Illustration by Olenka Malarecka

Distributed work

Amy Edmondson on the power of psychological safety in distributed work

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Published on March 27, 2020

Illustration by Olenka Malarecka

At a time when our models of the world change by the hour, the learning capacity of teams is the difference between adaptation and paralysis.

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COVID-19 is a threat to everyone’s sense of psychological safety. We really don't know what to expect and how to behave. The average person is dealing with a sense of disorientation closer to wartime than workday. But some teams will fare better than others in this forced experiment in distributed work. Tipping the balance is a factor known to help fast-changing teams of all kinds—psychological safety.

I asked Amy Edmondson of Harvard Business School, who did the original research on psychological safety in teams, what role she thought psychological safety would play in the context of the current crisis. "The phenomenon that I investigated,” she says, “was the experience of whether or not a particular work context was one in which people felt they could speak up, ask for help, offer an idea. It is far more common for people’s contributions at work to be thwarted by interpersonal fear than to feel able to be direct and candid. In contrast, when people are able to be themselves, they can do their best work and make contributions to the team in a timely way.”

This is not, in other words, the kind of general psychological safety that most of us usually enjoy when we’re not worrying about touching doorknobs or other people. It’s tempting to think of this new, profound source of anxiety as a loss of psychological safety. But Edmondson, characteristically sanguine, says, “What I think people may fail to take into consideration here is that fear that is shared is lessened.” As bad as things are now, at least we’re all truly in this together. “So the fear we may feel about the virus—which we feel free to talk about with each other—is not the same phenomenon as feeling a lack of psychological safety in our teams at work.”

That feeling of all being in it together is characteristic of teams with high learning rates and, not coincidentally, high psychological safety. 

“We now have to work a little harder to share what we’re thinking, to ask questions.” —Amy Edmondson

“Distributed work is making us realize we have to be more deliberately—more proactively—open. We have to be explicit in sharing our ideas, questions, and concerns, because we can't just overhear what's happening in the next cubicle,” she says. “We now have to work a little harder to share what we're thinking, to ask questions. And then I wonder whether we might be able to import this new sense of deliberateness back into our workplaces when we do go back to them.”

This pandemic is certainly a stressful way to learn new behaviors, but Edmondson hopes that through these trials we may “gain some appreciation for what being direct and explicit and mindful looks like in our work relationships.”

Edmondson has identified in her writings three types of actions leaders can take to build their team’s sense of psychological safety. Her characterization of leaders is very broad, so these recommendations are generally applicable whether you’re the CEO or a self-possessed intern, eager to make a difference at work. “I think of them as interpersonal behaviors,” she says. “They're verbal skills that one can develop fluency in to help create conditions in which others show up and feel able to contribute to the shared work.” And they’re behaviors that are not, for the most part, reliant upon your physical presence.

No. 1: Setting the stage

“One aspect of setting the stage is reminding people of the importance of the work they do, the purpose they serve. The other aspect, and this may be even more important, is emphasizing uncertainty and challenge,” says Edmondson. “If a leader doesn’t explicitly point out uncertainty, the default mindset is that people feel they’re supposed to know exactly what to do. The default is Henry Ford. The default is that managers specify deliverables, and you’re supposed to go make it happen! And if you fall short, you feel it will be seen as your shortcoming.”

Setting the stage defines the problem space. “Take a scientific laboratory,” she says. “The hope is to cure cancer, or, to be more topical, come up with a vaccine. But there will be a thousand false starts. And that's not because you're not trying hard enough. It's simply the nature of the beast.“ If your team has an audacious goal or is facing a lot of uncertainty, everyone knows, intellectually, that failures will happen and things won’t always go according to plan. But emotionally, most people have a mindset that limits their willingness to take risks and tolerate failures along the way to success. When leaders set the stage by reminding people of the uncertainty that lies ahead, they help people feel more free to speak up with crazy ideas and failures alike. Normalizing uncertainty makes it easier for everyone to talk about it.

Company culture is powerfully defined by structural frameworks initiated by founding leaders. But companies grow based on the ways their employees embody these systems. “Perceptions of psychological safety,” wrote Edmondson in 1999, “like other such beliefs, should converge in a team, both because team members are subject to the same set of structural influences and because these perceptions develop out of salient shared experiences.”

As with all of these techniques Edmondson suggests, a little candor goes a long way. We can set the stage in any interaction by bringing in a broader perspective and reminding everyone what’s at stake. Acknowledging one’s own doubt is especially powerful because it creates the space for others to do likewise and to offer solutions. As a leader you have the ability to say what the team is feeling and create a positive feedback loop of mutual identification.

No. 2: Inviting engagement

“Inviting participation is the literal act of asking a question,” says Edmondson. “By asking, ‘What do you think? What views do you have on this? What are we missing? I see you look pensive; what’s on your mind?’ a leader or colleague makes it mighty awkward for you to remain silent.”

Once you define a psychologically safe space for your team, you can take it to the next level and make room for the individual. This is effective in one-on-one meetings, but even more so within the team, where it becomes part of everyone’s simultaneous mutual understanding: This is how we do things here. My voice matters. We’re learning together.

In a distributed work situation it’s even more important to invite this engagement intentionally and often. In a video conference climate, some people may hold back from crosstalk without the subtle interpersonal cues we get in person. Making it clear that your question is directed to a specific person may take a little extra effort in the flattened space of a “Brady Bunch” team meeting.

Edmondson’s original paper was titled, “Psychological Safety and Learning Behavior in Work Teams.” The linkage with learning is important but often overlooked in discussions of psychological safety. “Examples of learning behavior include seeking feedback, sharing information, asking for help, talking about errors, and experimenting,” she wrote. “It is through these activities that teams can detect changes in the environment, learn about customers' requirements, improve members' collective understanding of a situation, or discover unexpected consequences of their previous actions.” Her recent book, The Fearless Organization, translates the now-extensive academic research into compelling real-world stories and practical tips.

Learning sounds good, but it’s stressful. Most of us initially resist absorbing new information that changes our model of the world. But the power of learning behaviors in teams shows that learning things together can be much easier than learning on your own. As the instigator of learning, the person who invites engagement must also help coach the response.

No. 3: Responding productively

“When leaders put someone on the spot by asking a direct question, they are then under obligation to respond in a productive way,” Edmondson explains. “If I am a leader who has invited and received input, I don't have to agree with you. But I do have to be respectful and appreciative of the fact that you're willing to say something. Even just a thoughtful nod works as an appreciative response. The important thing is to be forward looking.”

The simplest productive response is to offer help. “I love the phrase, ‘how can I help?’ It's so rare, and so powerful, and so profound,” says Edmondson. “Our default mental model is that as your manager, I'm supposed to evaluate you. But in fact my primary job, my day-in, day-out job, is to enable you by creating the conditions in which you can best contribute to the joint enterprise.”

Joint action is the result of layer upon layer of such productive interactions. You can think of a team as a system of relationships between people and a set of interactions between them. The cumulative valence of those interactions is what determines the team’s psychological safety. This is why every member of a team can use their influence to build psychological safety, even if the CEO’s actions have far more leverage.

Not everyone's a manager, but everyone has someone they can positively influence. “Whether from a position of formal power or not,” says Edmondson, “the things that managers can do to help their teams feel more able to contribute, are essentially the same kinds of things that any individual can do to help their colleagues—and even their boss—feel respected and welcomed. Anyone, for instance, can ask a direct question.”

Be conscious of your own inner speech

You can apply this candor to yourself as well. “What can I do to help myself feel more psychologically safe?” asks Edmondson. “That's not a question I've spent much time studying, but I think we could all do a better job investigating our own inner speech. We can realize that we exaggerate the stakes of interpersonal interaction, and we tacitly presume them to be as important as the longer term, collective stakes of the work we do—the patients we serve or the software we develop.”

When we challenge the counterproductive or self-limiting voices in our heads, we also become more aware of how we use language to present our ideas to other people. On the one hand, the social distance imposed by the pandemic may make us more susceptible to negative inner speech triggered by uneasy social dynamics with our co-workers. On the other hand, it also gives us more space to be thoughtful about our communications than when we’re face-to-face. “If I'm sitting here at my keyboard, and I'm not sure about something, I have a built-in opportunity to sculpt it in a certain way before I press send,” she says. “In face-to-face, the moment just passed and I didn't trust myself to sculpt it just right, so I withhold saying anything.”

“Distributed working also does give us room for magnified slights or fears,” Edmondson warns. “I might say something on Slack that I think is sort of funny and sarcastic, in a warm way, but it might read instead as somewhat cruel. So we might have to be more sincere and straightforward than we would be in person when you can tell by my tone that I'm being warm and inclusive.” When our work communication becomes wholly mediated by screens and text, we have to allow for a higher likelihood of misinterpretation. “We have to go out of our way to remind ourselves of that possibility and just be especially generous in our sense-making of what others write and do, while we develop new routines and habits in this new space.”

At a time when our models of the world change by the hour, the learning capacity of teams is the difference between adaptation and paralysis. “This is an opportunity for many teams in many organizations to find a way to behave differently,” suggests Edmondson, “because this new reality is requiring us to act differently.”