Teams are Key to Organizational Progress: Q&A with Amy Edmondson

January 30, 2018 Emily Payne

Amy Edmondson

At Harvard University, Amy Edmondson sought to explore how organizations learn. In doing so, she realized the key to any organization’s ability to learn lies in its teams and in the quality of the collaboration across teams.

Now the Novartis professor of leadership and management at Harvard, Amy went on to study fostering psychological safety in the workplace, teaming, combating groupthink, and encouraging social recognition. Her chair at Harvard was established to support the study of human interactions that lead to the creation of successful enterprises, which contribute to the betterment of society.

Amy has published four books on teaming: “Teaming: How Organizations Learn, Innovate and Compete in the Knowledge Economy”; “Teaming to Innovate”; “Building the Future: Big Teaming for Audacious Innovation”; and “Extreme Teaming: Lessons in Cross-sector leadership.” She has written extensively the challenges and opportunities of teaming across industries and speaks on teaming, psychological safety, and leadership to corporate and academic audiences around the world.

Workhuman had the chance to talk with Amy about how teams are the foundation of workplace culture, how to foster an environment of psychological safety, and the importance of social recognition. Read the interview below, or listen to our podcast above.

Can you tell us about your background and what led you to your research on teams?

I started as an engineer, and was involved with projects where different people had to come together with different expertise. That got me interested in teams, but at the time, I didn’t really register that interest as a possible field of study.

I went on to take a job in a small organizational development consulting firm and started spending a great deal of time in large organizations. I became fascinated by the questions of why organizations don’t easily learn as the world around them changes, and by how hard it can be for communication to be accomplished effectively in large, complex organizations. I realized that I did not have enough formal training to get at the questions that were intriguing me.

With the advice of a couple wonderful professors I was fortunate enough to meet during my consulting work, I applied to a Ph.D. program. I then studied at Harvard University for a Ph.D. in organizational behavior and got hooked. It was a wonderful field for me. I thought the work was really interesting, the methods were interesting, and the people were interesting. So I stayed.

Truthfully, I was interested in how organizations learn – or more often, how is it that organizations don’t learn and what can we do to help them learn? I didn’t set out to study teams. I ended up studying teams because I figured out along the way that teams were the keystone to answering this question. I began to understand that what happens in teams within organizations is profoundly important for an organization’s ability to learn. And that includes the top management team, frontline sales teams, teams in the factory working on the product, the new product development teams, and so on. It’s team learning that holds the key to the organization’s ability to learn.

One of the key concepts in your work is psychological safety. How do you define that term?

I define it as a shared belief that I can bring my full self to work, that I will not be humiliated or made to feel less good about myself if I speak up with ideas, with questions, with concerns, and yes, even with mistakes.

Why is psychological safety so important to building a healthy team? How does it combat groupthink?

Psychological safety is important to building a healthy team, because nearly all of the work we do today is what you might call knowledge work. Even people who are working in the most physical of environments, like in a factory or firefighting context, have deep expertise and knowledge that they’re applying to that physical task. Most of us are essentially manipulating knowledge day in and day out to develop new products, to work with clients, and to make strategic decisions. Knowledge is where value comes from, and sharing it, reconfiguring it, and integrating it is how we add value in the world.

When people lack a sense of psychological safety, they will be reluctant to share, use, and integrate their knowledge – so it’s absolutely mission-critical to building a healthy and effective team.

Groupthink is generally described as the phenomenon of apparent agreement in a team that disguises underlying dissent. Groupthink is said to happen when a group seems to be utterly aligned behind a particular decision or conclusion. And yet, there may be one, or there may be several people who are remaining silent about their dissent because they look around and nobody else seems to be disagreeing. They’re reluctant or afraid, or worried that people won’t like them if they speak up. And so they don’t share it; they remain silent.

In an environment of psychological safety, that’s much less likely to happen because people know that they have a responsibility to offer something that may be important, and they’re confident that no one will hold it against them if they speak up.

What is one thing that leaders should start doing today to improve psychological safety?

The most important thing leaders need to do is frame the work – clarify for people that we live in a volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous world. People are using that term “VUCA,” syntax for those four attributes. When a leader reminds people that the context in which we work is full of uncertainty – that is, it is complex and profoundly interdependent – they’re creating a logical case for the fact that voice is needed.  No one knows all the answers, and everyone could have a crucial piece of the puzzle.

I think most people hold a taken-for-granted mental model that the work we do is reasonably predictable – that is, we can reasonably set fixed targets in advance and we can achieve those targets. The belief, then, with this mental model, is that good work comes simply from making sure people are motivated enough to work hard.  In contrast, however, if you stop to recognize the level of uncertainty out there, then it’s far more important to make sure people have good strategies for learning and experimenting, so that they can learn in real time and communicate and coordinate with each other on the job.

It’s a really crucial job of leaders to keep clarifying this new reality. It sounds like an oxymoron, but leaders must continue to clarify the actual uncertainty, complexity, and interdependence we face, because it sets the stage for employees in almost any role saying, “Oh yeah, I guess I’d better be paying attention and better be offering even tentative ideas or small concerns that I have – just to make sure we are on the right track.”

How would you say social recognition can help foster more collaboration and innovation across teams?

Social recognition is crucial. I think of creating psychological safety as involving three parts: the first I already described, which is setting the stage by framing the work; second is proactively inviting participation in the conversation, and third is social recognition. When people offer their thoughts, their questions, their concerns, they need to be recognized in a positive way – I don’t have to agree with you, I don’t have to think everything you say is an absolute jewel, but I do have to appreciate the fact that you took the time and effort to offer it.

What value does peer-based feedback have in building a learning culture?

Peer-based feedback is invaluable to building a learning culture in a very simple way. If I don’t get feedback, I can’t learn, and my peers are often the people who are best positioned to give me feedback. My peers are in a closely related area of work and may be better able to see the cause-and-effect nature of things I do.  They can see the impact I am having better than I can.  That’s an incredible gift that peers are willing to give each other. It’s not easy to give feedback. It’s not without time and cost, but it is crucial to learning.

How should companies start taking this into account in their performance management and reward strategies?

The first thing that companies need to be aware of is that there is a folly in telling people, ‘We want you to team up, we want you to work well together,’ and then rewarding them only as individuals. It’s asking people to live with an inherent contradiction and that’s obviously not easy. Any time rewards unduly favor individual achievement at the expense of collaborative achievement, you will get behaviors around competition and withholding that you don’t need and don’t want.

How to do that is just make sure that, first, a substantial portion of the reward system is based on collective performance: how did our unit do? How did our project do? How did our company do? And second, make sure that there aren’t direct contradictions built into the reward system: like we want you to work together but then we’re going to force rank you.

What are some of the best practices for designing change programs in large companies?

My view of how to design change programs is to focus on the nature of the work we need to do – and how that is or must be changing in the environment in which we operate.  Oftentimes, for example, change programs are initiated with the express purpose of changing the culture. But to focus on the culture is rarely going to get everybody’s attention and say, ‘OK, let’s wake up in the morning and run to work to fix the culture today.’ Focus instead on how we do the work: How we get the work done? How do we need to get the work done in a way that better delights our customers? Is to focus on what new behaviors do we need? What new strategies? What new processes? In the process of engaging in new behaviors and new processes, we change the culture, because we change and we create new mindsets, new behaviors, new beliefs. In this way, the new culture starts to take shape.

In any change program, being very clear about the gap is in current performance or where new opportunity lies is crucial. Then it’s a matter of ­inviting people to help make progress on these gaps or opportunities. This requires inviting suggestions and ideas and hypotheses about what we should do. This is how to drive change.

As you know, inequality and harassment in the workplace are at the top of the mind for HR in 2018. How do we even begin to tackle this issue?

I’m glad you brought it up, because I do think that the topic of inequality and harassment or, conversely, inclusion and belonging are very intimately tied to building a climate of psychological safety.

So many of the stories we’re reading about in the media today are extraordinary descriptions of unsafe workplaces – workplaces where particular forms of abuse, along with reluctance to speak up or ask for help, went on for years.  That’s the very definition of an unsafe workplace, both physically and psychologically. Managers and leaders need to realize that the only way to create excellence in a knowledge-intensive world, in a knowledge-intensive economy, is to create workplaces where people can bring their full self to work, and they don’t have some portion of their brain and heart tied up in keeping themselves safe from harm, safe from bullies.

It’s crucial to train and educate people, and there has to be a quick and immediate response. I think people need the chance to learn. Some people are just unaware of their behaviors. We have to begin to tackle it by creating a work environment in our organization where everyone feels excited about coming to work and is able to bring their full self to work. That’s the aspiration.

We should also be realistic about the fact that this will be a journey. We aren’t going to have a magic wand that makes psychological safety happen tomorrow, but we are going to commit to this aspiration. This isn’t just because we want to be a good place for people to work. We want to be that, of course, but it’s also because the competitive marketplace we’re in is going to require that we have that kind of workplace – both to get the best talent and to create the products and services that delight customers in a complex, dynamic knowledge-intensive world.

Teams are Key to Organizational Progress: Q&A with @AmyCEdmondson
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