Naji: Hello leaders of the world. Welcome to SpreadLove in Organizations, a podcast for purpose-driven healthcare leaders, striving to make life better around the world, by leading their teams with genuine care, servant leadership, and love. I’m Naji, your host for this exciting episode from our new series focused on us, as leaders.
I still can’t believe with who I’ll be chatting today and not sure if I even need to introduce my guest, Amy Edmondson. Amy is the Novartis Professor of leadership and management at the Harvard business school. She teaches rights and “ruminates”, as she says, on organizational learnings, psychological safety, leadership, and teaming.
Amy is one of the most renowned thought leaders who won multiple awards and published the best books I’ve read. Her most recent book, The Fearless Organization, creating psychological safety in the workplace for learning innovation and growth is a must not only read, but a must learn and do in our organizations.
I can spend hours sharing my admiration for Amy and praising her impact on many of us leaders, trying to make the world we all inhabit a better place, but I’ll stop here.
Amy, I am beyond thrilled having you with me on this podcast.
Amy Edmondson: Well, you’re very kind, I’m very happy to be here.
Naji: Amy, before diving in your incredible word of leadership, I’m eager to hear more about your personal journey from engineering to organizational behavior, and now being professor at Harvard and an influential self leader.
Can we hear more about your personal story?
Amy Edmondson: I don’t think we have enough time to tell my whole story and I’m not sure it would be that interesting either, but I did have the great joy of working as an engineer, right out of college, working for Buckminster fuller, who was a remarkable inventor and designer and educator. And my job, during those three years was to do the hands on engineering drawings and, model building and, the calculations for some of the new geodesic domes. It was a great job. It was a great experience. And it was unique. It certainly helped me understand that I wasn’t going to be an engineer in the sense that I loved what I was doing, but it was very special, very special case.
And it was related more to making the world a better place. That was sort of the mission, the purpose, if you will, of the organization. And so my job then was to figure out where do I go from here? What is it that I’m uniquely able and drawn to do that might make a difference? And, so I wrote a book about Fuller’s mathematical work, that taught me that I enjoyed the process of writing and teaching, but I still didn’t have a field. And so I was fortunate to meet an entrepreneur who had a consulting business in organizational development. And, that was what ultimately opened the door to me, to studying organizations, to studying people at work, working in teams, trying to make their work better, ultimately trying to do the right thing for customers and communities.
And that was a great job, as well. And it’s the job that led me to realize I needed more school. I didn’t have a business background. I didn’t have a psychology background. And that was the work I was doing. So I applied to a PhD program and I don’t think I fully appreciated that that’s a job that that’s a entry level job in an academic career, rather than a way to get smarter, and, come back out and make things happen in the world. So, I went to do a PhD. It was tough going at first, but I got through it and managed to get a faculty job at Harvard business school where I’ve been ever since for 25 years.
Naji: Wow, and, this transition, you always mentioned kind of like the same thread of having an impact and making the word better.
When did you discover the threat, your impact and the purpose that now you are doing every single day?
Amy Edmondson: Well, I think it was you know, it’s emergent, it’s gradual, there isn’t a single moment of discovery. I. Just kept following my nose, I guess. And in the PhD program, some things didn’t seem like the kind of work I should do, and other things did seem like the kind of work I wanted to do. So as long as I stayed true to the questions that both seem to me to be important and, answerable and, especially answerable with the particular skills and methods I had developed, then I was okay, right? Then, things seemed to go well.
Naji: if we want to jump now in all the work that you have been leading, the research that you’ve been doing on leadership and the experiences that you’ve had, I wanna start with a high level question. If there is one trait for leaders that you believe is the most important one in the 21st century, what would that be?
Amy Edmondson: No question about it. Humility and, I don’t mean false modesty. I mean, the humility to understand you don’t have all the answers to stop and recognize that what lies ahead is complex, uncertain, novel, and it will take a lot of learning and a lot of engagement and help and input from other people to make progress.
So we and leaders have humility, they’re more able and willing to inspire and engage others, right? Because others feel that their input is needed, that they matter. And they do of course, matter. So it’s the opposite of arrogance, leaders who have arrogance tend to put forward the message that it’s all about them and, I don’t think that’s a terribly effective leadership quality in today’s world.
Naji: And, this is a great you segue to the fearless organizations, obviously as a leader and how you developed this. So the first question I had, because I’m a big obviously fan of all your work of the Fearless Organizations.
How did Fearless Organizations came to you and how do you define it specifically?
Amy Edmondson: Well, I use that title for the book, the Fearless Organizations, because I don’t think psychological safety would be a very good title for the book. People would say, well, what is that? and, I’m not interested in that, but fearless organization sounds like something you might wanna learn more about, but what I mean is an organization that is very low in interpersonal fear. Meaning people feel quite able and willing to speak up with their ideas, their questions, their concerns. They get to admit mistakes. They get to experiment to, to learn on the fly. And they’re able to team up with each other because they’re able to be interpersonally fearless.And I don’t mean reckless, but I mean, just it’s not about me. It’s about us and I’ve got to be open. I’ve gotta be candid. I’ve gotta be willing to go for it, to play to win, if you will.
And I got interested in this, I mean, I discovered the sort of importance of this kind of interpersonal climate by studying healthcare teams, by studying those teams and those clinicians who do such challenging and such high stakes work and where that willingness to speak up, to report a mistake or that willingness to speak up to ask for help when you’re not quite sure what to do is mission critical to the quality of care. And, so it was in studying healthcare organizations that I got interested in this. And then I found that it really was true in all sorts of other kinds of workplaces, too.
Naji: You brought the psychological safety to the business world, right? And we hear it more and more luckily in many different organizations. And it’s crucial, but yet, so many leaders try to do it, try to foster it. And I consistently see how many don’t even realize how fast you can destroy it, in fact, right? One simple meeting, one simple word, and suddenly people can, you know, shut down, stop speaking up. Any advice, for us as leaders on how to not only build, but sustain psychological safety within our teams?
Amy Edmondson: You know, I think we have to not, you know, not emphasize that you can destroy it, right? And then it’s gone, it’s blown up, right? Because I think that’s too strong. It is a more fallible human beings, all of us. And so we will at times do things that don’t work, right? We’ll inadvertently get upset or we’ll use a term or a phrase that is very counterproductive and, has a negative impact on others.
It’s all reparable, right? These are not life and death. They can feel like it. They can feel like life and death interactions, but they’re not, right? So I think the first thing one has to realize is that you can always repair a situation, right? When you make a mistake, interpersonally or otherwise own it, apologize, resolve to do better and, move forward, and that sets a good example, right? That’s modeling the behavior that helps other people, as well as yourself. Continue to feel safe enough to be candid and that, and that’s what it’s all about. So we’re going to make mistakes. We need to do our best to keep learning and keep improving.
Naji: Yeah, recognizing it, and, as you’re saying apologizing for it, if it happens, but really bouncing back as a team. You know, one of the things I’ve always, we always hear, right? When we are trying to build such a culture and environment for people to feel safe to thrive, is this speed, the base of in a innovation, the base of how the word is going, and sometimes it’s put into contradiction with trying to build this trust, this psychological safe environment.
So any thought on this, between this fast moving environment?
Amy Edmondson: Yeah, I mean, I actually think we can get up to speed and to connect with each other and work relationships very quickly, right? And in a productive way. I mean, if, if I don’t know you and yet we have to do something together. I think I need to know three things and I think they can be conveyed in less than three minutes, right? One, I need to know what you are trying to do, right? What’s your goal? Two, I need to know what you bring, what skills, what resources, right? What experience? And three, I need to know what you are up against, right? What constraints are you aware of? You know, maybe your boss needs something from you by tomorrow. Maybe you have, you know, a daycare pickup at six. I mean, I just, so that’s it, right? Your goals, your resources and your constraints.
And then I need to tell you that in return, it’s a kind of strangely intimate thing to know. I mean, I think the first one goal that’s easy, but for me to tell you my skills, that’s a little harder for me to tell you my worries, my constraints, that’s a little harder still, but they’re all relevant, right? These aren’t personal in the sense of personal life. They’re work relevant, right? So, I think we want to not overplay the need for long slow deep explorations to feel comfortable with each other, but just enough, enough knowledge on the task relevant things that we can team up.
Naji: I love this framework because, you know, one of the things as I was also reading all your research, was this hybrid world I wanted to get your reaction on, but the framework you just gave actually can do even virtually, to be better team player and to build our team.
But have you seen any challenges with the hybrid world and building cultures obviously totally virtually, right? Like there is no more this informal interactions, no small things that really build a culture sometimes, especially when you’re new in a team or as a leader leading a new organization.
Have you seen this in the virtual world? And have you seen some good ways for us?
Amy Edmondson: Yes. I think it’s a great deal more challenging. I think, in fact, we have a growing amount of data to show that this is challenging for us. We’re social creatures. We work virtually well, when we know each other a little bit, we can get to know each other. You and I are doing that right now, in a non face to face environment, but in a mediated communication setting. But I think there’s no way around the recognition that some of the warmth isn’t there, some of the connection isn’t there, and so we need to find new ways to build that safety and to build that candor, we need to use rituals and tools to kind of make sure that we hear from each other and, share especially the most relevant information that we have.
Naji: And from those learning and you obviously also are an expert in teaming, with the first research and book that you’ve done, and I remember one of the examples you gave and you gave it today again on healthcare emergency room. You know, it reminded me of some of my past life experiences. With the pandemic, actually, when I think of, it was a great example in some of the sectors of real teaming up, right? And we’ve seen what real teaming can do to humanity.
Are you hopeful now that leaders have learned this lesson of how we should team up and changed the world? What are your thoughts or reflection about this?
Amy Edmondson: I’m gonna be cautiously hopeful, because one of the things that was striking, I think for so many people, including me, was how quickly we could change and set up new systems and new ways of working, you know, virtually overnight, and in ways that we would’ve thought weren’t possible, right? But we had to do it. So we did it. And then we got better at it. We got better at not trying to talk when we’re on mute, we got better at sort of setting meetings up and maybe figuring out the right length for meetings and at engaging the students from a distance and, all of the rest.
So yes, it was a giant problem solving teaming opportunity. And I think it continues today. I think we continue to figure out to solve the problem of what works, what works best in this remote context and what doesn’t work well in a remote context. And then how do you solve the, you know, how do you design going forward the right mix, the right hybrid mix.
But I don’t think we know the answer yet. Right? I don’t think that those plans, those blueprints exist, I think we need to do a great deal more experimenting and testing and iterating.
Naji: That would’ve been my question. Do you have any sense of how the future, you know, of work and building this culture would be, but it seems we need somewhere experimenting.
Amy Edmondson: Yeah, I think we have a lot more learning to do. I think we’re in danger of concluding too much from the last 18 months, but the last 18 months were very special. They were, first of all, it was new. Second of all, we didn’t have any choice. I mean, at least for large portions of that period, we had to be socially distant. We had to stay home and I think we were less sensitive to what we were missing. I think we will be going forward, right? I think again, we are social creatures and I think we need to be together some portion of the time or we lose our relationships. And if, you know, we were able to maintain many of them, maybe a good way to say this is that the Zoom happy hour phenomenon got old quickly, right? It was fun at first, you sort of saw your friends, you know, you had a beer, but after a little while, it was like, no, it’s just not, you really don’t wanna do it. And I think an implication of that was that, we realized this isn’t really socializing, right? This isn’t the same, the same is true for work, right? There’s some aspects of the workplace that really, it’s just really nice to be together. We laugh, we talk about the weekend. We feel a sense of camaraderie and connection.
Naji: Yeah. We speak one over the other, in real happy hours. Yeah. You know, I thought a lot about it and I’ve been asked the questions with my, you know, childhood and, really, I kind of summed up in human works, right? Something that we really miss and we learned is that we missed this human warmths, right? So as you’re saying, we’re social, you know, very social at the end as a human being, which is good.
Amy, I would love to get your first reaction on some words I will tell you, if you’re fine with this game. So the first one is leadership.
Amy Edmondson: Purpose. I mean, to leadership is about influencing others, to achieve important aims that one could not do oneself.
So leadership is about purpose.
Naji: What about team?
Amy Edmondson: More than the sum of the parts, right. The team is about synergy, the team is about bringing different expertise and talent and strengths together to get more done than one could ever do alone
Amy Edmondson: Potential. It’s what we need. We need innovation to make a better world that works for everyone.
Naji: And the last one is spread love in organizations.
Amy Edmondson: Love, Buckminster Fuller said is metaphysical gravity, right? So gravity is a scientific, a physical force that makes two objects of mass attracted to each other. You know, fortunately, I’m very stuck on this earth right now because of gravity. It’s a wonderful thing instead of floating off, here I am. Love is metaphysical gravity, love is that the very real, but often under acknowledged connections that we all have with each other.
Naji: And do you see a place where it is in corporations and organizations?
Amy Edmondson: Yes. And I see how people could misunderstand that, right? I think we love our, I mean, I think when we are fortunate, we love our work. We love our colleagues. But most importantly, we feel connected to both. We feel connected to the organization, we feel connected to our colleagues. We feel connected to the work. And that’s an invisible force that keeps us going.
Naji: And finally, I would love to have a final word of wisdom to all of us leaders around the world, in healthcare and, in any industry,
Amy Edmondson: I don’t know if I have a word of wisdom, but I will say when I think about leadership, the most important thing that comes to mind is, remember it’s not about you, right?
I think when one falls into that trap of being self-centered, self-absorbed, self-protective, leadership is less effective, right? And, sort of remind, get it back to front and center of your mind that it’s about out the purpose and about other people being available for present for other people, then things tend to go well.
Naji: Great, that’s an amazing definition for leadership. Purpose, and then being here for others.
Thank you so much, Amy, for your time, generosity and such an inspiring discussion. Thank you.
Amy Edmondson: You’re very welcome. It’s great to be with you.
Naji: Thank you all for listening to SpreadLove in Organizations’ podcast.
Follow us on LinkedIn and connect with us on spreadloveio.com. We’re eager to hear your thoughts and feedback. Most importantly, spread love in your organizations and spread the word around you to inspire others and amplify this movement, our world so desperately needs.