We’re all aware of how heavily our KM work depends on trust. Amy Edmondson takes a deeper look at trust related to knowledge sharing. I always find her work insightful. This week I was re-reading her article “Psychological Safety and Learning Behavior in Work Teams”, probably for the sixth or seventh time, and was struck again about how valuable it is to go beyond our simple understanding of trust and to think about the issue as psychological safety.
Perhaps I should start with what she means by psychological safety, it is “a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking.” But that, of course, begs the question, because then we have to ask what exactly does “interpersonal risk taking” mean. Edmondson explains it is “a sense of confidence that others will not embarrass, reject or punish someone for speaking up.”
So Psychological Safety seems to go far beyond interpersonal trust to include, 1) respect for each other’s competence, 2) caring about each other as people and 3) trust in each other’s intentions.
It’s a group, rather an individual concept, thus a shared sense that is developed out of a shared experience. As an example of a shared experience, she explains that group members, “will conclude that making a mistake does not lead to rejection when they have had a team experience in which appreciation and interest are expressed in response to discussion of their own and others’ mistakes.” Such shared experiences, occurring over time, create the tacit belief that that the team is a psychologically safe place.
In fact, Edmondson says it does little to increase psychological trust for managers or team members to talk about the need for it or to urge others to trust, because it is the experience that teaches. I’m certain that’s true for me personally. Although I’ve been in countless situations where the leader has said something akin to, “I want this to be a place where everyone can speak their mind,” as far as I can remember, hearing that has never made me one wit more open or forthcoming. In those situations what I needed to know was how others in the room were going to regard what I had to say. Would they see me as “out of touch?” “outlandish?” “showing off?” “smart?” “interesting?” If I conclude from their response to a comment I make, that their view of me is more the latter, I’m more willing to share my thinking, even when it isn’t fully formed. But the clues I use to make that decision are subtle; a widening of the eyes, a follow-up inquiry to what I’ve said, nods of agreement, and probably many other clues I pick up on but couldn’t name. From my own experience, I can affirm, what Edmondson suggests, that a sense of psychological safety is tacit.
The central idea of her study was to see if there is a relationship between psychological safety and team learning. To find that out Edmondson studied 51 real work teams in a manufacturing company, some of which were product development teams and others project teams, some self-managed, and others leader-lead. Edmondson conducted extensive interviews with team members, observed them, and collected survey responses from them.
The major finding from the study was that, 1) if the group/team feels psychologically safe they will, 2) be more willing to ask for help, admit an error, seek feedback, etc. and those actions, 3) produce learning in the group which, 4) improves their performance. Written as a simple formula: