Industry Insights

Professor Amy Edmondson on how to build psychological safety at your organization

We are in the middle of one of the biggest workplace experiments in history. While most knowledge workers have experienced remote work during the COVID-19 pandemic, we’re now shifting into new territory again—some teams will remain remote, some will go back into the office, and others will be somewhere in between.

This ever-shifting landscape is what Amy C. Edmondson, Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at the Harvard Business School, says is a hallmark of a V.U.C.A. world: volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous. According to Professor Edmondson, we need to get used to this type of landscape because the world will only continue to change.

Building psychological safety at your organization

So how do teams and organizations find ways to adapt to challenges with clarity and confidence? Professor Edmondson, who recently spoke at Asana’s Scale summit, believes building psychological safety is key for organizations to continue growing and thriving. She defines psychological safety as: a belief that your work environment is safe for interpersonal risks—like speaking up with questions, concerns, or mistakes.

Permission for candor at work is so important because now, more than ever, anyone’s voice can be mission critical. Here are Professor Edmondson’s three tips for building psychological safety within your team and organization:

1. Frame the work

To build psychological safety in your organization, it is important to, as Professor Edmondson says, “frame the work” so that people know what is at stake and why candor is so important. In other words, it is critical that you, as a leader, set the example that feedback is critical to the business and welcomed—no matter how uncomfortable it may feel to give. For example, OpenTable’s CEO Christa Quarles shares, “No amount of ugly truth scares me. It’s just information to make a decision.”

“It is very important in today’s world to deeply internalize the reality that the relationship between process and result is imperfect,” says Professor Edmondson. “We tend to sloppily think that, ‘If I do my job well, I’ll get the result that’s desired. If I don’t do my job well, I won’t get the result.’ That’s true a lot of the time, but it is also the case that I can do the job extraordinarily well and still get a bad result because of our V.U.C.A. world. So we have to learn to be a little more skeptical and frame the work where we’re on our toes and learning from each other.”

2. Invite engagement

Even if you frame the work well, as a leader, you still can’t wait for people to speak up. To build psychological safety, you need to proactively ask good questions to let people know how deeply you want to hear from them.

“Good questions are the kind that focus on some issue that matters, that invite careful thought by the way they’re worded, and give people room to respond,” says Professor Edmondson.

To broaden the discussion, try asking questions like:

  • What do others think?
  • What other options could we consider?

To deepen the discussion, try asking questions like:

  • What leads you to think so?
  • Can you give us an example?

A famous example of this type of proactive response comes from Alfred P. Sloan, CEO of General Motors in the mid-20th century. Regarding an acquisition of another company, he said, “I take it we are all in complete agreement on this decision. Then I propose we postpone further discussion of this matter until our next meeting to give ourselves time to develop disagreement and perhaps gain some understanding of what the decision is all about.”

3. Respond productively

In an uncertain world, the unexpected is essentially guaranteed. So how do you respond when you first hear bad news? To build psychological safety, you need to learn how to respond productively rather than with anger or frustration—no matter what the news may be about.

As a leader, if you want feedback, you need to make feedback a positive experience—otherwise who would want to give you bad news? An example of responding productively would be, “Thank you for that information. How can we help?” It must be appreciative and forward looking.

When Alan Mulally, former CEO of Ford Motor Company, famously turned the company around, he continually asked his new team for bad news since he needed to know what he was actually dealing with. However, all he got was good news. Finally, he said, “Listen team—we’re on track to lose $17 billion dollars this year. What isn’t going well?” Someone then proceeded to tell him about a very tumultuous product rollout. Mulally productively responded, “Thank you for that clear line of sight. How can we help?”

Scaling with psychological safety

Although Professor Edmondson’s three tips may sound simple, they’re not necessarily easy to implement right away. Truly creating psychological safety in an organization is a long term effort leaders need to commit to—but it is one thing that will set apart the teams that can scale and grow in an ever-changing world.

Want to learn more about the importance of psychological safety and how to build it in your organization? Watch Asana’s Scale 2021 event on demand.

Would you recommend this article? Yes / No