An Interview with “Teaming” Guru Amy C. Edmondson, author of “The Fearless Organization”

Amy C. Edmondson is the Novartis Professor of Management and Leadership at Harvard Business School, a renowned author, and a globally-recognized authority on how to build effective work teams. Her important new book, “The Fearless Organization,” focuses on optimizing employee performance, and specifically explores the concept of “psychological safety.” The NCMM caught up with Professor Edmondson to discuss her new book, her research on building workplaces that get the best out of people, and how it applies to middle market companies.

What is "psychological safety" in the workplace, and why is it important for middle market companies?
Edmondson: Probably the easiest way to define it is absence of interpersonal fear: the workplace is safe for people to speak up with work-relevant content, ideas, questions, concerns, and even mistakes.

The “fearless organization” is one where people feel that psychological safety. These “safe” organizations are better performing because we live in a world in which knowledge-intensive businesses pretty much characterize all businesses. That includes manufacturing, healthcare, IT, software, etc. When people are afraid, they hold back. When they hold back, middle market companies aren’t getting the value they need and want.

Does the size of the organization matter for creating psychological safety?
Edmondson: A small company, a startup, for example, is more like a team where everybody knows everybody and there’s a certain degree of awareness of who does what. In a small company, fearlessness is either present or absent, but it’s likely to be consistently perceived. Within large companies, there’s really no such thing as psychologically safety writ large. There will always be pockets of fear over here, pockets of absolute fearlessness over there. Large and mid-sized companies are clusters of smaller groups.

Why doesn’t fear drive high-performing employees and organizations?
Edmondson: Fear can drive what looks like high-performance but actually may not be. Leaders and managers who use fear are at risk for not getting the straight scoop from people. Consider, for example, the emissions scandal at Volkswagen a couple of years ago, where the CEO said, “We must have diesel cars that pass the California emission test.” People at VW were very much afraid of failure. That led to what looked like delivering on that very lofty goal, but in fact, created a fraud that cost VW billions of dollars in losses. Whenever the task calls for ingenuity, presents any uncertainty or requires interdependence with other people, fear doesn’t help to produce high performance.

What’s the “right” way for middle market leaders to respond when employees do speak up?
Edmondson: Know that when employees speak up, you’re probably not going to be automatically happy. They might speak up with news you didn’t want to hear, and so you have to discipline yourself to take a breath and respond in a way that I’d call “appreciative.” Even if you don’t like the content of the message, you appreciate the effort, the courage it took to speak up. Then shift focus to the task itself; what do we need to do, who can help, whatever. It’s got to be made into a positive experience for employees because it’s not automatically one. I’m not saying offer happy talk. I’m saying keep focused on the goal, on the work, and be aware that speaking up might not have been easy. Do whatever you can to avoid silencing your people.

Can you describe how one US manufacturing company, Barry-Wehmiller, promoted psychological safety?
Edmondson: Their CEO, Bob Chapman, is a wonderful leader, and he suddenly realized that the company was not taking full advantage of the knowledge and expertise of the employees in their manufacturing facility. They were constantly having engineers or procurers bringing some expensive equipment in that didn’t work very well. They finally had the insight, “Let’s ask our employees. Let’s empower them to tell us what equipment they need.”

Employees began to believe that management really wanted their input, so they started offering what they knew. Employees began to actually feel excited about coming into work. Management got rid of time cards and said, “We’re going to have to trust that our workers are going to trust and care about the company.” The company built a brand-new culture that’s incredibly people-focused. As a result, Barry-Wehmiller is a place that is truly psychologically safe, a place where people know they can bring their whole selves to work, their questions, their concerns, their ideas. Even when there’s a mistake or problem, they’ll talk about it.

How might the psychological safety of frontline employees impact the customer experience?
Edmondson: There’s research showing that when employees feel engaged and trusted, that spills over into the customer experience. Conversely, if an employee is disengaged or afraid, or doesn’t care about the company’s purpose, that spills over into the customer experience too. Customers are extremely perceptive, and can see when someone’s heart is or isn’t involved.

Creating a great customer experience takes judgement and human skill. Those are the kinds of skills that we want our frontline employees to have. What does this customer need from me now? Does this customer need a big smile and a cheerful approach, or maybe my concern or willingness to hear him out? If managers don’t treat employees as human beings, employees won’t treat customers as human beings.

What else would you like to tell middle market leaders about creating the fearless organization?
Edmondson: I’m not saying your people shouldn’t be afraid of the competition or afraid of missing deadlines. I just don’t want them to be afraid of each other or afraid of you. It’s about recognizing the kind of environment that will allow the human capital you have to really shine and do a superb job for you and your customers.

What do you need to do to make that happen? It starts with conveying a compelling reason why it matters that this company exists. Followed closely by a compelling reason why the employee matters, why their input matters, why we couldn’t do this without you. Then there’s the explicit invitation to contribute. You should be asking questions. “What are you seeing out there? You’re on the frontline, you’re talking to our customers.” You should be constantly conveying that you’re curious and you actually trust and respect your people. You know that what they know matters. That’s the secret sauce.

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