of fear-based leadership versus asking good questions
  • How to create a climate of psychological safety
  • Emotional intelligence helps leaders promote psychological safety


Check out these resources we mentioned during the podcast:


Check out the full podcast with Amy C. Edmondson by clicking here.

If you don’t use Apple Podcasts as your audio player, you can also find every episode at this link.

This is the leader cast podcast, helping you be a leader worth following. Hello everyone, thank you for tuning in to this episode of the leader cast podcast. I am Haley Pan Gakus question. Have you ever encountered a leader who led through the use of fear? Many of you have, and have seen just how toxic and organizations culture can become when fear is at its core. Fear based leadership creates a culture where people are afraid to speak up, and this can stifle innovation and lead to sometimes deadly mistakes that could have been avoided. And cultures of fear, people are afraid to be themselves, which can in turn mean they don't build much of a relationship with one another, which suppresses collaboration in the process. There's so much bad that comes with fear based leadership and its effects on workplace cultures. So, if you ask me, leading or managing through the use of fear has absolutely no place and leadership. I wish I could say we lived in a world where this type of leader was extinct, but unfortunately that is not the case. But luckily our guest in this episode is on a mission to change that. AMYC EDMONDSON is a Harvard Business School professor and author of the fearless organization, creating psychological safety in the workplace for learning, Innovation and Growth. She was selected as number three of the top fifteen management thinkers in the world by thinkers fifty and this episode we discuss what it means to have a psychologically safe workplace, why fear is detrimental to work culture, as I've alluded to, what you can do as a leader to establish a workplace in which people feel the freedom to be themselves and use their voice, and the role emotional intelligence plays in it all. Will dive into all of this, but before we do, here is a quick message about leader cast now, where you can learn insights related to building an organizational culture people want to be part of, and so much more from leaders just like the ones you hear on this podcast. Take a listen and I will see you on the other side for my conversation with AMC Edmonton. Leader cast now is an online resource for your leadership development. Get the solutions to your leadership challenges on any device at the moment you need it. To learn more, go to now doubt leader castcom. Good morning, amy, and welcome. Thank you so much for joining us on the show. We're so excited to have you and I know we're recording this right and early. So I appreciate you taking the time and I'm hope, I'm hoping, that you've gotten your coffee, and so just thank you for joining us today, thanks for having me. So I'm just going to jump right into it. You are the author of the fearless organization creating psychological safety in the workplace for learning, Innovation and Growth, and there's a lot of ground that I'd like to cover in our short time today. So first and form most, for those who haven't read the book, Do you want to just start by defining what exactly is psychological safety? is psychological safety is a sense of permission...

...for candor at work. It's the belief that you can speak up with ideas, concerns, questions, problems, mistakes and your colleagues or your boss won't reject or embarrass you for it. How did this book comes through fruition? was there some past experience with the psychologically unsafe environment that sparked this idea and so the need? But yes, in a way, my early research, as it as a doctoral student years ago, discovered really somewhat by accident, but discovered huge differences in reporting behavior in a in a couple of teaching hospitals. So and by reporting behavior I mean people's willingness or ability to speak up about medication errors and and other sort of adverse events. And you know, it turned out to be like at first it looked like the possibility of performance differences across these teams, but eventually I was able to rule that out and and find that the real difference, at least at that point in time, was people's sense that it was okay to speak up about it, which of course meant it's okay, it's possible to learn and improve. If you can't speak up, if you can't get the data on what's going wrong, you can't you can't improve. And and so fast forward and in two thousand and sixteen Google did a widely publicized study. It had a New York Times magazine cover story on big study to answer the question of why is it that some teams at Google were outperforming others? You know, everybody was smart, everybody went through very rigorous hiring process and and all of that, but there were these kind of persistent performance differences across teams. and to make Google's. Long Story Short, they finally found out, discovered that psychological safety was the critical variable, it was the variable that was explaining most of the variation in performance across teams and and it was a kind of surprise to them. And that really put this on the public stage, I think because I had been as a quite a long literature now in academia in organizational behavior and and team effectiveness that that uses this variable finds it to be powerful. But with with, with Google's discovery, it really catapulted it into the limelight. Yeah, so what's that said? What does a psychologically safe work place look like? That's a great question. It's one of those you know what when you see it. But if you look around and then if you listen, you will hear people speaking as often about what they're struggling with, what's not going well, as about their successes. So you'll will hear people ask for help, you'll...

...hear people say, you know, here's a problem we're having and you you might hear sort of well meaning laughter, a kind of sense of humor about the predicament that were, that they're that they're in. So there's a just a kind of a good will and energy and and this and the candor that you can definitely detect. HMM. So on the flip side of that, are there any red flags leaders can look for? Of maybe they have a psychologically unsafe environment? Absolutely, and it's you know, it's almost the converse. But if you're not hearing about problems, it is very unlikely that it's because they don't exist. Right. We live in a volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous world, right. That the new the shortcut being vucca. Right. We the world is more fast paced, more complex interconnected than ever, and that's a kind of guarantee that things will go wrong as well as going right. And so if you're not hearing the bad news, it's probably a sign that people are reluctant to come forward with it, not a sign that it doesn't exist. Yeah, so what's that said? How does a psychologically safe environment encourage people to speak up, and what would you say this does for an organization? I know you brought up you've talked about this in your book and you also brought it up moments ago you were talking about the medical space and how not speaking up. I imagine that can lead to deaths and you very bad mistakes. That happen if people don't speak up. So, yeah, in fact, you know the range of consequences. I've been thinking about this a lot recently because the range of consequences from not speaking up is huge right and in in the book I'll document consequences that range from, as you just said, loss of life all the way down to just a sense of personal regret. I mean in countless interviews people will, when they're recalling these sort of stories where they help back and they're willing to tell me or other researcher and that sort of safe context of a research interview, they'll report a sense of I felt like a whimp afterwards, where I, you know, it lingered with me like what, could I have made more of a difference or felt more connected if I spoke up? Or so it ranges from these sort of small senses of personal disappointment all the way over to, you know, at the extreme, loss of life. And and in between are absolutely preventable business failures, some of them small and some of them quite large, you know, some of them headline grabbing, like the Volkswagen Diesel Gate scandal, where software engineers felt it was more palatable, I guess, to develop software to cheat the regulators, you know, then to tell their...

...boss that was being asked could not technically be done at that time. HMM. So, you know, not speaking up canly to mistakes that could have been avoided. But what about innovation? How does not speaking, I mean not speaking it definitely it stifle anomation? Right, you bet. Thanks for bringing that up, because I got started on the negative. But the the absence of the positive, is just as important. You really can't have innovation without psychological safety, because people won't aren't willing to share those sort of wacky ideas, those out of the box ideas that might not be good in their own right but are a stepping stone to build on. And if people are only willing to share sort of safe ideas or things that seem sane, you won't really get the innovation you need. Or people are willing to say hey, this process is fine, but I have an idea that would make it work even better. And they're out afraid that, hey, maybe the existing process was actually designed by the boss or the boss's boss and that person might take offense with this idea, then they're going to hold back. So and the the tragedy of lost innovation. Is that unlike the business failures or human safety failures that eventually do come to light? The innovation failures, you know, the innovation that never happened because someone held back with a good idea, never come to light. Right, you were, you remain in the dark. You don't know that we could have done something, you know, really different and really great had someone felt safe enough to speak up. Right. So you talk about this a lot in your book, fear based leadership and how it's just detrimental to an organization. Do you want to share a little bit about that and how fear based leadership impacts employee engagement? Sure, and you know, just to step back, fear based leadership is so much more common than we think. Like, you know, nobody imagines that managers come to work in the morning to try to frighten people and and of course they don't. What happens is many, if not most, managers hold taken for granted beliefs that that are you know, if people aren't afraid a little bit, they won't do their best work. Like they won't try hard. There's a must of implicit belief in the power of fear to motivate and the reality is fear does motivate, but what it primarily motivates is hiding. You know, I if if I'm afraid, I'm gonna hide what I'm thinking and worrying about. I'm going to hide the stuff that and going wrong. And you know you can't manage a secret. So it's it's quite problematic. So I think, I think a lot of well meaning managers inadvertently rely on fear because they just think that's that's the way to be a manager and they're unaware of the loss that it engenders. And and what happens, even more neurologically,... that when we're in a state of fear, are Amigdala gets hooked, and when the Amigdala is hooked, our kind of neural processing, especially in the part of our brain that is responsible for problem solving, an analytic thinking and creativity and even short term memory formation, is less effective. So we're less able to do our best work when we're when we're in a state of fear. So fear based leadership is common, and I don't mean frightening bullies, I mean just the sort of small behaviors and tools that managers use to kind of keep people on their toes. That in a VOCA world can backfire. You know, in a world that is much more reliant on employee ingenuity and creativity and willingness to kind of team up with each other, the fear based management is that much more destructive. HMM. You have any examples of what that looks like, what management tactics people are using that instilling fear that leader should try to avoid? I'll give you an example from VW and then you can you can sort of dial it back a little if you will, but it's it's example where an executive says to a team doing product development, which was by its nature is innovation, is uncertain, is a little sojourney into new territory and and saying that a certain result must be achieved and must be achieved by a certain time and and then says something like and I have every one of your names, and so you know, you can imagine what goes through people's heads. And and I can imagine that this executive was brought up this way in a sense, you know, this was how he was managing. Kind of inadvertently believes it works, but the people who are just hearing I have your name are thinking I'm going to lose my job if this guy doesn't get what he wants when he wants it. And Gosh, you know, the technology is a little sketchy right now, but let's make it look like he's you know, it works, and and and so you can imagine people wanting to be firm and and even, in a more mild sense, tools like insisting on particular targets in a realm where there's a certain degree of uncertainty is a fool's errand hm like, we can aspire to certain targets, but who knows what Mother Nature, technology, you know, weather patterns and so forth, are going to actually allow. So we have to remain humble in the face of the uncertainty that lies ahead. And when you say this is the target, this must be the target. It induces fear and it induces covering up. I'm not trying to say don't be ambitious, because I am a huge fan of being ambitious and a huge fan of you know...

...what we call stretch goals, but stretch goals plus closed ears, or the perception of closed ears, is a recipe for failure. So which need is stretch goals, and I'm all ears like let me know what you're seeing, let me know what you're learning. I understand that this is a foray into new territory, a quick thing on KPI's or targets. You know, we all know what really happens is people try to gain the system, knowing and fearing that if they miss their target they'll be penalized, they try to set lower targets then they might otherwise, you know, lower targets than they might in their own in their own sort of lives or you know, they're ambitious, they want to be creative, they want to they want to do the best work, but they don't want to be penalized, so they'll they'll gain it. And we don't want gaming and we want, you know, we want true engagement and honesty and transparency. Yeah, so that's one way leaders can build a psychologically safe improvement. What are some other actions leaders could take to build a psychologically safe environment within the organization's I mean it starts with sort of continuous reminders of not only why what we do matters. There's a lot of work out there on purpose and why a sense of purposes is important and helpful in work where you know where people can sort of connect. We all want to connect into something larger than ourselves, just be a part of the part of a group that's making a difference in the lives of united patients, customers, society and and so those, those periodic reminders kind of get us a little bit outside ourselves, you know, instead of being tied up in knots about how do I look, what people think of me, I'm kind of Hey, this is exciting, I want to be a part of it, I want to work with my colleagues on this. And then more, even more specifically, noting, acknowledging both the uncertainty and the inherent challenge of the work is super helpful because in a sense what that does is create a rationale, you know, for why voice makes sense. You know, if I say you there's a lot we don't yet know about this project, then I'm essentially saying any one of you might have an idea or an observation that could contribute materially. So I'm going to room my you know, kind of constantly send sending a message that says we don't know everything, we need to hear from you, and then, more even overtly, ask good questions and good questions are the kind that you're asking right now, which is sort of you ask. They're not. Yes, know, they focuses. They focus on something relevant, something that matters, and give people room to respond. They're not yet know, you know, they're not rhetorical. They're expressed in a way, just as you've been doing. They're expressed in a way that...

...says I genuinely want to hear. Yeah, so, I know, we know that culture is often built from top down, but what about those leaders that aren't at the top? What can they do to establish an encourage psychological safety in the workplace? A great question and you know I love I want to make a quick distinction between culture and climate. Culture are the taken for granted norms and rules in an organization that are pretty widespread. You know, nearly everybody working in the same company kind of gets it, kind of understands and shares the same culture. But climate is a more visceral, interpersonal construct and and psychological safety as a climate variable. So climate describes you and me, button, me and my colleagues right here right now, and what we have found, after you know, study after study show is enormous differences in climate across teams, even within the same strong corporate culture, let's say. And what that means with respect to your question, is climate is actually created in the middle. Climate is very much influenced by team leaders, project managers, unit directors. You know, there are the it's the proximal leader, the the the leader who oversees some interdependent work of a number of people. And so that means that actually psychological safety. It's absolutely true that the top contributes and can do important things, and leaders in the middle of the organization have enormous ability and influence to shape their own teams in a way that's really healthy and learning oriented. And and they do that in some of the ways we've already been talking referring to the mission of the team, asking good questions, listening thoughtfully. They just they set that good example and they kind of enforce those norms of interpersonal safety. And and then some people might be think, yeah, but I'm not even a team leader, I'm just, you know, an individual contributor, and to that I say and you too can make a small difference in your own spot. You know, where ever you are, you can ask your colleagues good questions, you can listen thoughtfully, you can. You can express curiosity and respect, and those small expressions of interest go a long way toward letting others know that they matter. And that's the kind of very kernel of this. Yeah, so shifting gears a little bit, leader cast theme this month is focused on emotional intelligence, so I'd like to throw a question out there related to that. So what role do would you say emotional intelligent plays in psychological safety? A huge role. So...

...emotional intelligence at least. One important part of emotional intelligence is self awareness and and and a second crucial part of emotional intelligence is the ability to read others. And people who have high Eq are better able to understand how they might be coming across in ways that inadvertently silences others, for example, many well meaning leaders and people who you know. There's research that shows that when you you get promoted higher and higher, you know you're not aware of it, but you end up doing more of the talking in a particular meeting and and then that can inadvertently crowd out other voices, for example. And the more more emotionally intelligent leaders are are less prone to that very natural kind of error. And and so more self awareness to know how you might be coming across. To be aware of how you might be making it harder for others to contribute is crucial here. And then other awareness, that ability to read body language and nonverbals can let you know when someone looks hesitant or looks puzzled or looks concerned and you can sort of reach out. Hey, you know, Jennifer, what's on your mind, Bob, what are you thinking? Right? So there's this better ability to just sense and and respond that comes with emotional intelligence. Well, I mean, I know that we're getting close in our time. So I have one more quick question for you, because this is the leader cast podcast and our mission is to fill the world with leaders worth following. I have to ask and your opinion, what makes a leader worth following such a great mission? A leader is worth following, I think, first and foremost, because they're going somewhere you believe makes sense and is important, you know and and makes a difference and you want to be a part of that. And and then, secondarily, you believe in that person's own sort of sincerity and integrity. Man, you believe. You believe that they're not just in it for themselves, but they're they're in it for for the sake of the mission. The goal is well, and and and so you know, it really does matter that people trust you. You know that they believe you're you're sort of a person who is not entirely about yourself. I love that great answer. Well, thank you so much, amy, for joining us on the show today. We really appreciate you taking the time and such great insights that you've provided our leaders. So appreciate it well, thank you for having me. Absolutely well, listeners, I hope you enjoyed this interview and that you learned some tools for ensuring that your organization is one that is psychologically see. You can connect with amy on twitter at a NEC Edmondson, and purchase her book, the Fearless Organization, on Amazon and at...

...other major book retailers. You can find more content related to culture building through our blog, newsletters, webinars, videos and more. Just visit leadercastcom to find more of our content and, if you like what you're heard today, please share, rate and review this podcast so we can continue to grow our following and help leaders like yourself on their leadership journeys. Check out our previous episodes and subscribe so you never miss the latest from the leader cast podcast. Again, thank you for tuning in. Now go be a leader worth following. Thanks for tuning in to the leader cast podcast. To ensure that you never miss an episode, subscribe to the show in your favorite podcast player.

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