August 24, 2023

TPL Insights #185 – How Psychological Safety in the Workplace Drives Learning, Innovation, and Growth Part 1

By Rob Andrews

By Rob Andrews with italicized content from the book The Fearless Organization by Dr. Amy C. Edmondson

On my sixteenth birthday, I went to work for Safeway Stores Inc. It was a brand-new division with only three open stores. Eight years later, our eighty-five Houston and Austin area stores had a commanding market share and ran like a finely tuned Swiss watch. We were one of the most successful divisions in the company’s sixty-three-year history. One year later, we had lost forty of eighty-five store managers and four of eight district managers, and the division was losing market share almost as fast as it had been gained. What happened? There was a change in senior management and the loss of psychological safety in our workplace. Don Gates, our Retail Operations Manager before his promotion to Division President, trained us to speak our minds. He often said, “If we always agree, one of us isn’t necessary.” It was a case study in workplace psychological safety.

Amy C. Edmondson is the Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at Harvard Business School, whose research focuses on psychological safety and teams within and between organizations. Edmonson says, “I am particularly interested in how leaders enable the learning and collaboration that are vital to performance in a dynamic environment.” Her book provides important insight and practical advice for organizations who are serious about peak performance in the modern economy.

Organizations falter when people are afraid to speak up. Bosses who rule with fear and build cultures devoid of healthy debate stifle discretionary effort, collaboration, innovation, and overall performance. Neuroscience research clearly demonstrates that fear consumes phycological resources, diverting them from regions of the brain that enable working memory, information processing, analytical thinking, creative insight, and problem solving. Psychologically safe environments are those in which colleagues trust and respect one another, are not afraid to make mistakes, ask for help, admit when they are stuck, and are comfortable challenging the status quo. In short, psychological safety is essential to unleashing talent and driving value.

Psychological safety is not a “nice to have”, it is literally the price of admission in today’s workplace. Employee input provides vital data on what’s really going on in the marketplace and in the company. Psychological safety is a vital leadership responsibility. It can make or break an employee’s ability to contribute, to grow and learn, and to collaborate. Here are the highlights of twenty years of rigorous studies:

Psychological Safety

People often hold back even when they believe that what they have to say could be important for the organization, for the customer or for themselves. The two most frequently mentioned reasons for remaining silent were fear of being labeled negatively and fear of damaging work relationships. Workers are not only failing to speak up with potentially threatening or embarrassing content, but they are also withholding ideas for improvement.

Psychological safety can exist at work and, when it does, people do in fact speak up, offer ideas, report errors, and exhibit a great deal more “learning behavior.” This means that voice is mission critical. And so, psychological safety is intimately tied to freeing people up to pursue excellence. A multi-year study of teams at Google, code-named Project Aristotle, found that psychological safety was the critical factor explaining why some teams outperformed others.

 The Fearless Workplace

A growing number of organizations are making the fearless workplace an aspiration. Leaders of these organizations recognize that psychological safety is mission critical when knowledge is a crucial source of value. When people speak up, ask questions, debate vigorously, and commit themselves to continuous learning and improvement, good things happen. Workplaces where employees know that their input is valued create new possibilities for authentic engagement and stellar performance.

Making Candor Real

If you were over the age of three in 1995, chances are you were aware –– or would soon become aware of a movie called Toy Story, the first computer animated feature film released by a company named Pixar. That year, Toy Story would become the highest grossing film and Pixar the largest initial public offering. The rest, as they say, is history. Pixar Animation Studios has since produced 19 feature films, all of which have been commercial and critical triumphs. This is a remarkable statement in an industry where hits are prized but rare, and a series of hits without fail from a single company is all but unheard of. How do they do it? Through leadership that creates the conditions where both creativity and criticism can flourish. Pixar co-founder Ed Catmull credits the studio’s success, in part, to candor.

Catmull encourages candor by looking for ways to institutionalize it in the organization –– most notably in what Pixar calls its “Braintrust.” A small group that meets every few months or so to assess a movie in process, provide candid feedback to the director and help solve creative problems, the Braintrust was launched in 1999, when Pixar was rushing to save Toy Story 2, which had gone off the rails. The Braintrust’s recipe is simple: A group of directors and storytellers watches an early run of the movie together, eats lunch together and then provides feedback to the director about what they think worked and what did not. But the recipe’s key ingredient is candor. And candor, though simple, is never easy. As Catmull candidly admits, “… early on, all of our movies suck.” In other words, it would have been easy to make Toy Story a movie about the secret life of toys that was sappy and boring. But the creative process, innately iterative, relies on feedback that is truly honest.

Pixar’s Braintrust has rules. First, feedback must be constructive –– and about the project, not the person. The filmmaker cannot be defensive or take criticism personally and must be ready to hear the truth. Second, the comments are suggestions, not prescriptions. There are no mandates, top-down or otherwise; the director is ultimately the one responsible for the movie and can take or leave solutions offered. Third, candid feedback is not a “gotcha” but must come from a place of empathy. Braintrusts; groups of people with a shared agenda who offer candid feedback to their peers –– are subject to individual personalities and chemistries. In other words, they can easily go off the rails if the process isn’t well led. To be effective, managers must monitor dynamics continually over time. It helps enormously if people respect each other’s expertise and trust each other’s opinions.

As I read the first part of Edmondson’s book, I couldn’t help but chuckle as I reflected on my earliest days with Safeway. It was like the Wild West back then. We were opening new stores like popcorn, and few of us had any relevant experience. It was messy, and we made a ton of mistakes. Yet, Don Gates gave us purpose, treated us like adults, painted a crystal-clear picture of what he expected of us, and continually reminded us that, while he was in charge, he didn’t have all the answers. He asked questions of everyone: managers, food clerks, meat cutters, produce clerks, bakers, and customers. He always sought candid feedback and adjusted based on the feedback he received. I once heard him tell a new dairy clerk how he used feedback from employees and customers the same way a commercial airline captain uses an autopilot system to stay on the beam and on course. Those first eight years were some of the most rewarding of my very long career, and it was largely due to the psychological safety we enjoyed. Stay tuned for Part 2 next week.

Warmest Regards,

Rob