Amy Edmondson, a professor at Harvard Business School, first identified the concept of psychological safety in work teams in 1999. Since then, she has observed how companies with a trusting workplace perform better. She states that psychological safety isn’t about being nice; it’s about giving candid feedback, openly admitting mistakes, and learning from each other. In work I do with Executive teams, I always start my leadership interventions with a session on how they can create a learning environment ( psychological contract) as they embark on this learning experience and how they take this back to the workplace.
Using Amy Edmondson’s model, we establish where on the matrix individuals experience psychological safety in the workplace and from there, we develop the implications of this for them, their teams and the broader organisation. They create a learning contract with evident observable behaviours that will underpin how the learning zone will play out in the training room. A typical agreement looks like:
• Be on time and prepared for the workshop
• Be prepared to participate
• Allow space for everyone to contribute, recognising the value of all action modes in a conversation
• We are all equal
• Respect each other’s opinion’s and ideas even if you don’t agree with them
• Personal information discussed during the sessions will remain confidential
• Share learning
• Avoid dominating the conversation
• Phones on silent
• Speak openly with respect and from your perspective
• Open to receiving constructive feedback
• Listen with curiosity and enable your Move, Follow, Bystand and Oppose
• If you notice, we are not abiding by this agreement – call it out.
Many of these behaviours, if also demonstrated in the workplace would also help in creating a climate of psychological safety.
Some conclusions I have drawn from doing this exercise based on my observations and disclosure from participating groups of leaders is that, in principle, that a Learning Zone is:
• highly desirable but that it does not exist consistently across the organisation
• psychological safety is imperative if leaders are to create honest and courageous conversations
• it is the role of the leader to create psychological safety
• leaders require to know more about what it is that drives their behaviours and the consequences of those behaviours
In the training room, the elements of the contract that frequently do not get demonstrated include:
• Listening with curiosity and enabling all four action stances on a conversation (Move, Follow, Oppose and Bystand) D Kantor, Reading the Room
• Not calling out and naming what is going on the room
I am a great believer that what we see happening in the training room is a microcosm of what goes on the organisation. Where psychological safety does not exist, it can look like its “not safe” to openly express what we want to say and feel, that staff are unable to “rock the boat” by providing contrary or conflicting views to problem-solving and decision making and where courteous compliance becomes the norm. To some extent I see this happening in the training room, so my job is to help those leaders find their authentic voice in order to help others find theirs.
Amy Edmondson says that to create a learning zone three things are necessary:
1. Frame the work as a learning problem, that creates the belief that you need everyone’s brain and voice in the game.
2. Acknowledge your fallibility (e.g. say I may miss something, so I need to hear from you), creates more safety for speaking up
3. Model curiosity – ask many questions, and that creates a need for voice.
To be able to do this with some degree of confidence and success, it means that in every conversation a leader has with their teams, peers and Boss, all four actions stances need to be present. Without Move there is no action or proposed direction, without following there is no support for others’ ideas, without stopping there are no checks and balances and without bystanding there is no bridging of competing actions.
By creating a deeper awareness of preferred communicative stances; the words you choose when you speak and the implicit rules you follow when interacting with others, then the idea of a learning zone becomes more of a reality.
If you want to know more about your behavioural propensities and to make sense of them in the context of creating psychological safety, come along to our workshop on Glasgow on 1st May 2019: