Psychological Safety and Accountability: Three Insights From NLI’s Conversation With Amy Edmondson

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NLI Staff
Understanding neuroscience can help leaders be more effective at the individual, team, and organizational levels.

Key Points:

  • A recent Your Brain at Work Live webinar featured a conversation between Dr. David Rock and Dr. Amy Edmondson on the complex topic of psychological safety versus accountability.
  • The apparent conflict between the two terms arises from misconceptions of their definitions.
  • Instead of being in opposition, psychological safety and accountability work hand in hand in creating high-performing teams.

The turmoil of the pandemic made it essential for companies to show they care for their employees. Empathy and kindness rose to the forefront, and standards of work were sometimes relaxed to promote physical and mental health. Somewhere along the way, people started conflating this caring atmosphere with psychological safety — even though they are separate concepts.

Now, with the pandemic behind us, many leaders are saying it’s time to “get back to business” and start holding employees accountable. Kindness is nice, but businesses run on results. Because many leaders don’t understand psychological safety, they view it as a roadblock to employee accountability.

This apparent conflict seems to be on many people’s minds, as evidenced by the fact that NLI’s recent Your Brain at Work Live webinar on the topic set a registration record. In the webinar, Dr. Amy Edmondson, Novartis Professor of Leadership at Harvard Business School, joined NLI CEO and co-founder Dr. David Rock for a lively discussion of how psychological safety and accountability interact to create high-performing teams.

Here are three major takeaways from the conversation:

Psychological safety isn’t about feeling good

According to Edmondson, the false dichotomy of psychological safety versus accountability comes from a misunderstanding of psych safety. Psychological safety is the belief that you can speak up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes without fear of repercussions. “What that really means is I can do my job without fear of humiliation or punishment,” Edmondson says. “It doesn’t mean freedom to not do my job correctly.”

Many people have the misconception that psychological safety is a warm-and-fuzzy safe space that allows positivity and good vibes only. With this incorrect definition, it’s no wonder they view psych safety and accountability — which typically has a punitive connotation — as incompatible.

In reality, psychological safety is about creating healthy friction — and it doesn’t always feel good in the moment. Sometimes, it’s about pointing out mistakes (your own or others’) to further the team’s goals. Not everyone agrees all the time, and in fact, it’s this diversity of opinion and respectful debate that makes teams stronger and capable of making better decisions.

Accountability is about growth, not punishment

The term “accountability” is also widely misunderstood. “I define accountability as psychological ownership,” Edmondson says. “It’s an internal commitment to do everything you can to uphold standards of excellence and to contribute to achieving the team’s goals.”

Rock adds that there are generally two types of accountability in the workplace: punitive and growth-oriented. Punitive is usually associated with the word: It’s all about punishment and negative consequences for mistakes or failures. “In contrast, growth-oriented accountability is an empowering sense of ownership,” Rock says. “It’s restoring the dignity to individuals to own their part in a larger complex system.”

Despite an employee’s best efforts, mistakes and failures will happen in an uncertain world. But with growth-oriented accountability, the person owns their mistakes and learns from their failures. They anticipate obstacles and plan for contingencies. They ask for feedback instead of dreading it. And they’re not afraid to take reasonable risks to drive innovation.

Growth-oriented accountability comes from within — a person commits to holding themselves accountable rather than being held accountable by others. Leaders often have the false idea that surveillance — such as keystroke software or other forms of monitoring — increases accountability. But in reality, this approach backfires by stifling employees’ internal sense of accountability, which is a much more powerful motivator.

Instead, leaders can encourage growth-oriented accountability by role modeling — sharing their own mistakes, frequently asking for feedback, and admitting they don’t have all the answers. They can also create conditions for employees to hold themselves accountable by clearly defining tasks and roles and anticipating obstacles.

You need both for high performance

Instead of being in conflict, psychological safety and accountability are actually two dimensions of high performance. According to Edmondson, when both psychological safety and accountability are low, the workplace is an apathy zone — people don’t really care about their work; they’re just plugging through and doing the bare minimum to avoid repercussions. High psychological safety but low accountability places employees in a comfort zone. People feel safe to express their ideas but don’t take ownership of outcomes or feel particularly motivated.

On the flip side, low psychological safety but high accountability creates an anxiety zone where people are reluctant to take risks or offer new ideas because they fear punishment. They care about their job but stay quiet with concerns, often leading to preventable failures. And finally, the ideal situation is where both psychological safety and accountability are high. In this environment, which Edmondson calls the learning or high-performance zone, people collaborate and learn from each other’s mistakes. They’re not afraid to candidly express concerns while feeling an internal sense of ownership and desire to contribute.

Instead of being opponents, psychological safety and accountability are allies in creating high-performing teams. And they reinforce each other: When teams have a high level of psychological safety, they’ll feel more confident taking ownership of tasks, knowing they won’t be punished for honest mistakes or risk-taking. When people hold themselves accountable, they’ll contribute to an environment of psychological safety because they share concerns and mistakes, request feedback, and ask for help when needed.

“You can’t have proper psychological safety without accountability, without people feeling like they want to get better, want to learn, and know what’s expected of them,” Rock concludes. “If people don’t know what’s expected of them, and they’re not really leaning in and psychologically owning something, it’s very hard for psychological safety to exist.”

If you missed this insightful discussion, the webinar is available on-demand here.

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