Harvard professor, author, and business consultant Amy Edmondson says there is a reason employees don’t speak up when they discover a problem, or have an idea for how processes could be improved. Their workplaces lack psychological safety – a culture free from fear of humiliation or retribution. As more businesses and organizations look to improve their culture and strengthen accountability, they are turning to Edmondson for advice.
“We intuitively recognize that it’s important people feel able to speak up,” Edmondson says. “But I think the MeToo movement and the growing recognition of the importance of diversity and inclusion have made us realize we’re really far from where we need to be.” Add to this the general anxiety around the political moment we inhabit, and it’s a recipe for defensiveness, suspicion, and general uneasiness in the workplace – all of which hampers innovation and growth.
“So many boundaries around public behavior have been destroyed,” says Edmondson, author of several books including, most recently, The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth.
Fear around speaking up at work can particularly affect older women in the workplace who may already suffer from feeling invisible. “It’s a lived experience for many of us,” says Edmondson, who is 60. “Older men are respected, and older women are not noticed. What does psychological safety mean if no one wants to listen?” she asks.
While she primarily focuses on the role of leadership in creating a culture where ideas and feedback are welcomed, she does provide some small steps employees can take as well in her book. Chief among them is asking colleagues good questions – contributing directly to a culture of asking and listening in a safe way. “Giving someone a small platform – a moment of interest and respect – is an incredibly valuable gift,” Edmondson says.
When working with companies and organizations, Edmondson compares herself to an architect. She guides leadership on steps they can take to create psychological safety, which include framing work as a learning problem – making it clear that employee input is needed; acknowledging their own fallibility; and modeling curiosity by asking a lot of questions.
An ideal workplace functions like a laboratory, Edmondson says. “I like to help design journeys where people work together on a key priority. As if they are working in a lab.” In other words, recognizing that work is a process of shared discovery, and valuing diversity of thought and experience as necessary to reach more innovative conclusions. Research has shown that diversity in both background and experience contributes to greater profits and market growth. But, Edmondson says, in many companies, “we act as if only the white males at the head of the company have something to say.”
So who’s doing it well? She points to successful clothing brand Eileen Fisher, whose CEO’s advice on how to be successful in business boils down to: “be a don’t knower.” Fisher maintains an openness in her leadership style, inviting information and advice that has allowed her to grow her company into a multimillion-dollar brand.
“As a boss, you will suffocate voice and input if you act like a know-it-all,” says Edmondson.