A critical key to learning from experience is the ability to openly and honestly discuss the risks, errors, mistakes, variations, surprises and even failures that inevitably occur in any complex or difficult activity. Such honesty requires courage in any organizational setting, especially if people are afraid they'll be fired for either screwing up or speaking up. The question is, what can you do to facilitate, stimulate, protect and reward such courage so that knowledge workers can trust that their honesty will not be used against them?
Harvard professor Amy Edmonson developed the concept of "psychological safety," to explain how individuals perceive the consequences of interpersonal risks in the workplace. Psychological safety governs specific, short-term, micro-behavioral decisions based on self-preservation. As such, it complements related concepts such as trust (giving others the benefit of the doubt over time), group cohesion (maintaining a comfortable social ambience), or emotional intelligence (productively managing one's own or others' emotions). Edmonson boils these down to three elements: the timeframe (immediate), the object of focus (self), and the level of analysis (peers and supervisors).
It might be said that there are two approaches to trust: confidence and coercion. Workers perform better when they trust their managers. But it makes even more of a difference when workers know they are trusted by their managers. (See "Trust Pays Off in Productivity".) Unfortunately, fear, distrust and politics seem to be "gravitational constants" in any organization that cannot be eliminated or ignored, cut can only be managed, mitigated and hopefully minimized.
Psychological safety may be a goal for organizational culture, but primarily operates at the team level, as do many other social dynamics critical to organizational effectiveness. "In times of significant organizational or environmental change the potential for anxiety is increased because people must take action without knowing whether things will work out as expected," she says.
Without an atmosphere of psychological safety, workers incur four types of risk when engaging in learning or sharing behaviors:
- Being perceived as ignorant when asking questions or seeking information
- Being seen as incompetent when admitting or calling attention to mistakes
- Being seen as negative when reflecting on, criticizing or reporting current and past performance
- Being seen as disruptive by imposing on others' time or generosity to seek their knowledge, feedback or assistance
Edmonson describes team learning as "an iterative process of action and reflection." She believes that "In psychologically safe environments, people believe that if they make a mistake others will not penalize or think less of them for it. They also believe that others will not resent or penalize them for asking for help, information or feedback. This belief fosters the confidence to take [risks] and thereby to gain from the associated benefits of learning."
For example, Edmonson studied nurses' reluctance to report medication errors and surgical teams' ability to learn new procedures to investigate their willingness to "to engage in behavior for which the outcomes are both uncertain and potentially harmful to their image." She found the anxiety created by these risks was enough not only to discourage experimenting or proposing improvements and innovations, but actually enough to prevent communication even when silence risks lives or catastrophe.
And when 16 operating room teams learned a tricky new cardiac procedure, the teams with psychological safety allowed non-surgeons to speak up with questions or concerns despite the traditional operating room "pecking order" of surgeons, anesthesiologists, perfusionists and nurses. As a result, the teams exhibiting psychological safety not only learned the new technology faster, but they also performed the procedure with better outcomes for their patients.
For more, see Edmondson, Amy: "Managing the risk of learning: Psychological safety in work teams." In International Handbook of Organizational Teamwork. Jossey-Bass, 2003.