Psychological Safety in Theory and In Practice
Being able to fail and make mistakes at work without embarrassment or shame is not a new management idea. But what does it mean for people with anxiety and other mental health challenges?
Host Morra Aarons-Mele speaks with Amy Edmondson, a Harvard Business School professor, who has long studied psychological safety, and Christopher Yates, Ford Motor Company’s chief talent officer, about how to build a culture of psychological safety at work.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: I’m Morra Aarons-Mele, and this is The Anxious Achiever. We look at stories from business leaders who’ve dealt with anxiety, depression or other mental health challenges, how they felt down, how they pick themselves up and how they hope work can change in the future. We’re wrapping up season five of the show today, and I want to look at a concept I’ve long been a fan of, psychological safety. It’s an idea pioneered by the Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson, my first guest today. Psychological safety, it’s not about being nice. It’s the idea that you aren’t going to be embarrassed, shamed or even punished for speaking up with your questions, concerns or mistakes on the job. It’s really important in today’s workforce says Amy Edmondson, and psychologically safe teams get things done and move big ideas forward. Later in the show, we’ll hear from Christopher Yates, chief talent officer at Ford Motor company on why psychological safety is important in his organization and how he helps create teams that feel more psychologically safe. But first here’s my conversation with Amy Edmondson. You’re right. I had long been interested in the idea of learning from mistakes for achieving excellence. And this was when you were a doctoral student. And I’m curious, why were you interested in this as a young person?
AMY EDMONDSON: Well, I had read a lot of books on this topic book. I mean, there’s a fundamental truth, which is to error is human, right? We will make mistakes, right? Like it or not. Now, we can all do our very best to minimize certain kinds of mistakes and to prevent certain kinds of mistakes. But we have to learn how to be comfortable with ourselves in terms of our fallibility. We are fallible human beings. That’s a given. The only question is, can you become comfortable with that? Is it okay, right? And certainly your whole topic is very much about the challenge here, that it’s not always okay. So I was interested in this because early on I really took to heart the notion that we’re living in a fast paced world, a world that keeps changing, the knowledge explosion. We can’t just keep doing what made us successful in the past. All of us have to be lifelong learners, right? That just became something very interesting to me. And then when you start thinking about what does it take to be a lifelong learner, you have to be willing to look at your failures. You have to be willing to look at mistakes so that you can learn from them and do better next time.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: Did you grow up in a family where it was okay to make mistakes?
AMY EDMONDSON: Not really. It’s funny. I grew up in a family that cared very much about hard work, but probably even more central was caring about other people, right? So there was a strong message of you’re here to help others, to make the world a better place. So achievement is a mixed bag. It can’t be selfish achievement. You know what I mean? It has to be the achievement that alter things in a useful way for others. But mistakes… No. I would say mistakes, especially of the interpersonal or caring kind, right? Any mistake that’s related to being selfish or self interested was not to rated very well.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: Oh, that’s interesting. But along the way, did you have an experience though with a teacher or a leader, someone who showed you that making mistakes was an okay thing? How did you even get the idea into your head to explore it?
AMY EDMONDSON: But maybe it’s because I’ve had at it for so very long. It doesn’t seem that unusual to have that idea. But I suppose the right answer to that question is, yes, Buckminster Fuller. Right out of college I worked for Buckminster Fuller who was a great visionary thinker about spaceship earth and how do we use our minds and our ingenuity to keep making the world a better place. And he was an inventor, he was a designer, he was an educator. And one of the things he talked a lot about and one of the things he wrote about was mistakes as a just wonderful, important source of learning.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: See, it’s funny because when I read about you, and when I read all this mistake theory, and when I hear my kids actually coming home from elementary school and saying things like, “Mistakes are how your brain grows.” That was not how I was raised to be filled with shame-
AMY EDMONDSON: Right-
MORRA AARONS-MELE: … if you made a mistake. For me and I think for a lot of people, maybe even a whole generation-
AMY EDMONDSON: Sure-
MORRA AARONS-MELE: … whatever, it was like, “No, you do not admit it.” And so to me it does feel radical.
AMY EDMONDSON: I guess you’re right. I guess you’re right. And especially Buckminster Fuller was born in 1895.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: Wow.
AMY EDMONDSON: He grew up in a very different world than the world I grew up in or you grew up in. But it seemed obvious to him. Because he had some challenges as a child. He was virtually blind. So he was cross-eyed and so farsighted that he just couldn’t make sense of anything. It was just a blur. And then when he was about five years old, he got glasses and was just overwhelmed by appreciation for what he saw, right? For how beautiful and amazing the world was and bugs and snakes and everything else. So he had a wonder that he never stopped having, I would say, and maybe a capacity for not just self forgiveness but other forgiveness.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: Yeah. Gosh, that’s beautiful. So psychological safety, the term is really a household name, right? I mean, it’s a reference point for so many of us, even outside management and leadership, culture.
AMY EDMONDSON: I think that’s true and it stuns me. And of course, with that widespread attention also we find misconceptions. So I’m happy to-
MORRA AARONS-MELE: Tell us what is it not?
AMY EDMONDSON: So it’s not being nice. It’s not safe space. It’s not a trigger free environment. It’s not a guarantee that everything you do will get a round of applause, right? And I feel badly about the term, which I didn’t coin. I certainly brought it to wide attention, but the term was in the literature already and with the following observation, that when you want to do organizational change, people need to have psychological safety to take the risks, the behavioral risks they need to take to change. Change is hard. So I thought that was the right term to use for the thing I had discovered. But what it is, is a sense of permission for candor. What it is, is the belief that you can be yourself. You can speak up, ask for help, disagree with an idea, admit a mistake and you won’t be rejected or punished in some way. So it’s that an environment. It’s an environment where your focus is on the task or on other people. Not on yourself. Not on how do I look? How am I coming up cross? Am I okay? Will I get rejected? So it’s an environment that’s relatively free of those worries. It’s the opposite of social anxiety. It’s the opposite of fear or at least social fear, which I think is maybe the same thing. And it’s really important for teamwork and knowledge related work of any kind that forces us to take risks and get some things wrong on the way to discovery and advances.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: So data shows that most teams are not great at psychological safety. And yet I think the reason why it has become such a household name is that we all yearn for it, right?
AMY EDMONDSON: Right.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: It’s what we want. Why as humans is it such a powerful concept to us?
AMY EDMONDSON: Well, because I think we want to contribute. We want to be unencumbered by what do people think of me, right? It’s such an unhealthy thing to be tied up in knots about, how do I look? What do people think of me? Versus the healthier and I would say more joyful state of being, “Wow, this is a really interesting project and I’m glad to be part of it, and I feel it matters, right?” That’s what we want. I think we want to make a contribution. We want to be among people whom we like and respect. And we don’t want to feel that alone, that anxiety, that worry that we might be rejected.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: So psychological safety is something that occurs at the group level, not between individuals. Is that correct and why?
AMY EDMONDSON: Well, yes and no. So empirically the data suggests that in people who work together, so a work team or a unit or a branch tend to have re relatively similar levels of psychological safety in part because of local management effects. But that doesn’t mean we’re all exactly the same. It means that there tends to be an interpersonal climate around here that we can all detect. Now, there will be some exceptions, right? There will be people who are just very high on social anxiety, so high that they’re just not comfortable anywhere. But by and large empirically, what we see is differences across teams and relatively high similarity within teams. But psychological safety also describes a diad, right? A two person group is a group, right? So I might or might not have a sense of psychological safety with my boss.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: And is psychological safety the same thing as trust?
AMY EDMONDSON: Not exactly. I would say psychological safety is a composite of trust and respect. But technically it describes the climate. Whereas trust describes my expectations about some other, another person, a company. But we’ll keep it to people, right? So I trust you, right? I don’t think you will do something that hurts me, or I think you will follow through on what you said you would do. That’s trust where I’m focused on you and my expectations about you. Whereas psychological safety is when there is a fair amount of trust among people and generally respect as well, I feel okay about me and what I can do here.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: Is psychological safety different, more complicated, whatever, for people who are baby more anxious who have some social anxiety? What has your experience shown?
AMY EDMONDSON: Well, almost by definition, yes. I have always said that psychological safety is not an individual difference variable, right? Because, again, it’s this emergent climate in a group. But there are a couple of individual differences, and this would certainly be one, that will shape, right? That will have an impact on your capacity to be aware that this is actually a very psychologically safe team, right? We’re eager to hear from you. We value and respect your voice. Someone with high social anxiety may be less able to detect the actual psychological safety that’s present because it’s a habit.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: Yeah. Exactly. So what is a team or a manager to do?
AMY EDMONDSON: I think it’s all about coaching yourself or maybe being coached by others to get comfortable with the discomfort, right? To change your mind about the idea that it’s supposed to be different than it is, right? That the world is somehow supposed to be predictable and totally reliable, that everything you do will yield approval. I mean, that’s a desire with a child, the baby has, right?
AMY EDMONDSON: That guarantee that I’ll be safe and loved. And I’m fairly sure this is, of course not my area of expertise, but that people can be helped. People can learn to have a little bit of a lighter heart about these challenges to shift from the world is… It’s a really dangerous place for me. No one will kind include me or respect me to… Not at all. No, it’s a place where we’re all struggling together to get important things done.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: It’s so funny. When I was reading one of your famous case studies about Pixar, I thought this environment could be an environment where healing happens. That someone who was socially anxious and always expected to be yelled at, could go into one of these brain trusts. Is that what they were called?
AMY EDMONDSON: Yes. Yeah.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: And learn that they weren’t going to be shamed. Can you talk about that? Is that-
AMY EDMONDSON: Sure. The brain trust is a structure, it’s a ritual that occurs at some regular intervals during the production of a movie, right? And these are high tech creative productions. And of course, Pixar has famously been successful, right? It’s products are not only commercially successful, they’re critically successful. And that they would argue comes from being willing to tear it apart along the way, being willing to critique the project when it’s boring or unconvincing or ugly or in any way not living up to the potential. And realize you’re not going to get there, right? You’re not going to get to a totally delightful, wonderful movie if you’re not willing to hear and really entertain criticism along the way. But that’s not easy for human beings to all offer. Because again, we want to be liked. We intuitively don’t want to tell someone their baby is ugly.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: Right. And this is their baby. I mean, I would imagine-
AMY EDMONDSON: [crosstalk 00:16:21] This is their baby. Make no mistake-
MORRA AARONS-MELE: … these people are artists.
AMY EDMONDSON: Yes. Right. They are artists. And so what do you do? How do you make it easier? How do you lower the threshold for honesty? And it turns out the structure helps, but the structure comes with guidelines or ground rules, and they are things like you’re criticizing the project not the person, right? You want to be very thoughtful and careful about, “You created this stupid scene, right?” It’s not that. It’s like, “I feel bored when I watch this scene or I don’t think the curly hair looks credible or whatever.” I’m criticizing the substance. And when we’re in the brain trust, we’re all peers, right? We have to do this odd thing of leaving our titles outside the door. Now, you might think that’s not really doable, but it is, right? If you decide I’m going to buy in to these particular sets of rules, it works. And an important rule I would argue is that the filmmaker gets the final say, right? Nobody in that room is telling him or her what to do or give him feedback.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: You can’t pull rank.
AMY EDMONDSON: You can’t pull rank. Yeah. Even if you’re the head of the studio, if you’re CEO of the company, you can’t say, “You must do this.” You can share your worry about what you see, but it’s up to them to take it forward.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: So what are the lessons there for someone who is running maybe a small business that’s not Pixar?
AMY EDMONDSON: Yeah. Right. I mean, I think there are two. So one, I think this works in part because everybody has already bought into what they do as creative and challenging, right? And it’s particularly challenging because it requires storytellers and artists and computer scientists to team up, and those aren’t natural partners. And so there’s a kind of humility about how hard this is, how hard it is to get… There’s so many bad movies, right? How hard it is to get one that sings. And so with that in mind, it’s like, “Okay, because of that and because of our desire to make great films, we have to do this painful thing, right?” So there’s a stage setting that people are all aware of. And then the beauty of the brain trust is that it’s a structure that by its design lowers the threshold for speaking up, right? I think you’d feel a little awkward being there and not opening your mouth, right? Because then it’s like, “Why were you there?” It as a structure communicates that your voice is needed here. In most meetings most of us can easily say, “I think maybe I’ll just wait and see. I’ll see what the boss is saying. I’ll weigh the pros and the cons.” But in a well structured situation. Now, it doesn’t have to be a brain trust. Or if you’re running a company that’s not Pixar and you want to apply some of these principles, the most simple, not easy, but the most simple thing to do is just ask good questions. Ask really good questions. And use people’s name, right? “Amy, what do you think about this project? What sense do you make of these data from the customers?” Or whatever. It’s very awkward for me, Amy, to not answer if you’ve asked me a direct question. Whereas it’s never awkward for me to just be so island in normal meetings, right? It’s easy, right? I’m not imposing. I’m a good team member. I’m watching to see what’s happening. So you can flip the calculus upside down simply with a question.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: Let’s talk a little bit about the role of vulnerability. I have a question. In all your travels, you’ve probably worked with thousands of people on these issues at this point. Have you ever seen someone who has said like, “I have a real fear of being seen negatively. I have a fear of shame or I have social anxiety and therefore I need a little something different.” Have you ever seen someone who’s been aware and asked for what they need?
AMY EDMONDSON: Not really in so many words. But maybe that’s not necessary.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: No.
AMY EDMONDSON: But I think it’s back to being comfortable, being uncomfortable or with being uncomfortable. And I think people are getting a little better at asking for what they you need. But the thing I always want to keep in mind is I actually think you’re happier. One is happier when one is other focused or other oriented. So that in a funny way, the best way to get over your social anxiety is not to get all your needs met and no longer feel vulnerable, which probably will never happen, but rather to get so interested in other people or the project or the possibility that we have here to make a difference. That you forget about yourself a little bit.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: I could not agree more. And on one of my favorite episode was at this show, a psychologist, Alice Boyes talked about the narcissism of anxiety and how crucial it is in your own journey to step away from the anxiety and be like, “Shut up. This is not all about me.”
AMY EDMONDSON: Yeah. Right. You’re not the center of the universe. And it’s a huge gift to realize that. I mean, the burden of being the center of the universe is very great, right? But the burden of being a participant in the universe with other participants in the universe is much, much lower.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: And to do good work, because we’re motivated by that.
AMY EDMONDSON: Right. I think we want to feel we matter. And the best way to feel you matter is to team up with other people to get good stuff done.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: What is the role of perspective taking in creating a psychologically safe environment? And do you have any tips on how people can practice perspective taking?
AMY EDMONDSON: I think the role of perspective taking in creating a psychologically safe environment is very high. Because it’s the cognitive side of it. It’s the capacity to stop and imagine. And shouldn’t be that hard, but imagine what it would be like to be in that other person’s shoes. And I do think it has to come with curiosity, or don’t assume you know. So good perspective taking practices or first to be willing to try, right? “I need to understand better where you’re coming from.” And to then show that you heard it. I think you heard it. You are certainly in the act of doing that creating more psychological safety for them and very possibly for yourself. But it is a practice to practice, right? And I think the art of being a good team and having good conversations requires us to practice perspective taking in an environment that we want to be psychologically safe and that we create it as more psychologically safe by the act of perspective taking.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: And it sounds like it also comes back to asking good questions.
AMY EDMONDSON: Absolutely. Absolutely. And those good questions are not yes, no questions and they’re not leading questions or rhetorical questions. They’re what questions. “What do you see here? What are we missing? How might we think about this differently?”
MORRA AARONS-MELE: And then also maybe allowing for a little bit of silence and feeling comfortable with that.
AMY EDMONDSON: Yes. Yep. Don’t jump too fast to fill in the vacuum.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: Vulnerability. Vulnerability is something that I think people are becoming more comfortable with in a workplace setting. You’ve done work with executives to help them see that if they’re a little bit of vulnerable, they don’t get dinged. Can you talk about that a little?
AMY EDMONDSON: Well, I like to say, “You are vulnerable.” That’s just a fact. The only question is whether you’re willing to admit it and do your job anyway, right? Because you’re vulnerable to things in the outside world, you’re vulnerable to how your colleagues might react. We are all vulnerable, meaning we are at risk of being hurt, right? That’s just a fact. That’s a given, right? So getting more comfortable with that just in a sense allows us to be more honest about that. And I think have even a better, more humor about it, right? It’s just we’re fallible human beings living and working among other fallible human beings. And we better just be okay with that because that’s never going to go away as a fact.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: My last question. I want to zoom out to the group level and also think about where we are now. You have a matrix of organizations and there’s a zone called the anxiety zone. And my experience working with a lot of groups right now as they’re heading into a hybrid environment is that they have been working in an anxiety zone, right? High pressure, high output, low psychological safety. Is that it?
AMY EDMONDSON: Right.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: Can you define the anxiety zone? And then maybe offer one way that a manager listening to this could say, “I’m going to take this step to try to diffuse the anxiety zone.”
AMY EDMONDSON: Well, that’s great. Yes. I want to clarify-
MORRA AARONS-MELE: Yes. I may have defined it wrong-
AMY EDMONDSON: No, you did great it. But I want to say that the anxiety zone, to be even more precise, it’s the interpersonal anxiety zone.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: Yes.
AMY EDMONDSON: Because I actually think there is productive anxiety, right? For example, we should be anxious about exposed to the virus, right? That’s a scientifically a good idea to be anxious about that. We should be anxious and can be anxious about missing a deadline or not doing well on the test, right? That anxiety that should lead to a productive behavior of let’s study or let’s do our work and not miss the deadline. So being anxious about things that are truly problematic and under our control is a healthy thing. But interpersonal anxiety is rare healthy. It keeps us in a little cage of our own making where we feel unable to express ourselves or to get the help we need. So in the two by two, I have psychological safety on the vertical axis and performance standards on the horizontal axis. And where performance standards or performance expectations or at least I see them that way are really high. But I don’t have psychological safety. Then I’m in the interpersonal anxiety zone. And I would argue that’s a very dangerous place to be, especially in high risk settings like hospitals or in manufacturing plants where you better be willing to ask for help when you don’t know how to do something, or speak up to offer an idea that might make things better, right? It’s really going to be detrimental to performance if people are unwilling to share their knowledge, their concerns and so forth. And so the trick for any manager, any people manager is to recognize the possible existence, right? The high probability, in fact, that your team is in the interpersonal anxiety zone and say, “How do I get them into the learning zone?” Or you could also call it the high performance zone. And the answer lies in increasing the expectations and permission for candor. And you do that, I think, in three basic ways, right? By explaining and reminding how and why the work we do is so dependent on everyone’s input, right? That it’s just factually, “We need you.” There’s uncertainty, there’s interdependence, right? That we’re fast moving, right? Speaking up quickly about something that’s not working is so much more useful than waiting to see what happens, right? We need that speed, right? So whatever it is, you’re explaining why it’s a genuine statement that your voice is valued around here. Second, as we talked about asking good questions. Literally inviting your thoughts, inviting them through a question or inviting through a team structure like the brain trust. And then finally mastering the art of the productive response as a leader. And by that I mean, when people are honest and outspoken, there will be things that you hear that you don’t like. Bad news. Nobody likes bad news. We don’t want to shoot the messenger. Instead we want to always have the following two ingredients in how we respond, appreciation and forward looking, right? So thank you for coming. Thank you for speaking up. Thank you for that idea. And then forward looking like, “Where do we go from here?” Not, “How the heck did that happen?” Right. That’s important. That’s important work to do later. But the initial response if we really want people to move out of the anxiety zone and into the learning zone, we need to keep reinforcing that good behavior of candor, of honesty.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: Thank you so much. I really appreciate your time.
AMY EDMONDSON: You’re so welcome. What a joy it’s been to talk with you.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: To see how psychological safety can really play out in practice in and organization, I spoke with Christopher Yates, the chief talent officer at Ford. So Chris, why don’t you tell us a little bit about your job now and what you do every day.
CHRISTOPHER YATES: I’m currently at Ford Motor company. My role right now, I’m the chief talent officer, and that’s looking after a lot of the people strategy for Ford. I trained originally as an industrial psychologist. And I’ve worked at a number of organizations. The things that I’ve touched and continue to touch today would be around organizational design, learning and development, succession, creating culture. So a number of things. And as I’ve moved through organizations, the exact remit has changed several times depending on the need of that unique organization.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: Our mutual friend, Chris Rainey, from HR leaders said, “Oh, you have to talk to Chris Yates about psychological safety because I mentioned that I wanted to do an episode about psychological safety right now.” It has become such, such a prominent term. I don’t know… Have you noticed that, that the concept of psychological safety is like everywhere now? Why do you think that is?
CHRISTOPHER YATES: I’d agree with you. I think we’ve learned more about how the brain works. So let me go back probably about seven years ago. People started to talk much more from the neuroscience and then the application of that science to realize that humans don’t perform best in a threat state. And I think even that might have challenged some of the ways that we thought about leadership and things before. So we now know that the brain doesn’t operate well in a threat state, that damage is done to humans and individuals when in a stress state. And actually you get the clearest thinking. If you think about what are we paying a premium for, for people in the market today, it’s specialism and it’s increasingly… It’s a bit blunt. Brain’s not broad. Yeah. And I think we’re focused on the brain in a big way. We know that this is the seed of success in many ways. We don’t see the best thinking from individuals when people operate in a threat state. I remember going through my first psychology classes, learning about fight-flight-fright syndrome. That basic understanding that as human we have not evolved significantly beyond being scared of the tiger or the particular bear, that we’re still wired very much for that. Make absolute sense. I think there’s this veneer of civilization that we have that we are more advanced than our bodies are able to control. But that we see threat in absolutely everything. And I remember talking about this several years ago, actually, when I was working in banking and trying to explain to an executive that a brand that he was wearing provokes a chemical reaction in somebody. And in some cases, a brand can provoke a threat to judgment.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: What was that brand? I must know.
CHRISTOPHER YATES: It was a football brand. He had a particular coffee mug on his desk. And I won’t go into what it reads. But that particular football brand was associated with a group of fans who had neo-Nazi connections. And so I was pointing out to him that, “Hey, if you walk around with this mug in the organization, you’re getting judged because of an association with a particular brand. And for some people encountering you with a particular coffee mug means that their stomach is going to react in a particular way. Blood is going to be diverted away. And they’re going to maybe stutter in your promise or have a double take all because of an image that you carry with you.” And the intentionality to say to him, “How do you actually then be much more intentional about your space as the leading executive of a corporation, so that you’re getting the best from people in the small amount of time that they interface with you.” So something as small as that, then taking that into all of the ways that we spend our time in terms of meetings, interactions, and how do we make those the most effective that they can be.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: Wow. So you were literally saying to that lead, “You are being the lion here and the antelope in the office are having the fight or flight probably response when they see you prowling around with your mug.”
CHRISTOPHER YATES: Yes. Actually, yes. But you see, the beauty of that to your question is that it’s possible to translate for him using the neuroscience of that explanation. And to explain that you’ve got to be very intentional because of the power dynamic that you create by being the senior executive in the organization. And you must be intentional to create the safety for the kinds of dialogues that you want.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: Well, all right. Let’s put you on the hot seat since this is your job. I mean, everyone wants a psychologically safe team. Nobody wants a team that feels scared. When you come into a new situation, what are the cues? What do you look at first? And then what are the steps that you to try to address perhaps a lack of psychological safety in a team?
CHRISTOPHER YATES: There was a situation recently for me actually. So I’ve visited a particular site and there are things that you look for in terms of the formality of how people are addressing you, the eye contact people are giving you, the space distance, how are you greeted, all of the normal visual cues and being attuned to that in terms of what happening. And as a leader, you have an opportunity to absolutely set the tone. “Don’t call me Mr. Yates. Call me Chris.” Small things in terms of how are we going to speak? Where do you sit? Do you sit at the top of the table of these, or do you sit in a random chair? Because sometimes the intentionality of choosing not to step into the say typical executive role, the typical manager role, and maybe breaking the pattern trips the senses of the team to say, “Oh, something different here.” Perhaps using humor, asking about family, noticing something and maybe taking the time to engage and learn something about that individual. One of the practices that we’ve been doing here and I know many other organizations and professionals use as well is an intentional check-in. What’s happening for you today? Tell me what’s distracting you? How are you feeling before we get down to what the work actually is? And we know that there’s a number of techniques like that, which can lead to people being more present, to feeling heard, to feeling being seen. And that creates a very different type of discussion. And I think allowing people to breathe and relax into the situation. Fortunately, we don’t always take the time to do that walking into situations. I think at the macro sense of the organization. What I’ve tried to do in the last couple roles is think intentionally about what are the habits that we can teach leaders to be able to do some of those things. And the intentional check-in is one of them. Creating the spice if you know them. Another one is through education, to teach people to say… When you realize that moment of fair gripping stomach crunching moment happen, realize that and pause, genuinely pause. Don’t react in the moment of heat. Don’t react in the moment of anger confusion fair because you’re allowing a biological response. But instead, engage your brain, do a breathing technique. Take a few deep breaths and do something with what we call the balcony view. So sit on the balcony, observe what’s really happening, and then respond with choice in the moment as opposed to responding because of your anatomical direction that you’re giving. So trying to build small habits that people can practice every day that become part of how new routines are built seems to be successful.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: So the balcony view, is that when you are feeling unsafe, when you are feeling scared, or when you are a manager and you realize that you are making someone scared?
CHRISTOPHER YATES: I think both, to be honest. But I think actually for managers, especially. Because there’s so much research to show that managers control 70, 80% of the employees experience coming through. It’s important when you are reacting in particular that you realize that the whole room is watching you, that you have a disproportionate impact. And for you to maintain an element of self-control, your job is to get the best out of the team around you, to make an effective team, an effective organization. And so you have a choice to allow yourself to be controlled by the forces within, as it were. Or with intentionality choose to be a better leader. And you have that choice every single moment to say, “Well, they made me mad. They were late. The presentation was awful.” That’s a choice that you have as an individual to choose to react that way or to breathe and to be a better human.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: Wow. It’s so funny because you just made me think about my kids. As parents, we often will say, “Oh, they’re driving me crazy. I yelled at them because they were just driving me crazy.” And of course, we feel that way at work sometimes too, that everyone is just driving us mad and that we just need to shut them down because it’s how other people make us feel.
CHRISTOPHER YATES: Exactly. So my kids always tease me that I practice these habits with them. So they work. But I think you’ve hit the nail on the head. It’s absolutely that way. So that piece of with your children. When you say, “I’m just going to walk out of the room, take some fresh air for a moment and walk way.” And it’s been interesting as we think about this environment. I can’t see you right now, yes, in the space right in front of me, in the same room. But it’s been interesting as we work towards this virtual environment, it’s in many ways more intimate than the office setting. And at times I’ve encouraged people in a moment to say, “We just need to break right now.” And I suggest everybody just walks outside and takes a breath of fresh air, pauses for a second, and that we come back. And that it’s possible to do some of those things, go get a glass of water, do something that maybe we didn’t feel as much permission doing when-
MORRA AARONS-MELE: [crosstalk 00:43:00] Well, we thought it was unprofessional, right?
CHRISTOPHER YATES: [crosstalk 00:43:02] Exactly. Yes. Yes. And so I think it’s going to be fascinating in terms of how we build new permissions, new habits with better information that maybe we weren’t able to do in the traditional office setting.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: I love that. So I was listening to a fascinating podcast you were doing, and you were saying that one of the things that you feel, and maybe it’s serious psychology training, that oftentimes walking into a corporate meeting room is like walking into a room full of actors. That we who come into business are often trained to play parts. And perhaps that becomes easy after a while. I’d love to hear what you meant by that and to dig in a little bit about how teams need to really think about who they’re being at work and who they’re showing up as.
CHRISTOPHER YATES: Yeah. We get trained from entering into the organization to playing a particular character in the role by necessity almost because it’s safer. The analogy I sometimes use in coaching is that of the old royal courts of Europe, or maybe courts of everywhere, that they would always be factions, barons, kings and attendance. And if you think about that scenario as a caricature almost, you know your place in the ranking in the court of who can talk to who, whose faction you’re in, what is the power struggle of the day, what is the mood of the king, et cetera. And so-
MORRA AARONS-MELE: And you’ve just described a lot of teams, actually.
CHRISTOPHER YATES: Exactly. So nothing’s changed.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: Sorry. Keep going.
CHRISTOPHER YATES: So nothing’s changed. And why did you know those things? Because it was important not to displease the king on the wrong day, or the queen. Or to be loyal to your baron coming in and to do your tutelage in a particular house. And so these power constraints that have been there for a couple of thousand years, if not more, in society still have just been transferred into that office environment. And we have to be very intentional to break the patterns or brave. And to think again, with all of the knowledge that we have now, how do we encourage people to take the risks outside of those pretty well defined roles? So these are not roles that are just recreated within the modern organization. They’re roles that have been with us through all of society. They were no doubt there in the court of Genghis Khan as well as the Caesars as everybody else, or on a military ship, et cetera. These patterns are increasingly there. And at times when you need high agility, there are times when it’s absolutely appropriate to have well defined roles and to have a perhaps what’s seen as a more directive or commanded control style. But it’s about how do you develop the agility of an organization so that you can both move with urgency when you need to, but also the times where you need to have everyone operating at their best and to think through how do I also create, to use the cliche term, psychological safety. I was going to initially say the term, something that feels more like family, but also obviously not all families offering psychological safety to themselves.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: So in a psychologically safe team, do we not have the Queen B, the court gesture, the gossip is currency? Does that stuff just not exist?
CHRISTOPHER YATES: I think less so. I’ve operated in a few teams where I think we’ve genuinely had the ability to challenge. And for me, one of the measures that I use as a leader personally is that any member of the team is willing to challenge me about almost anything in public. And I know teams do this initially when you… I’m trying to create a psychologically safe environment team, and they will test you to say, “Really, Chris. So I think you suck at X.” How are you going to react now if I told you this in public? And I think you get over that. So that’s absolutely a phase that I’ve seen the team tempts to say, “Are you really being honest? I’m going to test you. Or one person is encouraged to test you often, and we’ll see if it’s safe.” And once you get over that phase, I think then you get to a point of really asking for expertise. And then I do think we go into roles, but it’s much more based on what do you bring as a contributor? So we know that Jerry is particularly good at seeing this side of the problem. We know that Anita is particularly skilled at focusing on the detail. We know that Charlie looks at the big pictures. We can then invite in or encourage that difference to be excellence and needed. And it takes a long journey. And increasingly I do see the role of the leader in committing to that and getting the team through that space of commitment testing and then being able to work with the team.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: I want to close out by talking about anxiety in teams. A lot of times on the show, we talk about personal anxiety, about interpersonal anxiety with one other person. But I’m curious if you see teams that you think are anxious as a team. And if so, how you can tell.
CHRISTOPHER YATES: I think something about the energy of the team and how the team reacts to moments of crisis and individuals. One particular and comes to mind. I was on a call about two years ago in a meeting. And there’s two things. I think the use of this checking technique that I talked about gives you a sense of what’s happening for everybody around the table on that particular day. And there was something in the tone of the voice because you’ve taken the time to know your team members that doesn’t feel quite right. And so after the call, I canceled the next meeting and called them directly and said, “What’s up?” And as much as I can say there’s something around personal intuition where you know that something is not quite right for the individual in terms of how they’re performing their speech, their timing. And I think it’s about having the curiosity and genuine care for the individual to pause and find out. Especially [inaudible 00:49:48], we’re all living full lives, things are happening in our lives. And I do think it’s the opportunity for leaders to demonstrate genuine empathy in that moment. That again, builds that psychological safety because it’s saying that the individual is there, that the leader is there for me and is not just concerned about my production, my work, my productivity.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: I think sometimes you can also see there’s one person on the team that’s making everyone anxious or there’s something that’s much bigger, right, that isn’t even about one person.
CHRISTOPHER YATES: Yeah. I was going to say, when we sense those things. My advice is always don’t ignore it. Go there. Yeah.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: So speaking of going there, my last question for you is, if I’m a manager listening to this and I think, “I really want my team to feel safe around me, around each other.” I don’t have a talent officer. I work maybe at a small business. What is the first step I should take?
CHRISTOPHER YATES: There’s a practice I actually picked up from West Point of all places, which is something that the military called a leader’s intent. On one sense it’s writing the mission to say, “This is where we’re going. This is what we want to do.” The other aspect of a leader intent is writing down the commitments to which you are going to hold yourself true and to which you’re not going to break. It’s like your promise as a leader to the team. Every new team, every new organization I’ve got into, it’s one of the first things that I’ve done to say there are 10 things I commit to. And if you see me failing on these things, I’m going to need your help to call me on these things. But here is the leader that I want to be, here is the promise that I want to make. And be very visible about these things. And check in with people. Am I living up to these 10 things? It could be as anything as… Let’s pick a topical one. I believe we should learn from failure. Yes. So I walk in as a new leader and say, “I believe we should learn from failure because the greatest learnings come from our mistakes.” And the first time that someone fails, everyone’s watching. So how are you going to handle this? So if I genuinely then throw a failure party, some things that we do now, and we say… And I’ve done that. We’ve got the ice cream or the champagne and said, “This is a wonderful…”
MORRA AARONS-MELE: No.
CHRISTOPHER YATES: Yes. Really. This is quite extravagant, but it was a big failure. We actually got a DJ in. We actually threw a part of cake and everything and celebrated the hell out of the failure because it was a great learning moment. I said, “We’re going to ring every single learning we can out of this catastrophe so that we never ever happen again. And we’re going to have a glass of wine. We’re going to eat cake, champagne.” Because it created a psychologically safe environment for some people to say, “Look, I screwed up. I should have done da, da, da.” So that first test of when the team fails and you decide to genuinely welcome it, they go, “Well, he seemed to be quite serious about this failure thing.” Nobody wants to fail, but it does mean that in the moment of failure people learn. That’s everything. As a leader, that’s everything you want. Because looking at that example, the place where we did go all out on the failure party, nothing close to it ever happened again. And in fact, the excellence of that team directly came from the experience of that moment.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: That’s it for today’s show. Thank you to my producer, Mary Dooe. Thanks to the team at HBR. I’m grateful to our guests for sharing their experiences and truths. For you our listeners who ask me to cover certain items and keep the feedback coming, please do send me feedback. You can email me. You can leave a message on LinkedIn for me or tweet me @morraam. And if you love the show, tell your friends. Subscribe and leave a review. From HBR Presents, this is Morra Aarons-Mele.