Complexity Guys
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Complexity Guys

Psychological safety: condition and obstacle for learning

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In my practice as a consultant, I frequently encounter people who claim that a lack of psychological safety hinders people’s ability to learn quickly and effectively at work.

In fact, a colleague pointed me to the TEDx talk by Amy Edmondson (I will discuss below) and suggested, between the lines, that I am not providing enough psychological safety for others in our organisation to learn effectively. Perhaps that is the case. In the same time, however, psychological safety can be used as a “politically correct” way to refuse to engage in deeper learning — and that is what I felt is behind the suggestion of my colleague. Therefore I think it is worth our time to unpack what do we understand psychological safety is and how it functions in our learning. We need psychological safety in order to learn and yet learning for an uncertain future requires us to move beyond our established ways of thinking; which can be inherently unsettling and feel psychologically unsafe.

Why is psychological safety such a hot topic?

The complex organisational landscapes in which we are working require us to listen to other people’s voices, challenge each other and speak up when we see things differently. However, experience has taught many of us that speaking up (especially in hierarchical organisations) often proves both difficult and risky. We require a basic level of safety and trust in order to be able to take the risk to speak up. In this sense, one might argue that psychological safety is a fundamental condition for improvement, innovation, and error prevention. When we are psychologically safe we learn more effectively and the organisation benefits by improving its processes and operations.

One part of the story…

This is essentially the argument put forward by the North American leadership scholar, Amy Edmondson. Edmondson, presently Novartis Professor of Leadership at Harvard Business School, is a popular teacher and writer whose books (such as the best seller, Teaming) and popular lectures have been widely influential. In the TEDx talk above she argues that psychological safety is the missing ingredient in creating environments where people can speak up, challenge each other, and speak about mistakes that have happened or are about to happen. She defines psychological safety as “a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes”. Edmondson provides numerous examples from her research of people failing to speak up. For instance, she talks about a nurse failing to call out a doctor (who had previously questioned her abilities) on a suspiciously high dosage of a medication, or an air-force pilot failing to challenge a superior officer on a possibly crucial misjudgement. These stories are sadly resonant with most of our experiences of educational and professional life and Edmondson suggests that they are rooted in our attempt to maintain a good social and professional status — asking questions runs the risk of appearing ignorant and challenging the status quo may come across as negative.

Erving Goffman (1922–1982)

Edmondson explains this in terms of “impression management”, a term which is to a large degree associated with the influential North American sociologist, Erving Goffman. Where I believe Edmondson errs, however, along with others such as the MIT based management scholar Edgar Schein, is in seeing this as a largely individual psychological phenomenon (i.e. patterns of individual behaviour over which we can exercise rational control). Indeed, from Goffman’s point of view (as explored in his influential book The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life), “performance management” is a largely unconscious social process that that is a necessary and unavoidable part of the dynamics of group interactions. It would be neither possible nor desirable to strip away the performance and reveal some sort of real or true self. The social processes we participate in are not an attempt to cover over some sort of underlying authentic reality, they are reality. We cannot control this process, but we can influence it through an ongoing and uncertain process of negotiation; perhaps negotiating different norms for our behaviour might mean that instead of idealising harmony we could make a “good impression” on others by speaking up, being critical, or passionately disagreeing.

Edmondson suggests that psychologically safe environments improve the likelihood of people contributing their dissenting voice. She suggests that this would necessarily be a good thing. The only possible counter-argument she brings is that people feeling safe might not feel accountable or motivated to perform. But immediately claims that motivation and accountability are fully independent of psychological safety. She illustrates this idea using the following simple, yet strangely familiar, 2x2 matrix.

From Amy Edmondson’s (2012) Teaming: How Organizations Learn, Innovate, and Compete in the Knowledge Economy.

If we are to believe this model to be fundamentally true then we would have a clear goal to achieve: an organisation where both of these axes high. If psychological safety is defined only in terms of freedom from external danger of rejection or ridicule, then the solution she is suggesting might work. However, I would argue that this model offers a limited notion of psychological safety, one that does not consider the anxiety and lack of safety inherent in learning.

Another way of looking at things

Harvard psychologists Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey’s recent book, An Everyone Culture: Becoming a Deliberately Developmental Organization (2016), opens with the following striking statement:

“In an ordinary organisation, most people are doing a second job no one is paying them for. … most people are spending time and energy covering up their weaknesses, managing other people’s impressions of them, showing themselves to their best advantage, playing politics, hiding their inadequacies, hiding their uncertainties, hiding their limitations. Hiding. We regard this as the single biggest loss of resources that organisations suffer every day.”

Whereas Edmondson appears to idealise speaking up, suggesting it should be enabled by creating a psychologically safe environment, Kegan and Lahey paint a much more complex picture. They argue that people who have reached higher levels of development will be more likely to make a useful critical contribution by speaking up, because they will be more effectively able to take more perspectives into account. Unfortunately, taking more perspectives into account does not necessarily make speaking up easier. In fact, the opposite may be true as there is some evidence correlating growth in cognitive complexity with growth in humility — in a sense the more you grow the more you realise there is to learn.

Kegan & Lahey, therefore, suggest that rather than focusing on an environment which is psychologically safe organisations might be better off focusing on preparing conditions which help people to grow. This is what they refer to in their book as a Deliberately Developmental Organisation (DDO). Working at a DDO is not for everybody, because they are not necessarily easy places to work. Even though there may be no intentional humiliation or unfair punishment in these organisations, this will not prevent a certain degree of discomfort inherent in growing together. It is possible to be nurtured by people around you and at the same time feel psychological disruption, confusion, and anxiety. The influential leadership scholar Ronald Heifetz in his book Leadership on the Line (Linsky, M., & Heifetz, R. A. (2002). Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive through the Dangers of Leading. Harvard Business Review Press.)even speaks about “raising the heat”, by which he means that leaders need to create the appropriate level of pressure in order for people to really learn. Heifetz argues for making people little uncomfortable to make them engage in what needs to change in their lives.

In our work with leadership teams, we are acutely aware of fears people bring to the room: they are often concerned about their status, authority and need to feel safe to reveal more about themselves and their views. In the same time, we would be failing as consultants and facilitators if we were only looking for this kind of psychological safety. It is exactly in the moments of puzzlement and confusion when we can gain access to what was previously not visible to us. Feeling uncomfortable is both an obstacle to speaking up and a reason to do so. Feeling at odds with our past self-image, feeling confronted by others about our way of thinking and behaviour — those things are providing growth and are milestones in our journey towards maturity. As consultants and facilitators, we are treasuring these moments as moments of progress and we fear those moments as well because we understand we are not in charge of the situation, we are part of the process with our own insecurities and doubts.

Conclusion

Significant learning and growth is likely something that is not going to feel psychologically safe. In this respect, Edmondson’s model seems to be misleading. Firstly, it assumes that we can — through the exercise of rational planning and choice — create a safe space for others. Despite our best intentions to treat others with the care they may still feel ashamed or humiliated by what we say when we touch on a deeper personal issue. Secondly, the subjective feeling of safety is not a very good goal to be aiming at when we are concerned about learning. The process of development is unavoidably unsettling, it involves a fundamental restructuring of our understanding of the world. It can be painful — it carries a deep sense of disruption and confusion, and certainly does not feel psychologically safe.

The paradoxical question then is: how can we contribute to an environment where people feel psychologically safe to become psychologically uncomfortable?

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Two experienced consultants and coaches critically reflect on their experience and take on some big ideas in the field of management and organisational development. They make some surprising discoveries along the way…

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Tomas Hancil

Tomas Hancil

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