Posted on
June 16, 2023

‘Psychological Safety’ and embracing discomfort

“A growing reliance on teams in changing and uncertain organizational environments creates a managerial imperative to understand the factors that enable team learning” - Amy Edmundson, Psychological Safety and Learning Behavior in Work Teams

Psychological safety is a term that has grown significantly in popularity over the last five years even though Amy Edmundson first coined the term at Harvard in 1999.

The spike in interest in 2015 likely followed Edmundson’s popular TED talk and Google’s recognition of psychological safety (through Project Aristotle) as the single most important factor for high-performing teams.

“We learned that there are five key dynamics that set successful teams apart from other teams at Google… Psychological safety was far and away the most important.” - Julia Rozovsky, people analytics manager at Google

In short, Edmundson describes psychological safety as “a felt permission for candor.”

Edmundson stumbled upon the concept while studying team performance in hospitals. She initially posed the question, “Do better hospital teams make fewer mistakes?”

She was surprised to find the opposite was true. ‘Better’ teams were making more mistakes. This insight became the foundation for ‘psychological safety’.

“Maybe the better teams aren’t making more mistakes, maybe they’re just more willing to discuss them…” - Amy Edmundson

Coming into this research, I was surprised to find that psychological safety (or what seems to be its original intent) is a bit different than I thought.

Edmundson’s original paper, as well as the continued research, proposes an environment that fosters the surfacing of hard truths, interrogating information, trust, accountability without blame, and decisiveness - all of which are uncomfortable.

It seems many interpretations, like this recent article from McKinsey, paints a much different picture - articles like these are riddled with words like ‘comfort’ and ‘positivity’.

These words aren’t even mentioned in Edmundson’s work.

Psychological safety enables teams to learn from mistakes and handle effective discord by facing conflict in a healthy, productive way. This ‘illusion of positivity’ alternative breeds groupthink and a swift regression to a dangerous state of complacency.

"No discord, no concord" - Chinese Proverb

Without candor and conflict (the core tenets of psychological safety), a false sense of comfort can often lead to a situation described as the Abilene Paradox - when groups choose to conform rather than speak up; leading to a decision that doesn’t reflect the preferences of anyone.

A cartoon that shows seven people are sitting in a meeting with one person presenting an idea to them. One person, who looks like the boss says, “No, too polarizing. Let’s go with the idea that make everyone feel equally indifferent.”

In a previous post on collective illusions, we found that our own preferences are heavily influenced by how we perceive the beliefs of others. (and those perceived beliefs are often inaccurate)

This tendency fuels the Abilene Paradox. In an effort to avoid conflict (potentially due to the fear of social repercussion), we tend to project preferences that are neither ours nor the true preferences of others. A true lose/lose situation.

"Organization members fail to accurately communicate their desires and/or beliefs to one another. In fact, they do just the opposite and thereby lead one another into misperceiving the collective reality." - Jerry B. Harvey, The Abilene Paradox: The Management of Agreement

We’re all thinking to ourselves, “Well this doesn’t relate to me, I speak my mind. I don’t care what others think”, but we tend to underestimate the impact external factors have on us.

This is referred to as the ‘introspection illusion’ - a cognitive bias that suggests we often wrongly attribute the origins of our preferences, motivations, and desires or general likes and dislikes.

For example, research on the ‘Spiral of Silence’ (why we tend to operate differently if we believe we share a minority vs majority opinion) suggests that our response to a situation is often subliminal and heavily influenced by social norms or our perception of a situation.

All of these factors flourish in environments that do not foster psychological safety - and they do so largely undetected.

Getting Started with Psychological Safety

There are plenty of blog posts that stray from the original intent of psychological safety, but abiding by the research it seems clear what psychological safety is not:

  • Comfortable: It’s a framework for dealing with uncomfortable information or perspectives.
  • Easy: Contradicting information is difficult to deal with - it’s in our nature to confirm our beliefs, not challenge them.
  • Rays of sunshine: At the heart of psychological safety is candor and dissent, not agreement and unfounded positivity.
  • Inauthentic: It’s about breaking down façades that mask the real problems.

We’ll go back to Amy Edmundson’s original three bullet points for fostering psychological safety:

  • Frame work as a learning problem, not an execution problem: “Have we learned something?” or “Did something surprise us?” vs “Is it done?”. In our post on divergent thinking, we talked about techniques like ‘how might we…?’ questions.
  • As a leader or a contributor, recognize your own fallibility: In their book, Playing to Win, Lafley and Martin suggest using language that transitions from ‘advocating’ your point of view, towards more open communication that welcomes feedback and challenge.
  • Model curiosity and ask a lot of questions: This continues to surface as something that can be done systematically as well (like a document that represents uncertainty through ‘open questions’). In Atif Rafiq’s book ‘Decision Sprint’ he suggests ‘Question and Answer’ lists as an artifact for recognizing and managing uncertainty.
"If you have uncertainty and interdependence, it’s absolutely vital to have psychological safety" - Amy Edmundson