Amy C. Edmondson is the Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at the Harvard Business School. She teaches and writes on leadership, teams, and organizational learning, and is the author of more than 70 academic articles and several dozen HBS case studies. Her books, Teaming: How Organizations Learn, Innovate, and Compete in the Knowledge Economy and Teaming to Innovate (Jossey-Bass, 2012, 2103) explore teamwork in dynamic, unpredictable work environments. Her most recent book, The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth (Wiley 2019) is the winner of the Thinkers50 Breakthrough Idea Award and offers practical guidance for teams and organizations who are serious about success in the modern economy.
Here are the excerpts of the interview.
What is it like to make decisions on which the lives of tens of thousands of other people depend? Isn't it the leadership moment for global stalwarts?
I have been observing leaders across both sectors and nations, and I recognize that it is emotionally and cognitively challenging to make decisions that affect the lives of thousands of people.
The implications of this are two:
First, it is vitally important that organizations and nations choose leaders who are worthy of these profound responsibilities. This recognition can get lost in times of prosperity and calm, leaving people to fail to take their choice responsibility seriously. The leaders who can best be trusted to make these kinds of crucial decisions are appropriately humble about the limits of their own expertise, and therefore wise enough to draw on the input of experts from different fields. They are also curious and sober-minded about what they hear, and about what they can and cannot do.
Second, no one should make these kinds of decisions alone – they require diverse expertise and extremely high-quality discussion processes, made in an environment that is oriented toward learning and problem solving, to arrive at the best decisions, which in turn must be subject to updating as more is learned.
Business leaders around the globe are dealing with the unprecedented challenges that the COVID-19 has brought to companies, economies, and societies. What’s your take on how should businesses adapt through this crisis?
The best way to cope with this unprecedented crisis is to respond quickly and then keep adapting. What is needed is the ultimate agile response. Agile responses refer, of course, to a kind of highly flexible, collaborative, iterative approach that highly innovative organizations in technology and other industries have been developing for years. It is what I call “execution-as-learning” – where people cannot simply wait to act, until they know what to do, because no plan will ever be accurate enough to work in a fast-moving crisis. Further, in my research, I have found that agile responses can only happen in businesses with a psychologically safe environment, where people are not afraid to speak up – especially about the problems they face. Without this interpersonal environment of candor, agility is impossible.
Businesses across the world are struggling to make fast, hard decisions, often serving highly diverse customer bases. Do you think leadership diversity matters in handling crises like COVID-19?
The kind of leadership diversity that I have studied, and which matters for adapting in uncertain and fast-moving contexts, is largely focused on expertise diversity. And yes, diversity is critical to handling crises, but diversity alone is not enough. You also need what I have described as high-quality discussion processes, where conflicts lead to better decisions. I have written about this at some length in my 2012 book, Teaming: How organizations learn, innovate, and compete in the knowledge economy.
Do you see a silver lining in these difficult times?
Yes. The silver lining I see is that this crisis is a wakeup call that is making all of us more aware of some vital truths about our world. First, we are inescapably interconnected and interdependent. The 20th-century visionary futurist, Buckminster Fuller, pointed out, more than 50 years ago, that we are all crew members on Spaceship Earth – our finite, profoundly interdependent planet that is badly in need of devoting its collective energies to working for the good of everyone. No ship sails on for long if the starboard side is busy trying to sink the port side. We are in this together, but we have not been acting like it. Second, we have not been paying adequate attention to the fragile nature of our economic and natural ecosystems, and this crisis is bringing both to the forefront.
Do you see synergies in the way in which this emergency is managed worldwide?
The synergies I see tend to take the form of experts working across national borders to develop cures, supply urgent equipment and personnel, and conduct various relief efforts. Scientists and researchers across institutions and countries are doing a great deal of this work, and some of it will bear fruit. Too many governments are still wasting precious time and effort in blaming rather than in learning and leading.
Can you share some insights from your latest book for our readers?
My book, The Fearless Organization, draws on 20 years of research to explain what psychological safety is (and just as important, what it isn’t) and why it matters more than ever in today’s workplaces. With so much riding on innovation, creativity, and engagement, today’s organizational leaders know it’s essential to attract, cultivate and retain talented employees – but they may not always realize that it’s even more important to ensure that they are able to speak up. Ensuring performance, and high ethical standards alike rests on the perceived ability – by everyone – to speak up with questions and concerns, to catch and correct errors and problems quickly. It’s full of stories of how a lack of psychological safety contributed to preventable failures (even crises) in business and public sector organizations around the world – and just as many stories of how the presence of psychological safety enabled extraordinary successes.