From working as Chief Architect for inventor, designer, and futurist Buckminster Fuller in the early 1980s to becoming a leading authority on teaming, psychological safety, leadership, and organisational learning, Amy Edmondson, Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at the Harvard Business School, has charted an unusual and inspiring path to make a positive difference through her work. In 1999, she published an influential paper on “psychological safety,” and the concept has since grown exponentially in relevance, importance, and interest, especially during the pandemic. Buckminster Fuller's first words in Synergetics, “Dare to be naïve,” reverberate in Amy's bones even today, reminding her that there is an option to see and approach every aspect of life through new eyes and with an experimental curiosity.
Psychological safety is an intriguing concept. Unfortunately, because it is so buzzy, more so since the pandemic, many people misunderstand what psychological safety actually means. They then project their misunderstandings onto others and their organisations, creating counterproductive environments. What are some common misconceptions about what psychological safety means?
That’s a great question because the term ‘psychological safety’ has taken off and become somewhat of a buzzword, creating the risk of misconceptions.
The first misconception is that psychological safety is about “being nice”. Working in a psychologically safe environment does not mean that people are always in agreement with one another or that people always offer unconditional support to what others say for the sake of being nice. It’s about feeling able to be candid, which often feels different than being nice because being nice is easy. I can just say nice things, whether they’re sincere or not. The other misconception that has long been of interest to me is that psychological safety is inconsistent with high standards, accountability, or the need to work hard.
Psychological safety isn’t soft and fuzzy; it’s challenging, and it’s about learning how to have thoughtful, data-driven dialogue, where we make progress and come up with new ideas.
Many leaders, even today, use fear to motivate employees to perform better. But fear can be paralysing, too. Do you think using fear as a motivator is outdated?
Outdated is exactly the right word because fear can only work as a motivator if the tasks are straightforward, prescribed, standardised, and individual.
Here’s an old-fashioned example: decades ago, workers, largely women, were in a typing pool in big companies where when the managers had something they needed to be typed, they brought their notes or they dictated. But the typists were alone at a typewriter, having to type 80 words a minute or whatever the standard was. And if they were afraid of losing their job or not getting a bonus or anything else, you could imagine that fear would motivate them to keep going.
The features that make fear viable is the work being standardised, done by individuals working independently, and objectively assessable. Very little of the work in the modern workplace fit those three criteria. Today’s work is much more likely to require judgement, ingenuity, or problem-solving. It’s much more likely to be interdependent with other people’s work, and the quality of the work is difficult to assess in the moment.
When you don’t have simple, individual, objective work, fear is a constrictor. If you’re afraid, it makes it harder to be creative and a good team member. So, fear fails as a motivator.
Fear, more than anything else, motivates hiding. If I’m afraid of what the boss or management is going to say or do, I’m not going to tell the truth about what’s really going on.
How, then, can leaders move away from creating a fear-based culture?
Leaders need to start by being honest with themselves, and then others, about the nature of the work. The acronym VUCA has gotten a lot of play recently because most people recognise that the world is much more uncertain and fast-paced than it once was. And because of that, you need people to speak up quickly. Leaders need to remind people that they understand this context to be challenging, to create the rationale for their voice — they must, in effect, tell employees why it makes sense that they really do want to hear from them.
I call this ‘framing the work’ in my book. It’s about overriding the ‘taken for granted’ frame, which says people should just buckle down and do a good job and work hard. That frame is inadequate for the VUCA world and must be replaced with a new one, which says that I better speak up. I need to work creatively with my colleagues. I need to give people a truthful sense of where we are and what’s happening. Leaders need to frame the work and then invite voices by being proactive and asking good questions like, ‘I’d love to hear what’s on your mind. What are you seeing?’
Leaders must also have the self-discipline to not punish the messenger. When people come and say, we’re struggling with this or that, you can’t respond with frustration or anger. You have to be interested and appreciative of the idea or the facts they’re bringing and help figure out ways to move forward.
According to you, how can distinguishing different types of failures help organisations to analyse them better?
There are three classic types of failure that I wrote about in Harvard Business Review back in 2011, which I call intelligent, complex, and preventable failure.
Intelligent failure is arguably the only good kind of failure. It’s generally the result of an experiment. It’s an attempt to learn something in new territory. You try something that you think will work, but it doesn’t, and you couldn’t have known that in advance because it’s new territory. So it’s hypothesis-driven, and it’s an important aspect of innovation.
Complex failures are the unexpected result of multiple things going wrong. They’re hard to prevent entirely, but with real awareness and attentiveness, you can see them coming and mitigate the damage.
Preventable failures (the term speaks for itself) are the kind where organisations have access to a best way or process to be followed but fail to use it for some reason. It might be inadequate training or someone is tired or has been given too much to do in a period of time. But those are the kinds of failures that you want to try to avoid. You want to design the work and the processes so that you dramatically reduce the chance of preventable failures.
Is it okay to punish any kind of failure — say, the preventable ones?
The problem with punishing failures is that doing so doesn’t help prevent failures, but it does prevent people from talking about failures. So, you become even more at risk because if failures are happening and you’re not learning about them, then things can go wrong and make it all the way to the customer without correction. That’s the problem with punishing even preventable failures. What you need to do is redesign things to prevent failures better next time. In a VUCA world where it’s hard to know what’s going on, you as a leader never want people to be afraid.
However, there’s one exception to what I just said; that is when people have failures that can be attributable to breaking the rules or engaging in what we might call ‘blameworthy acts,’ such as coming to work impaired with alcohol or engaging in acts of harassment or fraud or anything clearly outside ethical or legal boundaries — those do need to be punished. In fact, you’re more likely to create a psychologically safe environment when you are punishing behaviour that’s out of bounds. If you have an anything-goes workplace where people can come in and be deliberately harassing or break the law or show up for work impaired, then you don’t have a psychologically safe workplace. There have to be clear consequences to behaviours that are outside the realm of acceptable conduct. But you never want to punish a well-meaning action that failed to turn out the way you hoped.
For quite a long time, many organisations believed that building the best teams meant bringing together the best people. However, Google’s Project Aristotle made it widely popular that the team’s composition mattered less than how the members interacted, with the most important team dynamic being psychological safety. Could you share some practical tips that can help teams to build psychological safety in virtual environments?
My advice is to recognise that it is challenging to feel the same kind of human connection in a virtual work-from-anywhere environment. Team leaders and members have to be more explicit in reaching out, asking questions of each other, listening thoughtfully to the answers, and acknowledging and responding to what they hear.
Try to keep online meetings to a manageable length and invite people not to do two things at once, such as doing email while on a meeting. If you are needed in a meeting, be present, listen, react and contribute in meaningful ways.
A lot of companies are trying to do virtual water cooler sessions. I think those are good, but you have to be worried about creating too many. None of us wants another Zoom meeting, so it is tricky. The bottom line is to be more thoughtful and proactive in connecting with people and realising what they might be up against.
• Favourite quote: Dare to be naïve. — Buckminster Fuller
What this quote means to me is to dare to see things in a new way. To dare to speak up about it. The idea is to have the eyes of a child rather than to feel the need to act as if you know everything already.
• Describe the year 2020 in three words: Disruptive, Strange, Family
• Describe the year 2021 in three words: Full of possibility
• Complete these sentences:
➟ Life is . . . a gift.
➟ I strongly believe in . . . human potential.
• What comes to your mind when you hear these words?
• Curiosity: Joy
• Resilience: Essential
• The future of work: Uncertain
Up-Close and Personal
Having worked with Buckminster Fuller in the early 1980s, what did you most admire about him?
I most admired his passion, sense of purpose, warmth, and belief. One could accuse him of being naïve in that he believed that we human beings were put on earth to make a positive difference, use our minds and work together to come up with better ways to support each other, to use design as a positive force for making lives better.
I also profoundly admire that, in his early years, the 1960s, Bucky was already talking energetically about the environment and the need to take care of our habitat if we were going to survive as a species in the long run. He believed in our goodness and our ability to do the right things.
What’s your most significant learning from the pandemic experience?
This is going to sound cliché, but the most significant lesson I’ve learned is that we can have full lives with a lot less distraction. I’m still very busy, but earlier, we were so busy with social events and many work trips that we often didn’t stop to appreciate what we had. So, I think it’s been both a period of gratitude and a sobering period.
Another evident and widespread lesson is how quickly we are able to solve problems when we have to. It’s what Buckminster Fuller would have called 'emergence by emergency'. Within one week, Harvard University was able to have everybody convert to virtual teaching. Before this happened, we would’ve thought it was just completely impossible to do anything like that so quickly. But when you have to do it, you can do it.
What’s your favourite indulgence when you need a break from work?
I love reading fiction and going out for a run during the day.
What’s something you are doing or want to do in 2021 that you’ve never done before?
I am hoping to at least start, if not finish, a new book on failure. Of course, I’ve written books before, but I have not written one on failure. It’s going to mean getting out there and interviewing people on their failure experiences in a more systematic way, and I have not done that yet.
Also, who knows when we’ll be able to travel again, but I would love to go somewhere I’ve never been. However, I can’t say for sure that I’ll be able to do that in 2021.
Has COVID-19 forever changed the way we live and work?
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