Psychological Safety With Amy Edmondson

Conformity is a silent killer. Companies that punish new ideas stifle their employees and stunt their own growth.

That’s why fostering psychological safety is so important. In this episode of Punk Rock HR, I talk with Professor Amy Edmondson from Harvard Business School and author of “The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth.” Amy literally wrote the book on psychological safety, which she says manifests in the sense that we won’t feel humiliated or punished for speaking up on work-related issues. 

If you’re interested in psychological safety, improving employee participation and using humor to destigmatize failure, then don’t miss this episode of Punk Rock HR.

Put Psychological Safety to Work

Sometimes our instincts work against us. When we’re overpowered by fear, our instincts tell us to agree with our boss even if we have suggestions for improvement. Or to play it safe in our careers rather take a risk — even if the payoff could be life-changing. 

And in a knowledge economy, instinctual fear really works against us. When our work requires judgment or creativity, fear of failure can short circuit our ability to perform. Well-defined work on the other hand, doesn’t generally invite fear, although there are exceptions: “Even in the most extreme of routine work conditions, we still want your brain in the game — just in a different way,” Amy says. Asking employees for feedback on processes helps them feel more confident and do better work.

Don’t Hold Your People Back

When peak psychological safety is reached, employees are expected to bring their ideas, questions, concerns and even failures to the table. “Psychological safety is the description of an environment where people really do feel like their voice is welcome,” Amy says. If they aren’t comfortable bringing all of these aspects of themselves to work, you’re leaving some of their value on the table.

Leaders who create a local climate of psychological safety — even if that means flouting corporate rules — foster teams that learn more and perform better. Top-down processes aren’t going to win the day anymore, Amy says, because in today’s work climate they no longer have all the answers. Inviting candor from team members on the ground supports better business outcomes.

Remove the Shame of Failure

We see two types of humor at play in the workplace. One shames us for failing, while the other destigmatizes failure. If an employee has an idea but feels like they’d be mocked or teased for failing at it, they’ll never take a risk. But a sense of humor based on shared experiences fosters psychological safety. “We are all fallible human beings,” Amy says. “We’re gonna mess up, we’re gonna get things wrong — but we’re in it together.”

Leaders need to respond productively to new ideas, even if they don’t work. Emphasize that you don’t have all the answers. Making fun of someone or punishing them for taking a chance isn’t productive. When someone fails because they tried something new, celebrate the effort and learn from what went wrong. 

People In This Episode