The following material is excerpted from The Mistakes That Make Us.
Sharing Mistakes Requires Psychological Safety
Using mistakes to learn and improve requires that we hear about them. But leaders can’t just tell people to speak up. Telling them, “It’s safe,” doesn’t make it true. Each individual decides if they feel a level of psychological safety high enough that the potential rewards of speaking up outweigh the perceived risks.
As Harvard professor Amy Edmondson, PhD, defines in her excellent book The Fearless Organization:
“Psychological safety is a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with:
- concerns or
Leaders can’t generally declare, “We are a psychologically safe organization.” That’s for each person to decide. The real question is, “How safe does each person feel?” Organizations that learn from mistakes share an important cultural attribute. Their culture, the way leaders behave, helps people decide if they feel safe speaking up about mistakes, as discussed in Chapter Five.
The connections are clear. Leaders who openly share their mistakes create an environment where others feel safe and willing to do the same. When an employee admits a mistake, they quickly learn how well their organization tolerates it or, better yet, welcomes it. Does their leader punish or thank them for speaking up? When their candor is rewarded by receiving help instead of abuse, this enables people to admit more mistakes, which leads to more learning and better performance.
When we stop punishing people for mistakes, we start a virtuous cycle of increased learning and psychological safety. We don’t do it to be nice; the goals are fewer mistakes and better business results.
Psychological safety doesn’t just appear. Leaders at KaiNexus very often, and very visibly, behave in ways that create the conditions for employees to decide they can feel safe speaking up. In some settings, admitting a mistake can feel risky, if not dangerous, if people think leaders will punish them. But leaders can create conditions where that risk seems very low or non-existent. When leaders admit mistakes, with a focus on learning, that’s the first step in cultivating psychological safety. The second step is rewarding and not punishing employees who do the same.
Model and Reward the Right Behaviors
A culture of learning from mistakes requires that each person feels a reasonably high level of psychological safety. Timothy R. Clark, Ph.D., succinctly defines psychological safety as:
“a culture of rewarded vulnerability.”[i]
A “vulnerable act” exposes us to the risk of harm or loss, personally or professionally. We’re describing an action, not the person. Basically, any interaction between two or more human beings can be vulnerable, some more than others. A specific act might be vulnerable to some degree for a specific situation. Unlike physical safety, where we might say a particular act is inherently risky for all (such as working up high without a safety harness), the perceived level of risk for acts, such as pointing out a mistake, is situational and individual.
The level of psychological safety that we feel will vary from person to person. You might feel safe in one team, while a colleague feels relatively unsafe in that same setting. Our feeling of safety could vary due to our differing interactions with leaders and members of that team. We each might be influenced differently by memories of bad experiences in previous workplaces, where speaking up and admitting a mistake led to being punished or fired. It’s a matter of culture.
Tim’s longer definition says:
“Psychological safety is a social condition in which you feel:
- Safe to learn
- Safe to contribute
- Safe to challenge the status quo
… all without fear of being embarrassed, marginalized, or punished in some way.”
Those four bullet points are what he calls The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety (and I highly recommend Tim’s book of that title). At the highest levels of psychological safety, we feel safe to challenge the status quo, all leading to a culture of innovation and success.
Psychological Safety Drives Better Performance
If an organization’s primary objective is avoiding all mistakes, people will be unwilling to try anything new, preventing them from learning. They will be too fearful to forward ideas for improvement or innovation. Punishing mistakes drives people underground, making them cautious and harming the organization’s competitiveness.
Amy Edmondson’s research shows:
“The level of psychological safety on a team is the central measure of that team’s culture, health, and vitality.”
Notice that she said “team,” not “company,” as the level of psychological safety will vary across any large and complex organization, given the variation in how the leaders of different teams behave. And some people within a team might feel safer than others.
“Catching, correcting, and reducing errors are team activities, and if your teams don’t have the interpersonal climate they need to do that, then it won’t happen.”
Her research has shown the positive impact of psychological safety in healthcare, noting that teams with higher levels of psychological safety reported higher numbers of errors and patient harm. Wait, isn’t that bad? It might be counterintuitive, but those teams didn’t make more mistakes; they felt safer admitting them. That increases their chances of learning from mistakes in ways that help them learn and make adjustments that prevent repeats. People on these teams also have higher job satisfaction and are more engaged in improvement and innovation.
Edmondson’s work inspired research at Google that “put psychological safety on the map” in modern times, as she recalls.[i] Project Aristotle aimed to understand why certain teams outperformed others. The answer wasn’t the level of education, the diversity in a team, or other factors. The level of psychological safety emerged as the crucial factor. Because there was a high degree of variance across teams, psychological safety could be identified as a key variable across Google.
Psychological safety doesn’t just appear. It’s the outcome of what we do and how we do it (more so than what we say). I’ve seen instances where leaders talking about psychological safety without taking the right actions actually made things worse. Why? If expectations are raised, it reduces people’s tolerance for leaders who continue to marginalize or punish them for speaking up.
Edmondson shares five actions that leaders can take to build psychological safety:
- Frame the work as a learning problem, not an execution problem
- Acknowledge your own fallibility
- Model curiosity, and ask lots of questions
- Solicit input and opinions from the group
- Share information about personal- and work-style preferences, and encourage others to do the same[ii]
Cultivating a culture of learning from mistakes alone doesn’t guarantee high performance, but Clark teaches us that doing so is a steppingstone toward the highest levels of psychological safety, which results in benefits, including:
- more employee engagement
- greater employee retention
- more innovation
- greater success
[i] Lean Blog Interviews, “Episode 356, Amy Edmondson, PhD,” https://leanblog.org/356.
[ii] Edmondson, Amy, PhD, The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2018).
[i] Clark, Timothy R., PhD, The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety (Oakland, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2020).