Most of us have heard about the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill. But less is known about the work environment that led to the disaster. On the rig were two nemesis companies, creating a workplace filled with competition instead of collaboration. When things started going wrong, mistakes were hidden, and each group blamed the other. In other words, the environment was the exact opposite of one with psychological safety.
Deepwater Horizon was one of many stories that surfaced during NLI’s Psychological Safety Mini-Summit, a three-hour webinar featuring Harvard Business School professor and psychological safety expert Amy Edmondson, among other business leaders. Panelists unpacked the concept of psychological safety and discussed ways organizations can create workplaces that foster learning and innovation. Here’s some of what we learned.
Psychological safety doesn’t come naturally
From the get-go, we learned that psychological safety isn’t the default: “I always want to be clear that psychological safety should not be considered the norm,” Edmondson said, noting that creating and maintaining it takes deliberate practice.
NLI co-founder David Rock echoed that sentiment, noting, “A lot of times, leaders are oblivious to the fact that they create threats.” For example, a manager who’s distracted during a one-on-one meeting with an employee could create a threat for that person, making them feel like they aren’t receiving their boss’ full attention. Turning down those threats takes constant work both in the moment and, when possible, in advance. For example, if the manager is distracted, they could tell their employee, “I’m going to be looking down at times to check my phone because I’m waiting for a call from my doctor’s office.”
Asking for feedback fosters safety
Conventional wisdom says we should give feedback again and again. But research shows that feedback conversations are cognitively taxing and threatening — for both the giver and the receiver. “There’s no way to fix feedback if your model is giving feedback,” Rock said. But if someone asks for feedback instead of being given it, both parties receive the social rewards of certainty and relatedness. “It turns out that the best way to give someone feedback is for you to ask first,” Rock added.
Just as crucial is being as specific as possible about what you’d like to know. For instance, one might say, “I was really trying to be more engaging in that presentation and get people to participate. How did I do? What worked and what didn’t?”
Mistakes are learning opportunities
One of Edmondson’s earliest insights about psychological safety occurred 24 years ago, when she joined a large study exploring the frequency of medication errors. Edmondson’s responsibility was to assess the quality of nurses’ teamwork using a survey. Meanwhile, her colleagues collected data on errors in care. When her colleagues’ data collided with her own, shock ensued: Groups with better teamwork seemed to have higher error rates.
Edmondson later realized what she was seeing was the effect of psychological safety: Better teams weren’t actually making more mistakes — they were just more willing to report them. And once mistakes were known, teams could address their causes, allowing them to ultimately perform better. Of course, there are different types of failures, and failure is not equal: “Teams never want to waste resources or put lives at risk,” she said. “Instead, they make sure that experiments happen in a safe place.”
Kindness is key
When people hear candor is necessary for psychological safety, there’s a tendency to misunderstand what that means and assume it encourages a blunt, somewhat hostile environment.
But candor, or what we call “challenge kindly,” allows for arguing in a healthy, kind way. Kindness is about connection and “starts with the notion that we can get through anything together,” Edmondson said. This limits social danger and allows for warm yet productive challenges such as, “Do you mind if we look at this again?” When challenge kindly is done right, conversations can elicit the brain’s reward response — instead of putting people in a threat state.
No doubt, creating physiological safety takes a lot of effort. But, as Edmondson put it, “If you and I disagree, we can just keep fighting. Or we can start to elaborate our thinking, share our data and get to a place of mutual learning and elaboration that allows us to make progress together.”