Not too late to sign up for our Reading for Leading Soiree next week. Here’s the link. I chose Amy Edmondson’s book, The Fearless Organization, because of several experiences I had last year working with principals and other relatively junior educational leaders who believed that they had been given the message by senior leaders in their organizations that their feedback was not welcome. Actually, I would put it more strongly than that. They had received the message that initiatives led by senior leaders were, ipso facto, beyond reproach, and that even asking questions was going to be interpreted as resistance, which would be punished in some way, not officially, but socially and publicly.
I do not know, of course, whether the senior leaders in this case were in fact attempting to communicate that they were so cemented to their beliefs in the rightness of their own actions; to their infallibility; and to their hierarchical, traditional, and immutable concept of loyalty. I assume not. I assume that they were intending to unify their colleagues around important work, and that they might be surprised to learn of their unintended impact. In fact, some leaders talk a lot about flat organizations and collaboration, and don’t know that their subordinates are complaining about them behind their backs.
I had so much empathy for the position of the subordinates in this scenario, there were a couple of parts of the book that caught me short. To wit: “Psychological safety is not immunity from consequences, nor is it a state of high self-regard. In psychologically safe workplaces, people know they might fail, they might receive performance feedback that says they’re not meeting expectations, and they might lose their jobs due to changes in the industry environment or even to a lack of competence in their role… But in a psychologically safe workplace, people are not hindered by interpersonal fear. They feel willing and able to take the inherent interpersonal risks of candor. They fear holding back their full participation more than they fear sharing a potentially sensitive, threatening, or wrong idea. The fearless organization is one in which interpersonal fear is minimized so that team and organizational performance can be maximized in a knowledge intensive world.” I was thinking so much about the supervisors’ obligation to create safety that I neglected to think about the subordinates’ obligation to speak up.
This made me think differently about a couple of articles I read recently. This HBR article about Boeing by Amy Edmondson is definitely worth reading. And this NYT article about a hospital’s pediatric surgery record and the decisions of its leaders is sad in places and appalling in others. And there is this NYT article on ethics—knowing the right thing to do is not the same thing as doing the right thing.
There are many podcasts featuring Professor Edmondson on psychological safety: here is one of them. Finally, in case you haven’t seen them already, here are a couple of videos of Amy Edmondson talking about psychological safety. These have been some of the most popular links that I’ve posted, so I assume that they’ve been shared quite a bit.
Building a Psychologically Safe Workplace
I very much hope you can join us on Tuesday evening. Bridget has great taste in food and drink, so it should be lovely as well as intellectually stimulating. I look forward to seeing you. And in the meantime, please let me know if there is anything else I can do for you. Best, Isobel