A conversation with Amy Edmondson about psychological safety and the future of work

From the Leadermorphosis podcast

This is a transcript of my interview with Amy Edmondson for the Leadermorphosis podcast. Amy is the Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at Harvard Business School and author of the books “Teaming” and “The Fearless Organisation.” We talk about her journey of researching psychological safety and teaming, as well as the paper she co-wrote with Mike Lee about self-managing organisations. You can listen to the podcast episode here.

It’s like the thought bubble you can’t see and so you don’t know it’s there… In many ways, good managers realise: “There’s always a thought bubble and I really would be better off if I knew what was in it.” And so they go out of their way to try to figure it out.

And there are some things I think that anybody can do to create a more psychologically safe environment. But first I wanna say, you started out by saying managers or leaders and I think being a manager is an official job, someone says: “You’re a manager, you’re gonna manage those people or that process” and that’s what you do. But leaders, I think leadership is a function. Leadership is an activity that can be done by anybody. We often think of leadership as maybe even a higher level or form of management, but that’s leadership with a capital ‘L’, maybe, it’s the CEO or the business unit manager. But leadership with a small ‘l’ is the small things you do to make a difference, to influence others… Even a subordinate can exercise leadership that makes your life at work better.

Source: Amy Edmondson’s “Teaming”

You know, we want to be working in an organisation where we are treated as adults, where we recognise our continued responsibility to keep learning, to keep learning together with others, and to keep striving to get important things done.

So those are huge aspirations, and psychological safety… that’s just one small, but important, piece of these larger goals. So the idea of the self-managing organisation is something we can readily imagine — and there are examples of it — existing as a fully fleshed out, real-world phenomenon. And psychological safety is just this sort of psychological, interpersonal experience that I would argue, it’s hard to have a genuinely self-managing organisation or learning organisation without some level of psychological safety. But they’re very different research targets — one has got lots of moving parts, you’ve gotta really think it through, you’ve gotta describe it, and then the other is this very small construct — it can be measured, it can be used in normal science research, and you can show relationships with it. I’m more drawn toward the bigger picture — I really am excited by the work of Mike and other people who are trying to reinventing work, or think: “How can work be better? People spend a lot of their waking hours at work, how can it be better?” And of course there’s room for lots of different bits in answering that question.

Recognise that the messiness is in fact part of the journey we’re all on in today’s complex world.

I think that’s good advice, and it’s counter to the way that change has been implemented in the past which was large change initiatives or reorganisations, and it’s much more incremental or experimental…

So I think a journey that will fail is one that says: “We’re gonna do culture change” without saying why and for what. And letting the “for what” guide it.

I think another example of a principle will be: it will be iterative. It will not be a beautiful blueprint that we then stick to, it will be iterative. It will need input from above, below, beside, and the data — it will be data-driven.

About Leadermorphosis

Leadermorphosis is a podcast exploring the emerging world of self-managing organisations and radical ways of working. Hosted by Lisa Gill, each episode features a guest thought leader or practitioner offering a unique perspective on new and innovative ways of working.

Founder of Reimaginaire, trainer and coach with Tuff Leadership Training, host of Leadermorphosis podcast.

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