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Rotman Insights Hub | University of Toronto - Rotman School of Management

The art of disruptive conversations

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Sonia Kang

“One day early in my career I was doing a trade, and something didn’t feel quite right about it,” Chris Clearfield, who was working for a financial firm on Wall Street at the time, told me. “It turned out I had lost on the order of tens of thousands of dollars, which wasn’t a huge amount of money for this firm, but is no small amount either.”

The thing is, it was something only Chris knew about. What would you do next? Pretend nothing happened and hope no one noticed? Blame someone else? “After a little while, I went to my manager and brought his attention to it.” Chris owned up to his mistake and then waited for the other shoe to drop. That’s not what happened.

“I received feedback from a number of very senior people in the firm who obviously had talked about what happened. They came up to me and said, ‘Hey, it’s so great you were open about your mistake.’ I have never received more praise in my life.” When Chris admitted his costly mistake and his bosses thanked him for it, both employee and employer came out of it in a better place. “It totally cemented my belief in that form of open, honest culture.”

That isn’t always how things play out. The challenge for leaders is to make an experience like Chris’s the norm. It’s not just about changing the way we view mistakes. There is a larger challenge here: How do you create a culture for employees that is psychologically safe?

Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson coined the term. When I spoke to her recently, she explained: “Psychological safety is the belief that you can bring your full self to work. Quite simply, it’s the perception that you can speak up with ideas, questions and concerns, or ask for help and people won’t embarrass you for it.”

There are two key components of psychological safety, she says: respect and trust. “Trust is the belief that someone has your back and won’t act in a way that harms you. And respect is the appreciation for who someone is.” Amy is renowned for researching the effects of psychological safety on teamwork — specifically, in hospitals. She wanted to know the core elements of successful medical teams.

At first, she assumed the best teams would be the ones making the fewest mistakes. But the data showed that the better-performing teams reported actually more mistakes, not fewer. “The more I thought about it, the more it occurred to me that maybe better teams don’t just make more mistakes, they’re more willing to talk about them, for the express purpose of catching and correcting future mistakes before anyone is harmed.”

With actual lives at risk, the importance of fostering this kind of open communication may seem obvious, but how vital is psychological safety in, say, the corporate offices of a tech company?

Teams that have low psychological safety are much less capable of tackling complex problems.

This was something Google tried to figure out a few years ago when it launched Project Aristotle — a massive study of 180 of its own teams to determine the key elements of really successful teams. Geoff Ho is a people scientist who worked there at the time. “In the beginning, people expected that it was about team composition. They thought an algorithm for the perfect team might be, ‘get an engineer, a PhD, some diversity of gender and race, and voila: the perfect team’.”

Ho and his colleagues were surprised to find that that didn’t matter as much as how the team operated. Psychological safety was the trait that floated to the top. “When you’re not afraid to make a mistake, the team can learn. And learning is what ultimately leads to high performance over time.”

Pointing to his own experience, Clearfield says, “If the response had been, ‘I can’t believe you made that mistake, don’t ever do that again’,” he never would have shared another mistake or concern. That early positive experience really stuck with him. No longer a trader, Chris is now a consultant and speaker. He co-authored a book with Rotman School professor Andràs Tilcsik called Meltdown: Why Our Systems Fail and What We Can Do About It, about how organizations can benefit from diverse opinions and open communication.

If being transparent with each other at work can do this much good, colleagues develop a mutual sense of trust and respect, and your company benefits from having a high performing team, why isn’t psychological safety happening everywhere, all the time? Because people are complicated. For prehistoric humans, survival depended on developing strong social bonds and sticking together in groups for safety and shared resources like food and shelter. To this day, that motivates us to behave in line with what the group expects and try to maintain status by coming across as competent and reliable. It’s also one of the reasons why we don’t always communicate openly about problems or concerns.

Edmondson says this fear goes beyond not just being able to deal with mistakes. “It turns out that interpersonal fear has essentially the same effect on your brain as fight or flight fear. Some neuroscientists call it the amygdala hijack: When the amygdala gets triggered, we freeze. We’re not going to say, ‘oh, look, I made a mistake. I need help’. We default to hiding those things because we’re afraid. And it literally narrows our brain’s ability to engage in analytic thinking and problem solving.”

“Teams that have low psychological safety are much less able to tackle complex problems,” says Clearfield. And our careers can also be affected when we’re not willing to be vulnerable at work. “That stance of, ‘I know what I’m doing’, even if you don’t, you can get away with for a while in your career. But you will get to a point where the problem is hard enough and it involves so many other people that you can no longer make stuff up.”

It isn’t just our own fears that we need to address; we also have to navigate the threat and fear responses of every other person on our team. Individual employees aren’t exactly sitting around discussing how to up their psychological safety game. But there are things you can do to help lay the groundwork for a culture of healthy communication.

“The power of any given individual in helping alter the work environment, I think, is very great,” says Edmondson. One of the simple things that anyone can do is ask their colleagues a genuine question. For example, ‘What thoughts do you have about this project?’ “That’s not a yes or no question — it gives people room to respond. The beauty of asking a good question is that in that moment, you are automatically giving people a small, safe space to respond. You have explicitly said, ‘I’m interested in what you have to say’.”

Psychological safety also requires humility. “Anytime someone genuinely says, ‘I don’t know’, it makes the world a tiny bit more psychologically safe for others. That phrase is an expression of vulnerability, and by saying it, you’re inherently giving other people permission to say it, as well.”

As you try to change the way you relate to your colleagues, it’s also a good idea to check in on how you relate to people in general. The unresolved personal stuff that we bring to the office can add to our own lack of psychological safety. Kim Scott explains how to build healthy work relationships in her book, Radical Candor: How to Get What You Want by Saying What You Mean. “It’s very difficult to share radical candor with someone who has the power to not pay you a bonus or to fire you,” she says.

‘Ruinous empathy’ happens when our desire not to hurt another person’s feelings stops us from speaking up.

What exactly is radical candor? “When you show someone that you care about them, and at the same time, you challenge them directly when you see them making a mistake, that’s radical candor,” she says. It’s about communicating honestly, but in an empathetic way. It’s about challenging directly, which is the honesty part, and caring personally, which is the empathy part.

The tricky thing, Scott says, is that you really need to take time to gauge how your message is landing for the other person and be ready to adjust. “This requires active listening, kindness and some emotional intelligence, which is the ability to look for and understand someone’s emotional state — while still challenging directly with specific feedback.”

Scott says 85 per cent of our radical candour mistakes occur when we show that we care personally, but we’re so concerned about not hurting someone’s feelings, we fail to tell them something they’d be better off knowing. She calls this ‘ruinous empathy’, and it happens when our desire not to hurt the other person’s feelings stops us from speaking up about something that need to change. The problem is, whoever it was that needed that feedback misses out on the opportunity to learn something.

What if someone gives you feedback, but you don’t agree with it? How do you respond without alienating your co-worker or boss?

“First of all, whatever the person said, you can probably agree with at least five per cent of it. So focus on that five per cent and say, ‘I totally agree with that and I’m going to work on it’. Then say, ‘As for the rest of it, I need to think more about it. Is it okay if I get back to you?’ Then, you must get back to them within a day or two and offer a reasonable explanation for why you disagree — especially if this is someone you work with regularly.”

Believe it or not, bosses are often afraid of their employees, says Scott. “They’re afraid to say what they really think, because they’re afraid they’ll demoralize people or that they’ll quit.” Getting everyone on the same page with radical candor can be increasingly challenging as companies become more and more diverse across gender, race, age and many other demographic lines. The people you work for and with may not understand your identity or your lived experience, and you might not understand theirs. And that lack of understanding can lead to a lot of silence on both ends.

As much as you can practice the personal elements of psychological safety, beyond a certain point, it’ll be difficult to change the larger organizational culture if your boss isn’t invested in the same thing.

Edmondson notes that one can, and should, ask things like, ‘How will I be able to contribute to this project? Are you interested in me bringing in new ideas?’ She also recommends asking for stories of how people in the organization have made a positive difference in the past and changed how things unfolded in some way. “And if there are no stories like that for people to tell,” she notes, “you might want to run for the hills.”

This article first appeared in the Winter 2022 issue of Rotman Management magazine. Published in January, May and September, each issue features thought-provoking insights and problem-solving tools from leading global researchers and management practitioners. Subscribe Today.

Sonia Kang is the Canada research chair in identity, diversity and inclusion at the University of Toronto and associate professor of organizational behaviour and HR management at the University of Toronto Mississauga, with a cross-appointment to the Rotman School of Management. She is U of T Mississauga’s special adviser on anti-racism and equity. This article has been adapted from her podcast, For the Love of Work, which is made possible by Rogers and is available wherever podcasts are heard.