Illustration by Fanny Luor

The Mind at Work, Part I

The Mind at Work: Amy Edmondson on how trust trumps burnout at work

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Published on October 28, 2019

Illustration by Fanny Luor

A conversation with organizational scientist Amy Edmondson on how shared purpose transforms crushing workloads into meaningful work.

Concerns about a burnout epidemic—triggered by rising stress at work—is on the rise. But what if burnout has a deeper cause. What if it’s not so much stress as a lack of trust? Maybe it’s not the exploding “what” of digital work streams, but rather the evasive “why” of the work itself.

As our work becomes more abstract, more complex, more about processing information than producing concrete goods, it’s easy to lose sight of the point beyond the paycheck. But if you’ve ever banded together with a group of people you hardly know in a life-threatening emergency or all hands on deck crisis, you know the elation mixed with exhaustion that comes from shared purpose.

Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson has studied these kinds of work situations in hospitals, mining disasters, and nuclear meltdowns. In her book Teaming: How Organizations Learn, Innovate, and Compete in the Knowledge Economy, she elevates spontaneous human cooperation to a verb. “Teaming,” she writes, “is a dynamic activity, not a bounded, static entity. It is largely determined by the mindset and practices of teamwork, not by the design and structures of effective teams. Teaming is teamwork on the fly.”

Teaming, when it works, builds trust instantaneously out of necessity. This is in stark contrast to more traditional forms of trust that are based on long-lived institutional bonds of enduring social structures, or that accrue over years of personal interactions. The kind of trust that arises in teaming also operates in stable, intentionally designed teams, but is at first harder to see. Edmondson identified this elusive quality as psychological safety, an insight she’s been mining for 20 years, that also underlies her most recent book, The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation and Growth

“Psychological safety refers to a climate in which people are comfortable being (and expressing) themselves,” she wrote in an early paper on the subject. Crucially, this quality “is centrally tied to learning behavior.” One of the reasons why some people find crisis situations exhilarating is because you and your buddies in the bunker often feel an increased permission to be themselves. (Crisis junkies, you know who you are!)

“We ought to be thinking about teams in a more dynamic way because that's the reality that a lot of people are working in.”—Amy Edmondson

But Edmondson’s point, both with teaming and psychological safety, is that personal and organizational learning are increasingly important in the knowledge economy, and “we ought to be thinking about teams in a more dynamic way because that's the reality that a lot of people are working in.” And this trend only continues to build momentum.

Connecting these two concepts is the fact that both are emergent phenomenon. As described by Steven Johnson in his influential book Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software, emergent systems arise bottom up from simple interactions into complex systems. The queen is not the boss of the ant colony—none of the ants are. “They respond to signals that are proximal collectively and do these remarkable feats without any one of them having any grasp of it at all,” Edmondson says, referencing the book. This is also how she sees the world of work.

The problem is, we’re still acting like we can manage all of this uncertainty and complexity from the top down—and it’s stressing us out. “The way we think about management, the kind of tacit biases or taken for granted theories inside our head are maladapted to the world that we find ourselves in. They come from Henry Ford or Frederick Taylor, the father of scientific management,” Edmondson says. “That's completely fine for the kind of work for which targets can be set and we know exactly how much time or effort or resources it should take. But, if you're in a laboratory and you want to discover something, how can you have a target? These cultures of management are inappropriate overlays of that old thinking to a new world.”

One of the big themes of The Fearless Organization is what Edmondson calls “intelligent failure.” This is a form of the scientific method applicable to any line of work where you prioritize activities that will be worthwhile if successful, and deeply informative if they’re not. A good scientific experiment is one where the outcome has the potential to challenge your theory.   

“What we really need to be thinking about is how collective cognition can come into play—how teams and teaming can help, given what we’re up against.”—Amy Edmondson

In the increasingly digitized and globalized world, intelligent failure “is harder than ever but we have to do it anyway,” says Edmondson. “We ought to be thinking about what strategies, what scaffolding do we need to help us do it well.” She actually thinks this difficulty is beneficial, because it’s forcing us to confront our individualistic notions of productivity. “What we really need to be thinking about is how collective cognition can come into play—how teams and teaming can help, given what we’re up against. We tend to think it’s too hard and I have to do it alone. And that’s just not really viable anymore.”

The challenge is both the cognitive complexity of the workplace and the interdependence of the work. “The fact that knowledge is deeper and narrower than ever and yet the work we do, the problems we solve, are most of the time interdisciplinary in nature,” she says. “They require all of us to work together.” What this looks like in theory is something like holocracy, the form of self-management popularized by Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh. In practice, few companies have been able to abandon hierarchical structures, but Edmondson see promise in systems based on roles and agreements, “as opposed to a boss who has the answers and the subordinate who is supposed to do the work.”

For Edmondson, this more dynamic model for management comes not from the world of business, but from her early training in architecture and engineering. She was Chief Engineer for Buckminster Fuller, one of the most innovative minds of the 20th century, and her first book was a non-technical introduction to his thinking. Key to his architecture is the structural concept of tensegrity which balances opposing stresses to achieve strength and stability. This notion of balancing push and pull dynamics is very important to how Edmondson now sees successful social organization.

“Healthy teaming is when we don’t get stuck just pushing,” she says. “Pushing is the spontaneous human condition. I have my ideas. I have my needs. I have my goals, and I’m forever trying to push them. That doesn’t work in teaming.” Instead of more advocacy, Edmondson sees the need for more spontaneous inquiry. “Genuine inquiry is pull,” she says. “I say, ‘what are you seeing? What are you thinking about? How can we look at this differently?’ That’s pull.”

Many companies have used communication technologies that promote transparency to try to flatten organizational hierarchy. “The paradox is, I don’t think it has,” says Edmondson. Hierarchy has persisted because we’re wired to impress and gain approval from those we perceive as having higher status. In other words, we haven’t solved the human problem of hierarchy. “We still have very real programming that says my future depends on your approval,” she continues. “Our cognition doesn’t keep up with the technological developments.” Fortunately, she adds, “those with status can manage that power in ways that invite other voices into the conversation, by being curious and proactive.”   

An important component of both teaming and psychological safety is being selective about what you feel you need to know.

In an age of information overload, transparency itself can be counterproductive. “I had been inherently treating transparency as just an absolute good in the sense of information is good, more information is therefore better,” Edmondson admits. An important component of both teaming and psychological safety is being selective about what you feel you need to know. If psychological safety and teaming are two nodes of Edmondson’s network, the third “is something like discipline or focus or a blend of those two. It's transparency for what.”

“Part of the challenge of teaming is figuring out whom you need to team with and what they bring. And then how do you get up to speed quickly on just what you need and no more?” What she’s really talking about is discernment, and she thinks we’re not teaching it very well, either at work or in school. “We're raising all these people with social media to think they need to be aware of everything, be projecting everything, be posting about everything—and somehow imagining that everyone could broadcast to everybody and everyone else is supposed to notice.”

At first, the ease of electronic networks benefitted those at the top of the hierarchy because of the asymmetry of one-to-many communications. “Let’s say I’m Larry Culp at GE and I’ve got 150,000 people,” explains Edmondson. “I can easily send a message out to all of them about what I care about right now and that’s probably useful. But what if 150,000 of them write back?” Over time, that’s exactly what’s happened, as the expectations engendered by digital technology have turned unsustainably symmetrical.

What we need, perhaps, is a better understanding of information theory, a discipline started by Claude Shannon at Bell Labs in the 1940s. Shannon asked, what is the minimum amount of information needed to disambiguate a message? And as a mathematician and electrical engineer he phrased his questions in precise quantitative terms. He would probably be shocked to see how wasteful we’ve become with those bits of information!

But how does this relate to the problem of burnout? Strangely enough, it can be framed in terms of the effectiveness of information transmission. In Edmondson’s research, she looks for situations where different groups are engaged in the same activity, but with very different outcomes. Her particular focus is healthcare delivery which is high stakes, fast moving, and interdependent. “And indeed,” she says, “we are seeing a cognitive crisis. It’s often expressed as an emotional crisis, a crisis of burnout.” But what she’s observed is that “there’s less burnout when there’s more of a sense of we’re in this together.”

Somehow, in comparable situations where burnout is less prevalent, there’s also an emergent information flow that creates a better culture and a better sense of communality. “It’s the same work,” she says, “but there’s caring and support and humor—and all of that stuff will result in less of a cognitive and emotional experience of burnout.”

A lot of what’s going on in today’s workplace is not burnout in the medical and clinical sense, despite the clear reality of stress. Edmondson points to the research of Alia Crum, at Stanford, that challenges the idea that stress is all bad. Crum has found that the same objective levels of stress can enhance work performance and health outcomes for one person but be debilitating on both dimensions for another. By studying the mindset of people under conditions of stress she’s identified an interesting twist on the growth mindset popularized by her Stanford colleague, Carol Dweck. Just as we learn more if we believe our intelligence is a trainable muscle rather than an innate gift, Crum found that people who adopt a “stress-is-enhancing” mindset do in fact handle stress better than people with a “stress-is-debilitating” one.  

“With burnout, we’re making a mistake in presenting this as some sort of virus.”—Amy Edmondson

“With burnout,” Edmondson says, “we’re making a mistake in presenting this as some sort of virus. We're making it into something that can happen to you versus something that happens when you don't view work and the demands on you in the right way, or with the right lens.” But again, she doesn’t believe we’re in this alone. The camaraderie of embracing a stressful situation together is one of the factors that gets first responders through life-threatening peril. She’s found again and again in her research that groups of people that “had that jointness and that problem solving-ness in their orientation did better.” She concludes, “shared anxiety is better than lonely anxiety.” 

So how do we reinvent organizations to take advantage of what we know about collective cognition to help people thrive even under extreme stress and uncertainty? The lesson of emergent behavior is to always look at a lower level than where the coordinated action shows itself. Instead of imitating the brain’s executive functions directly in our management style, Edmondson’s work suggests, we should be engaging in the learning process out of which it evolves. This means giving teams the space for intelligent failure. It also means creating an environment of trust and safety where people from different teams and different backgrounds can come together spontaneously and build new capabilities.

In a sense, the 21st century boss allows the executive functions to be distributed throughout the organization as needed. But leadership also means calling people’s attention to what’s most important. Edmondson uses the example of Naihiro Masuda, the superintendent at one of the two Fukishima nuclear plants damaged in the earthquake and tsunami of 2011, who motivated his team to work 48-hours straight to safely shut down all four reactors. “Masuda chose to issue information instead of orders,” Edmondson writes in The Fearless Organization. He used a simple whiteboard to transparently communicate what was known and what they needed to find out. In the strokes of a dry erase marker he conveyed only what was essential, and most importantly, that they were all in it together.