Creating a Climate of Learning and Innovation in Organizations

Adapted from “Teaming: How Organizations Learn, Innovate, and Compete in the Knowledge Economy,” a webcast with Amy C. Edmondson, Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at the Harvard Business School. This talk and other leadership content is available through Leadership Advantage.

According to Amy C. Edmondson, whether you work in healthcare delivery, a software company, or a government agency, the chances are you participate in teaming, or “teamwork on the fly.” Although you often find such teams in healthcare—for instance, a group of clinicians who assemble to perform a surgery—many of us participate in cross-functional or interdepartmental teams with people we don’t know well. Even those who lead or belong to stable teams often do so within complex and frequently changing environments, which requires many of the same skills as teaming.

A key to teaming is “coordinating and collaborating across boundaries.” How successfully that is done may in turn determine how well an organization and those within it innovate, adapt to change, and learn from mistakes.

Psychological Safety and Performance Outcomes

Per Edmondson, “Psychological safety is a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes.” In other words, “You can think of psychological safety as felt permission for candor.” Psychological safety isn’t simply about people feeling good; there are clear parallels between the level of psychological safety people feel and performance outcomes.

In Edmondson’s view, it’s typically those at the top of the hierarchy who have the most psychological safety. People elsewhere in the hierarchy often don’t speak up, regardless of what they might be thinking. The results can be disastrous. 

Edmondson provides the example of the space shuttle Columbia and the suppressed concerns of engineer Rodney Rocha. After reviewing a video of the launch, Rocha became concerned about a piece of foam that appeared to fall off the shuttle and then hit the left wing. He emailed his immediate supervisor but the response was anything but supportive. As Edmondson explains in her 2012 book on teaming:

Discouraged by his early efforts to call attention to the foam-strike issue and convinced that voicing concerns was career limiting at NASA, Rocha refrained from sharing his anxiety in a critical mission management team meeting, eight days into the flight. … Just eight days after this lost opportunity to speak up, the shuttle burned up upon reentry into the Earth’s atmosphere, resulting in the death of all seven astronauts.

In an interview several months later, when asked why he didn’t speak up, Rocha replied that he “just couldn’t do it.” He explained that he was “too low down” and that, holding his hand above his head, Mission Management Team Leader Linda Ham was “way up here.” As Edmondson describes it, for Rocha it was as if speaking up was almost a physical impossibility, that he actually could not do it.

Edmondson provides another example of a research study conducted with 1,100 clinicians. Physicians were deemed to be at the top of the status hierarchy, followed by nurses and then respiratory therapists. Interestingly, while survey results supported the link between higher status and greater psychological safety, it was not consistent among all teams. The teams in which psychological safety was flatter across roles or higher overall experienced significantly better patient outcomes and lower rates of patient morbidity.

The importance of psychological safety was affirmed by Google when the company embarked upon an initiative to discover why some work groups flourish and others flounder. According to a February 2016 article in The New York Times Magazine:

When [Julia] Rozovsky and her Google colleagues encountered the concept of psychological safety in academic papers, it was as if everything suddenly fell into place. One engineer, for instance, had told researchers that his team leader was ‘‘direct and straightforward, which creates a safe space for you to take risks.’’ That team, researchers estimated, was among Google’s accomplished groups.
Inclusive Leadership

The question, then, is how can you create psychological safety throughout a hierarchy and across boundaries, therefore creating more “accomplished groups” with better performance outcomes. According to Edmondson, “psychological safety describes an interpersonal climate where candor is expected and enabled” and the key to creating such a climate is inclusive leadership.

Edmondson offers four strategies for being a more inclusive leader:

1. Frame the work accurately. Is it routine, well-understood, variable, complex, innovative, unknown, uncertain? How good is the process knowledge? Is failure expected? Employees at design and consulting firm IDEO are encouraged to “Fail often to succeed sooner!” A similar mantra might be appropriate at a pharmaceutical company developing a new drug but wouldn’t be acceptable on an assembly line or in the operating room. Be clear and realistic about what the work involves and what is expected.

2. Acknowledge your own limits. As Edmondson explains, “You know you’re fallible. They know you’re fallible. They just don’t know that you know.” To close that gap, she advises leaders to make statements such as “I may miss something. I need to hear from you,” and “I’m new to this role. What are you seeing out there?” Edmondson believes that a statement of need is one of the most powerful things a leader can offer. Be willing to admit what you don’t know and acknowledge your dependence on your team.

3. Ask good questions. In Edmondson’s view, a key leadership skill is knowing when to go broad with asking questions versus when to go deep. When there’s a group of people who may have alternatives and new ideas, that’s a good time to broaden the discussion by asking what’s being missed, who has a different perspective, or what other options should be considered. However, when you’re one-on-one or when someone has said something that worries you, it’s not fruitful to ask a broad question like “What other ideas do you have?” Instead, go deep. Per Edmondson, finding out why someone has a particular concern, viewpoint, or belief will result in your learning something and therefore produce better outcomes or solutions.

4. Embrace messengers. According to Edmondson, “embracing messengers makes a more psychologically safe environment.” Edmondson offers the example of Alan Mulally, former president and CEO of Ford, who repeatedly asked his senior team to share concerns. When one member of the team finally spoke up, Mulally said, “I had to demonstrate with my behavior that I welcomed it,” which he did by thanking the contributor and asking, “What can we do to help you out?” Edmondson also offers an anecdote from Alfred P. Sloan, Jr., who led General Motors from the 1930s through the 1950s. When faced with unanimous agreement about a decision, Sloan encouraged dissent, proposing that members of his team “postpone further discussion of this matter until our next meeting to give ourselves time to develop disagreement and perhaps gain some understanding of what the decision is all about.”

Psychological safety is a means to an end. Leaders who work to build psychological safety among stable and on-the-fly teams by practicing inclusive leadership will lay the foundation for a climate of learning, innovation, and continuous improvement.


“Teaming: How Organizations Learn, Innovate, and Compete in the Knowledge Economy,” Amy C. Edmonson, Skillsoft Leadership Advantage webcast, May 9, 2017.

“Teaming: How Organizations Learn, Innovate, and Compete in the Knowledge Economy,” Amy C. Edmondson, John Wiley & Sons, March 2012.

“What Google Learned From Its Quest to Build the Perfect Team,” The New York Times Magazine, February 25, 2016.

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