At the 13th annual Philadelphia Society of People and Strategy Leadership Forum Event, Dr. Amy Edmondson spoke to a group of over 500 HR professionals about psychological safety. Dr. Edmondson is the Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at the Harvard Business School and is the author of The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth.
Dr. Edmondson’s talk was stirring and challenged all participants to think about how they can create the conditions for psychological safety on their own teams. We asked several AIIR leaders which ideas from the forum gave them the most to think about. Here’s what they said.
Dr. Edmondson’s 2014 TEDx talk, Building a Psychologically Safe Workplace.
One of the best parts of the event was being able to interact with table members through tailored exercises provided by Dr. Edmondson. The most impactful exercise was recalling a time at work when I chose not to speak up and why. Reflecting on why I did not speak up and the consequences of silence very much drove home the importance of psychological safety and the consequences of silence in the workplace.
One of my many key takeaways is that withholding criticism is actually a selfish or self-serving behavior, even if we justify it as being deferential to authority or protecting the self-esteem of colleagues. At best, we withhold our criticisms to make ourselves seem amicable or agreeable, and at worst, we withhold criticisms out of fear of retribution. It’s becoming obvious that good leaders don’t control others by fear, but what seems less intuitive to me is how leaders can move beyond lack-of-fear and create an atmosphere where even agreeableness gets left behind in the spirit of making the group better at what they do.
Left: Dr. Edmondson answering questions at the post-event lunch. Right: the Philadelphia skyline as seen from the Loews Hotel on the date of the event.
What I gleaned from Amy’s talk was that psychological safety need not only be said, it must be felt. It emanates from the leader of the group through action, speech, dynamics, and culture. While it will vary from time to time, depending on the current work and/or project, it is a necessary component for people to truly excel, feel connected, and to want to go the extra mile for themselves, their team, and the company.
A lot of times when people have chosen to speak up, it was at their last job. Many times employees do speak up, and they are rebuffed, which makes it less likely they will speak up in the future, even when they move to a new team or organization. This very much helped give me perspective. It was very easy for me to think back to a time and how I felt in those situations. We’ve all had times both inside and outside of work where mistakes weren’t discussed to allow for growth and ideas were rebuffed. Sometimes, in our work, we can see that leaders and team members carry this reserve with them. Fortunately, with the right encouragement and support, teams can foster a new environment of trust in spite of past struggles.
In the second half of the forum, Dr. Edmondson brought up a fantastic point that an oft-used piece of traditional wisdom might just be wrong. That is, the old adage: “Don’t come to me with problems, come to me with solutions.” I will confess that this thinking has been taught to me from many leaders over many years. But, as Dr. Edmondson points out, it isn’t realistic to expect people to bring their best if they aren’t even allowed a few moments to explore the problem. Indeed, solving problems is a team sport. Just as you would see in any creative brainstorm, the leader needs to create the conditions that allow the best ideas to flow. Otherwise, you’re stuck with desperate first attempts to solve a problem just so that a person doesn’t feel like a naysayer.
Left: Dr. Edmondson presenting to the crowd of over 500 Philadelphia-based HR professionals. Right: Members of the AIIR team at the event (left to right: Robyn Garrett, Terence Jones, Dr. Jonathan Kirschner, and Megan Danowski).
From the very beginning, the PSPS event was buzzing with energy. Coaches, L&D professionals, and HR leaders all came together to learn more about the vital concept of psychological safety. The amount of people embracing each other like old friends showed how tight knit the PSPS community is. People were not only friendly and welcoming, they were experts in their field and deep conversation was never in short supply. PSPS put on a world class event with a world class speaker and gave us all much to think about.
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