Hello, and a warm welcome to this special extended season of The Hive Podcast, featuring the interviews from my new book, Business Unusual: Values, Uncertainty and the Psychology of Brand Resilience.
Join me, as I dive into the conversations behind the quotes, and hear from the world’s leading experts, psychologists and business leaders, whose insights and ideas are transforming how we work, rest and play.
I’ll be releasing a new episode here, each week, but if you’d like to download everything at once and access additional resources and recommended reading, I’ve made all of this available to readers over at businessunusualthebook.com.
And if you’re tempted to discover more about your motivations and the principles that drive you, you can even check out thevaluesmap.com, a platform I’ve designed in collaboration with Dr Kiki Leutner of Goldsmiths University, to help you identify, develop and communicate the psychological values you or your business represents.
ABOUT MY GUEST
In today’s conversation, I speak with Amy C. Edmondson – the Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at Harvard Business School, whose most recent book, The Fearless Organization, examines the powerful role of psychological safety in teamwork and innovation.
Based upon almost 30 years of research, Amy’s work explores what it takes for groups of people to perform at a high level, and the dynamic forms of collaboration that are needed in environments characterised by uncertainty and ambiguity.
Before her academic career, Amy was Director of Research at Pecos River Learning Centers, where she worked with founder and CEO Larry Wilson to design change programs in large companies. In the early 1980s, she worked as Chief Engineer for architect/inventor Buckminster Fuller, and innovation in the built environment remains an area of enduring interest and passion.
Recorded on 6th February 2021.
Produced by Caro C. Written & recorded by Nathalie Nahai © 2021.
Nathalie: Amy, thank you so much for your time and speaking with me today for this special episode of the podcast.
Amy: My pleasure.
Nathalie: So I’d like to start with a very, very open question, which I invite all of my guests to engage in. And that is from your perspective, what you think is happening in the global human psyche right now, if we use that frame.
Amy: Wow. That is a big question. I think we are on the verge of an awakening to new possibilities. And it’s easy to feel right now that what’s happening in the global human psyche is a period of great concern and anxiety, I guess, about the future and so many aspects of the future. The environment, our health, our economies, on and on it goes.
Nathalie: And I think there hasn’t really been a better time to talk about the area of research, which you have dedicated much of your professional life to exploring. So this concept of psychological safety, because without this, it’s very hard to innovate oneself out of a lot of the crises that we now face. So I’d like to start by maybe starting with a definition that you’ve given your fantastic book, The Fearless Organization. And you describe the phenomenon as a belief that we won’t be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, and mistakes. And I’d like to start really by asking you if, since the publication of your book, you’ve seen more of an appetite and willingness in organizations to assess and foster psychological safety within their cultures?
Amy: Yes, I have. In fact, I’ve been astonished by that appetite. As the book has gotten out and I think many online articles that others and I have written, people are taking notice. And that may be a combination of the ordinary recognition of the volatile, uncertain, complex world in which we live and the new intensified recognition of uncertainty and the need for new ideas and innovation and new responses in the face of even greater uncertainty because of the pandemic. And so I’ve been amazed by how much appetite there is to take stock, to look at one’s organization’s culture and say, “Is this a place where people can speak up? Can bring their full selves, their ingenuity, can they collaborate with each other without fear of reprisal?” And the big push in the US but I think around the world increasingly this past year on diversity and inclusion and belonging has also led to more interest.
Nathalie: Actually, let’s pick that thread then because the inclusion and belonging that you speak about in your book, you talk about them as characteristics of a psychologically safe workplace. What are some of the goals that we might put into place to create such an organization? Or maybe if that’s too daunting a question, the teams that we’re working within.
Amy: It takes deliberate effort, I think, to create a climate of candor, right? That’s probably the simplest straightest way to say it. Because the natural instinct for human beings is to hold back, is to wait and see, it’s to read the tea leaves and figure out what will make me look good in the eyes of my peers or managers, and what might not be welcome around here. So we’re so good at doing that, that we do it without thinking, we do it spontaneously. And so if you want to change that pattern, you have to override natural instincts. And if you want to override natural instincts, I think it has to be done with effort and deliberate intent. And to me, it starts with just being explicit and clear about why.
If I don’t appreciate why my voice might be welcomed by others, then the easiest thing to do, the safest thing to do is to hold back. But if I’m getting message after message after message that says, “We need you, we’re dependent on you. You might see something that I miss. Your ideas have been great in the past. Your perspective on what customers want is unique.” If I’m hearing those kinds of messages all the time, it helps me take it seriously.
Nathalie: So it’s almost like an unlearning of our natural instinct and an intention of laying down of new patterns.
Amy: Right. And then the response. Let’s say in a sense, that’s setting the groundwork, but if then people say, “Okay. Well, that sounds good.” They speak up and they get beaten down. You’re going to inhibit that future response pretty quickly. So how we respond to each other, of course, matters.
Nathalie: And actually, one of the ways in which we’re having to look at that problem is, of course, through the lens of technology and of remote working. Because most of us now and for least, I would imagine, probably the rest of this year, we’re going to have to work together remotely. And you point out in the book that much of what we value even before the pandemic in our modern economies are actually the result of interdependent actions and decision-making, which rely on effective teamwork and dynamic collaboration. Which is something you’ve written a lot about, this idea of teaming. And so given that so many of us have to find a way to collaborate and work remotely. What would you suggest are some of the ways in which we can boost organizational resilience, given that a lot of the stuff that we’re doing is when we’re not in physical presence with each other, and we’re having to read maybe in an impoverished set of cues to be able to get that same psychological safety.
Amy: Yeah. It’s a really well put question. The impoverished set of cues captures it quite powerfully. So that means there’s a deficit. There’s a deficit of cues that we have to overcome. And much as I think this is too simple an answer, I think it may matter is that we have to then work even harder at inviting, at clarifying, at connecting. I’ve been very struck during this period about how the loss of those little bits of time when you arrive at a meeting and you’re in the room and people are coming at ever so slightly different times and you’re sort of connecting and saying, “How was your weekend?” And there’s a very real human connection that then lasts through the meeting and into the future. And without those kinds of spontaneous human interactions, you have to compensate for them in some way.
The virtual meetings tend to start right on time and we’re all there suddenly, and then we’re all gone suddenly. And it’s rather unnatural. So just building in a little bit of care and concern to give people opportunities to talk about what they’re seeing, what they’re thinking, what they’re worrying about, what’s on their plate. And not to take excessive time with this, but just to be clear to connect, to hear people’s voices so that they feel included, they feel… And I don’t mean this in a top-down way, but just even as peers, we’ve got to invite people in thoughtfully.
Nathalie: And I wonder if part of that is feeling like you’re actually arriving in contact with the other person. One of the things that I’ve seen as a theme that’s come up when speaking with therapist talking about this is the lack of physical moving through space in order to get to somewhere. There’s no-
Nathalie: Yeah. When we’re sitting at our desks and we have this sense of functional equivalence between a meeting with a therapist in a room versus on a screen, actually, they’re very different.
Amy: Very different. Yeah.
Nathalie: Different experiences. You don’t have the ritual of moving through a threshold, like you mentioned, in these moments of spontaneity.
Amy: Right. This isn’t my expertise, but I think the lack of different physical spaces impacts our ability to retain what we’re hearing and what we’re doing, because I think that’s very tied up in, “Oh yeah. I remember we had that idea and we were sitting at that table over lunch.” Or, “Remember that,” right? And it comes back to you because of the whole thing. You remember what the other person was wearing or what you were eating or something like that. And with this new blursday world that we live in, and sitting in the same chair at the same laptop in the same home, with every meeting from that same spot, it’s harder, I think, to retain the nuances of the experiences that we’re having.
Nathalie: Yeah. That’s a really interesting point, actually. And I think the absorption of the full… I think it’s about sensory context in that sense. So if you’re with someone at lunch, it’s a very different sensory context than your living room or your office or what have you. Do you think that there are certain specific things, for instance, if I’m thinking about things like email, I’ve noticed that now I take a little bit longer to try and use sensation based words in there. Instead of saying, “Thanks,” I’ll say, “Warmly,” just because I want to extend a sense of felt presence even though it’s just a verbal signifier and not actually the thing itself. Are there certain, maybe even little tactics that we can employ to help people feel more safe and connected, even just through email or video conferencing?
Amy: The technology, we’ve already established, it’s not as rich, it doesn’t feel like the same kind of connection, and it has some compensatory features. You can do things with the emoticons, you can do things with polls, you can do things with the yes/no buttons. I think it’s worth trying, even though they’re somewhat artificial or clunky, they are a participation-forcer. If I’m being asked to respond to a poll as silly or simple as that is, I have to do something, right? I have to stay engaged. And my opinion is being asked for, in a way. And so I think of these features that some of the technologies have as scaffolding to help us connect and engage in a different way, because we’re not connecting and engaging in the usual way.
Nathalie: I also wonder what you think about the fact that video platforms… If you’re thinking about Microsoft Teams or Zoom and you can see people in gallery view, which is quite an odd thing when you think about it. And some people have raised this idea of the fact that it might actually reduce the hierarchy that we might ordinarily find in the physical boardroom. So there’s not one person at the head of the table, even though, obviously, in video platforms we have to take turns to speak. But given that hierarchy, when it’s handled poorly can elicit fear. And in your book you’ve talked about how it can reduce psychological safety, which then inhibits learning and creativity. What should facilitators or leaders be mindful of when they’re trying to facilitate online collaboration in that form?
Amy: Well, I think it’s a good hypothesis. That we’re all in the gallery view, we all have an equal little square. If you watch in speaker view, where we’ve got the gallery, but then whoever’s speaking pops up big, you could say that’s even more flattening because then whoever is speaking is suddenly large and important, and then others are small and in the background – and it keeps shifting, which is a nice sort of distributed leadership image, if you think about it. But I don’t think we really know enough to say that the hierarchy is flattened. I think it’s a really interesting question and it would be fun to study it, to sort of see whether people feel less intimidated by power differences because of that visual experience or whether in fact the trappings are still there, and who’s calling the meeting. Or whether there’s differences even depending on a set of factors we’d have to think about more.
Nathalie: Yeah. I mean, it just raises so many questions, I think, especially because before it was just something that was nice to have and now of course this form of communication has become vital for so many of us. Another connected theme that I’d love to get your thoughts on is around the ways in which we bridge differences. Especially if we start to see people working remotely, the differences in terms of geographic location are going to lessen. So when it comes to perhaps collaborating across borders, have you got thoughts about how cultural differences, you mentioned before power distance, how things like power distance, or one’s level of individuality or collectivism might potentially come into play when creating psychological safety in a diverse team?
Amy: Yes. I recently am part of a large study… I mean, it’s in a large company, we’ve got a pretty large dataset from employees all over the world. And of course, these data can be misleading because there are confounds, the teams with multiple nationalities represented tend to be higher level teams. Because those are the kinds of teams that you sort of need an engineer from over here and a marketer from over there. And the teams that are more homogenous tend to be kind of frontline teams, operational teams. So with that in mind, the data would suggest that these more nationally diverse teams have higher psychological safety than the functionally homogenous teams. But I think that result is explained by organizational status as well. What’s more interesting is to look at the differences across these multinational teams and see which ones have managed to transcend their differences and which ones haven’t and then ask why.
And I think that’s kind of future work. But if I had to guess, I would say the multi-national teams that do well are the ones that make it discussable, that approach each others… And this has been demonstrated in cross-functional work, but that when we approach each other across the boundary, whether it’s our nation or our function, our expertise with curiosity, and just a genuine sense that the person on the other side of this boundary is a treasure, right? Is a person who brings something I don’t have. So even selfishly, I want to know more about it, right? And when you can put in place that cross-boundary curiosity, I can describe this as an orientation toward collaboration. But really, an orientation toward collaborating to solve problems, right?
It’s not just, “Wouldn’t it be nice to know about Malaysia,” right? It’s, “What’s the kind of compelling goal that we’re trying to accomplish? And what do you bring, right? And by the way, what are you up against? And what are you trying to do? And what does your boss over there need? And what does mine need?” And so making our differences discussable, I believe, starts with just curiosity, a reminder that we should be interested in each other.
Nathalie: I love that. It sounds like such a simple thing, but actually it’s such a powerful quality to cultivate
Amy: It is. And it’s cultivatable. And it’s not naturally occurring necessarily. I mean, it could be, right? It could be naturally occurring for some people. I think it has relationships with the growth mindset and just that perpetual recognition that I have more to learn.
Nathalie: And I think the sense of growth is something that people seem to be, again, speaking a bit more about, and I guess after retreating and locking down and hunkering down, there’s desire to move outwards again. And I think certainly the research I’ve come across, there seems to be more of an appetite and a desire for finding purpose and meaning and connection at work. And I wonder how you think, if you think of the future of business, we can start to create, or can we start to create a sense of purpose and meaning and connection at work? Is that something that you think businesses and leaders are able to offer?
Amy: I think we have to, honestly. In knowledge intensive work, and that’s just about everything. If people do not have a sense of purpose and meaning, they simply will go through the motions. And that may be good enough, but you don’t want good enough, right? You want great. You want people to really use their brains, really use their heart and soul to work with each other to contribute to something that matters. So if you don’t have a compelling value proposition to offer your employees along the lines of, if you work here you get to contribute to something that matters. I think you’re really losing a serious opportunity for better performance and for better engagement and all of the things that come with that.
Nathalie: Another big question for you. If I asked you to envision what in your mind would look like a thriving, resilient organization, if we’re looking to the future, what might you imagine?
Amy: Well, when I try to think of a thriving, resilient organization. To me, it looks like one with psychological safety, right? So that people are able to detect issues and come up with ideas and just not hold back, right? That there isn’t a sense of some portion of your mental energy is tied up in staying safe, because there’s a climate of psychological safety. It looks like teaming. It has a robust capacity to collaborate. People just kind of routinely reach out within and across boundaries to get stuff done. And a strong shared mission, right? A strong belief that what we’re doing matters and that we can contribute to it by working together. And I think finally, that organization has the capacity for frequent reflection, right? In the midst of action. Just the ability to be constantly saying, “How are we doing? And what could we be doing differently?” It’s learning in action.
Nathalie: I mean, you get asked a lot of questions about your work because it’s such a fascinating topic and it touches everybody. I mean, we’ve looked at it through the lens of the business side of things, but obviously psychological safety within other forms of groups is equally important. So among the questions that I imagine you get asked a lot, is there a question that you wish people would ask you that they don’t?
Amy: Oh gosh. It’s a good question. And occasionally, in the past I’ve come up with one. I guess I get asked such a variety of questions really, because as you say, this idea bleeds into so many different areas. I mean, certainly to me, first and foremost it’s the workplace, but it affects workplaces as diverse as front lines of patient care to aviation to product development and on and on it goes. So I get asked a lot of different questions.
Nathalie: Okay. So you get asked enough of a variety that there’s not one burning one that you just think, “Oh.”
Amy: Yeah. I think that’s true. And the one I am waiting for someone to ask is, “Would it be okay if I wrote your next book for you?”
Nathalie: Yes. I think we’re all waiting for that one. You’ve written a fair few. And it is really quite intensive work.
Amy: It is. It’s more work than it looks, isn’t it?
Nathalie: It definitely is. And to make something really coherent and enjoyable and readable, that balance it’s a daunting and complex task. So I realize we’re coming close to time and I have two last little questions I’d like to put to you.
Nathalie: The first of them is… We’ve kind of touched on this from the business side, but I’d like to open this up a little more. What kind of world do you want to build?
Amy: A compassionate one. I mean, that’s too short, I guess. But it breaks my heart that so many people’s work lives are terrible. Not just not fulfilling, but full of fear and anxiety. Whether that’s about losing your job or being themselves or a variety of other things that people are afraid of. And it seems, unfortunately, to be on the rise. And I think the kinds of inequality we see in our society exacerbate it. So perhaps what goes along with compassionate world is a more equitable world, of course.
Nathalie: And then what one thing, what one step or practice might you suggest we engage in to help us move in that direction?
Amy: I think it’s a little practice called stop, challenge, choose. Where stop is just the self-discipline to pause. Our brains are very fast. They see something, they conclude something. When we can interrupt that automatic process and pause to say, “Maybe it’s something different, right? Maybe that person didn’t intend to be rude. Maybe they’ve had a bad day,” right? So it’s challenged that initial automatic interpretation, and then choose an interpretation that’s healthier for you and for others.