Leading With Empathy & Allyship Show

Building Psychological Safety And Trust On Teams With Amy Edmondson

Leading With Empathy & Allyship promo and photos of Amy Edmondson, a White woman with short silver-blonde hair and black coat; and host Melinda Briana Epler, a White woman with blonde and red hair, glasses, red shirt, and black jacket.

In Episode 99, Amy Edmondson, Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at the Harvard Business School, joins Melinda to discuss how leaders can build psychological safety and trust on their teams. They explore the benefits of a psychologically safe workplace, signs that may indicate if a workplace is safe, and how psychological safety enables innovation and positive team performance. They also discuss effective strategies for establishing and maintaining trust on diverse teams and in hybrid workplaces.

Additional Resources

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  • “Psychological safety is not the same thing as a safe space…. A safe space often means a space that is trigger-free, maybe even challenge-free. And oddly, I conceptualize psychological safety as actually a very challenging place… because of all the candor…, the debate…, the mistakes…, the revealing of the mistakes. These psychologically safe teams aren’t comfortable, they are energizing…. They are there to get work done well and also, hopefully, to help you learn and grow. But they sure won’t be easy and fun the whole time.”
  • “If you’re a manager in a company today and your company… is facing uncertainty and challenge…, ask yourself, ‘In my sort of day-to-day life at work as a manager, what’s the ratio between good news and bad? What’s the ratio between reports of progress or problems, between agreement and dissent, between “all is well” and “we’ve got issues”?’ If your answer is that ‘I’m largely hearing positive things,’ that may be a risk factor…. The absence of bad news [or] requests for help… is probably not a sign that everything is just going perfectly. It’s probably a sign that you’re not hearing about everything.”
  • “Do a daily reflection on your curiosity level…, like ‘What new things did I learn today? What questions did I ask? How many questions did I ask? What did I hear in response?’ To me, that would seem to be a very useful practice because your curiosity and your questions are invitations to others to express their voice. And that’s an act of respect. And listening is an act of respect. And guess what? It helps you too.”


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Leading With Empathy & Allyship promo and photos of Amy Edmondson, a White woman with short silver-blonde hair and black blazer; and host Melinda Briana Epler, a White woman with blonde and red hair, glasses, red shirt, and black jacket.

Amy Edmondson
Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at Harvard Business School

Amy C. Edmondson is the Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at the Harvard Business School, a chair established to support the study of human interactions that lead to the creation of successful enterprises that contribute to the betterment of society.

Edmondson has been recognized by the biannual Thinkers50 global ranking of management thinkers since 2011, and most recently was ranked #1 in 2021; she also received that organization’s Breakthrough Idea Award in 2019, and Talent Award in 2017.  She studies teaming, psychological safety, and organizational learning, and her articles have been published in numerous academic and management outlets, including Administrative Science Quarterly, Academy of Management Journal, Harvard Business Review, and California Management Review. Her most recent book, The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth (Wiley, 2019), offers a practical guide for organizations serious about success in the modern economy and has been translated into 15 languages.


MELINDA: Hello, everyone. I am Melinda Briana Epler, founder and CEO of Change Catalyst and author of How to Be an Ally. I’m your host of Leading With Empathy & Allyship. Welcome! 


Allyship is about learning, showing empathy, and taking action. That process often includes learning, unlearning, and relearning. Then, building empathy for people with different experiences. Above all, taking consistent action. 


Each week we’ll learn from somebody new. Please be open to new ways of thinking and understanding. You can learn more about my work and sign up to join us for a live recording at ally.cc. 


Let’s get started. 


MELINDA: Hello, everyone. Today, I’m incredibly excited to introduce you to our guest. Professor Amy Edmondson is a Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at Harvard, which is a chair that is established to support the study of human interactions that lead to the creation of successful enterprises and contribute to the betterment of society. She studies teaming, psychological safety, and organizational learning.


We work in psychological safety, and specific is a foundation for many Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion programs. I’m a big fan of her work. Today, we’ll be talking a lot about building psychological safety on teams. So welcome, Amy.


AMY: Thank you. Thank you. I’m thrilled to be here.


MELINDA: Let’s start with your story first. If you could share a bit about where you grew up, how you ended up doing what you do today, what you do today, and how you ended up getting there.


AMY: Well, I grew up in New York City. I was always good at school. I always liked school. I particularly like math, and you know, things, believe it or not, things with the right answer. Today, everything I do has no right answer. So I had to–.


MELINDA: Very different.


AMY: Yeah, very different. I studied engineering in college because I wanted to be able to make a difference, I suppose, in some tangible, concrete way, but it took me a while to find my real calling, which was trying to make a difference in a very different, more intangible way by helping and understanding how to help workplaces be as effective as they can and be the kind of place that people want to help contribute and want to work together.


To get to a point where I could do research and teaching toward that aim, I got a doctorate in organizational behavior about ten years after getting out of college. So, I worked for a while as an engineer and a consultant, and then did a Ph.D. and went straight into my first faculty job at Harvard Business School, where I have been ever since. That’s about 26 years.


MELINDA: Amazing. Let’s start with the basics. What is psychological safety? What does it look like on teams?


AMY: Well, psychological safety describes a climate in a team where people feel able to speak up very simply. Right? And so, they feel able to ask questions, share ideas, and admit mistakes. Not that that’s super easy, ever, but that they understand and absolutely believe it’s welcomed. It’s the way we do things in this team, in this group, in this workplace. It describes an interpersonal climate of relatively low threat.


MELINDA: Can you describe what it looks like to have a team that has psychological safety kind of embedded within that team and culture?


AMY: It looks like a lot of active contribution dialogue, candor, energy. I mean, it’s energizing to know that your voice is welcome and expected. Oftentimes, the posture will be more relaxed, the energy will be high, as I said, and there might even be a sort of healthy, good-natured humor about things. In today’s world, so many things go wrong or don’t work out quite right the first time, and people in a psychologically safe environment are able to cope with that. No problem. They’ll roll with it.


MELINDA: What are the benefits? Why is it important for us to really work to build psychological safety on teams?


AMY: The benefits, I guess, roughly fall into two categories. One being the good things that happen, and the other big one is the bad things that don’t happen. Let’s talk first about the good things that happen. People feel included, feel welcome. That’s a good thing, even if it’s a part of the process toward whatever other outcomes are necessary or desired in your work. 


There’s a strong correlation with performance in teams, team performance, particularly for more knowledge-intensive work, for work that requires creativity or judgment or decision making. Then, the correlation between psychological safety and team performance is higher compared to more routine work, let’s say. Clear correlation with innovation. Psychological safety is an enabler of innovation for, I think, obvious reasons. If people can’t share ideas or critique plans, you’re unlikely to arrive at something as new and uncertain as an innovation.


MELINDA: You might see the group think or ways that we get to conclusions because people are taking risks and kind of conform to one idea.


AMY: Exactly. I think many people have a kind of implicit notion in their heads that the way you get good performance is people just try hard. And that’s true up to a point. But in creative work or knowledge-intensive work of any kind, the relationship between effort and performance outcomes is not entirely straightforward. I mean, sometimes you’ll try really hard and arrive at a failure because Mother Nature had something else in mind that, you know, the science didn’t work that way, or the external forces didn’t work that way. 


There were supply chain problems that didn’t allow you to have what you needed at the time you needed it. Right? So no matter how hard you work, you wouldn’t get the outcome. So there’s much more uncertainty in a lot of environments today. And so, we have to kind of overcome those very simple notions about what it looks like to perform well. 


When we overcome those simple notions, I think we begin to realize it’s kind of obvious in a way that we need people to be candid and straightforward and to just feel unencumbered in being able to speak up, especially with work-relevant content. 


The things, of course, I mean, maybe this is just the flip side. But there are two kinds of bad things that don’t happen with high psychological safety. One is just very literally. People are less likely to hold back or not speak up when they see a concern with a plan the boss is raising. I mean, “I’m not going to call the boss’s baby ugly.” Right? So, they just hold back. 


That holding back is both problematic for performance, but it’s also painful to them. I mean, none of us enjoy sort of having a relevant thought and feeling. “Uh-uh, can’t share it.” And then that bad thing leads to even worse things over time, and you get the devastating scandals and even human safety, loss of life incidents that were, in fact, preventable. 


You get things like the VW Dieselgate scandal where people/engineers couldn’t speak up to say, “No, the engine wasn’t ready.”  and instead felt they had no choice but to design software to cheat the regulators. Right? And then ultimately that becomes both a health problem for air quality and so forth and a devastating scandal and an expensive scandal at that. That’s very much avoidable in a psychologically safe environment. 


You name a devastating corporate scandal, 737 Max, and I’ll tell you the story of how people’s inability, and I don’t blame them, I honestly don’t, but their inability to speak up in a timely, honest way contributed to those disasters.


MELINDA: Yeah, The Challenger. That’s another one that comes to mind


AMY: Challenger, Columbia. Again, and again. Yeah.


MELINDA: So, if I’m a manager, are there some signs that I can see that show me that maybe I need to work on psychological safety that maybe I don’t have yet a psychologically safe work environment for my team?


AMY: If you’re a manager in a company today, and your company, which nearly everybody does, is facing uncertainty and challenge, some novelty, right, some new situations, maybe new customers, new markets, new products. Uncertainty, right? Full stop. 


If that’s your situation, or anything close to that situation, now ask yourself, “In my sort of day-to-day life at work as a manager, what’s the ratio between good news and bad? What’s the ratio between reports of progress or problems, between agreement and dissent, between “all is well” and “we’ve got issues”?”


If your answer is that “I’m largely hearing positive things.” that may be a risk factor. The absence is the dog that didn’t bark in Sherlock Holmes. The absence of bad news requests for help. Interesting problem is probably not a sign that everything is just going perfectly. Right? That’s unlikely in today’s world. So, it’s probably a sign that you’re not hearing about everything.


MELINDA: Yeah, I love that. I think that that’ll be an aha moment for a lot of folks. Just not necessarily about seeing that people aren’t engaged or seeing that people aren’t doing well, but it’s the absence of negative. Not negative feedback.


AMY: Yeah. It’s not even negative. It’s just reality, right? Reality. Yeah. You want to be in touch with the gritty reality. I quoted Mark Costa, a very effective CEO at Eastman Chemical, in my book, Fearless Organization. He came to our class. He’s a wonderful alumnus of the school and speaks to our students each year. 


The first time that he came to class, he said, “My greatest fear as CEO is that people won’t be telling me the truth.” Right. And that’s a very wise statement. He’s aware of that as a number one risk, not because people are bad or weak or not courageous, but because of the nature of his role, like once you’re in that top seat, or, you know, any boss seat, people make inferences about you simply based on the role. 


Because most of us assume, maybe not most, but I think a very large number of us assume, “I’m approachable. Right? I’m not scary.” And so, you might not know. You might not know that people find you scary. They might find you scary simply because of the role you are in. And so, your job is to sort of bend over backward so that doesn’t happen. And you bend over backward by asking good questions, for example. 


You’re asking me good questions right now. I promise you. I would feel very awkward refusing to respond. Right? We don’t do that as humans, right? If someone asks you a question, you feel not only compelled to answer, but you feel in that little moment respected by their interest in your answer. And that, too, is elevating.


MELINDA: Yeah. So, you kind of anticipated where I was going to go next, which is how do we build psychological safety? What are the things that we can do? Some things to think about in terms of building psychological safety. One is asking questions. Yeah?


AMY: Probably the first one is to remind yourself a little bit. Be more explicit in your own mind about what you or your team, or your company are up against. Right? Is it the case that no one’s ever done something quite like this before, or this is a really challenging client, or this is a really new technology, or we haven’t played in this market before? 


If you sort of stop and remind yourself about various features of the work that are indeed challenging, good, step one. Now say it out loud, right? Because you might take for granted that other people see what you see. They may or they may not. But what really matters is that when you say it aloud, you’re reframing reality. You’re reframing reality is the kind of reality that, wow, it’s tricky, challenging, interesting, and it needs my voice. Right? It needs all of our voices. 


So, what you’re trying to do is set the stage by letting people know that you see a challenge ahead. You don’t have all the answers. You might say things like, you know, “I haven’t done something like this before. I need to hear from you.” Right? So, you’re just stage setting, even before you ask those good questions. Then the second thing that I think really helps after that preparation is constant demonstrations of interest in others’ experiences and perspectives. Right? 


You do that primarily by asking questions. Now, I like to say ask good questions. Good questions are ones that help us focus on something that matters, you know, the issue at hand. Not just, “Hey, what’s on your mind?” That’s nice. Nice to know what’s on your mind. But like you’re doing here today, you’re asking focused questions about some issue that you want to know more about. It’s not a yes/no question. But it’s a question that is sufficiently focused to help me contribute. And yet also gives me a room. Right? It gives me room to do something with it. 


So, that’s a good question. Right? It’s focused. It gives you room. It’s not yes/no. It doesn’t imply the right answer. I mean, everything I just said seems so obvious. And yet, it’s more rare than you might think. And part of that is, you know, why would people, why would managers, why would team members not be asking lots of questions, given the uncertainty and complexity of the world in which we operate? 


And the short answer is it’s hard to learn when you already know. And expertise gives us a sense of knowing, and our brains themselves give us a sense of knowing. We have this feeling of seeing reality. I don’t have the feeling, “Oh, I’m seeing reality but filtered through my biases, my background, my ideas, my mood, what have you.” 


I’m never seeing reality. I’m only seeing my perspective on reality, but we don’t think that way. And so, therefore, we kind of have this funny feeling that we know. And when you feel you know, that’s the enemy of curiosity, and that’s going to lead you to not be asking questions.


MELINDA: So, can you share how does psychological safety relate to trust? I know that that is trust, and building trust and also rebuilding trust is something that’s on a lot of managers’ minds. Any thoughts about how to do that effectively?


AMY: Sure. I mean, these are all trust and respect and psychological safety. They’re all siblings. They’re all close cousins in a healthy work environment. Technically, trust refers to an individual’s expectations about another entity, another person, usually another person, but it could also be a company. I trust Toyota to make high-quality cars, for example. 


So, trust is my belief that that other entity will act in a way that isn’t harmful to me. Or it doesn’t let me down. It doesn’t violate my expectation about what’s appropriate. Psychological safety, which indeed has a group where there’s a lot of trusts, and a lot of respect, will be psychologically safe by the nature of those two things. But psychological safety technically refers to the emergent property of a group. It’s a climate in this group. It’s not what I think of you or what I think of you. It’s how it is here with us. It’s that interpersonal environment, if you will.


MELINDA: Yeah. Maybe we could talk through a couple of examples, too, about how psychological safety and trust can almost be rebuilt. So, one example. Let’s take the Buffalo Shooting as an example. For a lot of Black people in the workplace, in particular, when their managers didn’t say something or do something or acknowledge that that might have an impact on them. They lost some trust in their managers. Do you have any recommendations for managers who might have made a mistake like that as an ally, as an advocate, as an empathetic leader, to rebuild that trust, rebuild that psychological safety?


AMY: I can’t say anything that is particularly new or creative about that. But the age-old advice, I believe, is to own it. Right? To take responsibility for the error. Each and every one of us is a fallible human being. Like, we will make mistakes. We all make mistakes every day. Some of them will be bigger and more hurtful to others than others. We owe it to other people to express our sorrow and our apology for our errors. 


I think a lot of people are afraid to apologize because I think it makes them bad. We easily confuse impact and intention, right? If that silence had a negative impact, you own that impact. It doesn’t mean you’re a bad person. It doesn’t mean there was an intention to harm. But it is still best practice to say I am so sorry that I did this, that this happened, that this hurt you. So it’s naming it, taking responsibility for it. And then, of course, vowing to do better, right, and doing your very best to do better. 


I do think we have to help people. I mean, this shouldn’t be a unilateral game, right? It’s indeed when you have a position, a manager position, a position of authority in any way that you have an outsized responsibility to care about the environment, to care about other people. You’ve taken on a role that says, “I care about people. I want to develop people. I want to get things done within three people.” Right? You took that on willingly. And it’s a hard job. No question about it. 


And let’s not put all of the burdens. I’d be hoping for and seeing what we can together figure out needs to happen for more candor throughout, right? So, the people who oftentimes feel they’ve been wronged are unable and unwilling to speak up about that, right? So, there’s a kind of ignorance on the other side that doesn’t get rectified quickly enough, and then the harm continues. And so, we all have a responsibility to both speak up in a timely way about when we feel hurt and to help educate each other to take responsibility when we’ve done things that inadvertently cause harm.


MELINDA: Yeah. And to go back to your earlier point of creating that environment where people do feel safe to do that. Yeah.


AMY:  And you know what this environment is? It’s a learning environment. I mean, that’s what we’re talking about. It’s not safety for safety’s sake. It’s certainly inclusion matters enormously in its own right and for the quality of the work as well. 


What we don’t do very well as humans and as organizations is engage in continuous learning. Again, it goes back to we’re so much more comfortable knowing and applying the things we know and expressing the things we know, but if we start to take seriously that we have to be learning people and learning teams and learning organizations, then you lighten up a little. 


And just realize we probably will never get perfect at any of these things, you know, at inclusion, at the proper response to big visible social issues and challenges, or to just satisfying our crankiest customer. We’ll never get it perfectly right. So, it’s okay. Right? Let’s just be fallible human beings who are continuous learners.


MELINDA: I recently spoke with Dr. Vivienne Ming about some of her work around the neuroscience of trust. One of the things she talked about was that we tend to trust people who are most like us and distressed people who are less like us. That might turn into treating people differently with different levels of skepticism about people who are in a kind of outgroup versus in groups, right? 


It can turn into microaggressions, exclusion, and even discrimination. I assume they’re lower levels of psychological safety for people with underrepresented identities. Right? Are there specific things for folks to think about? Or does this work change as we work to build psychological safety, particularly on diverse teams?


AMY: To me, the most important thing about what you’re asking is the lack of intent, right? The lack of bad intent. I mean, neuroscience is literally saying we are hardwired to respond differently to people who are more like us than people who are more unlike us, right? That’s just, hello, right? That’s the human condition. That’s what the scientists are telling us. 


So, wow. Instead of saying, “Okay, that’s bad, bad, bad.” We can’t say that what Mother Nature has left us with is just bad, bad, bad. We have to just say, “Okay, it’s what it is. Now what?” Right? How are we going to respond and act so that we do the very best we can for and with each other given that? Right? 


So to me, the three competencies, maybe these aren’t competencies, but the three things to really develop to kind of work on; our humility, curiosity, and empathy. Those are things that come with wisdom. Those are things that I can’t see as a downside to any of them. I can say they’re not natural. And maybe the neuroscientists would have ways to understand that. But humility is sort of that constant reminder to yourself that I have a valid point of view, and I’m missing something. Right? I’m definitely missing something. 


And curiosity is just sort of cultivating the desire to really know, to keep learning, to find out what others see, to kind of close that gap. You know you’re missing something, so hey, wait a minute. I want to know. I want to know what you’re seeing, what you’re thinking, who you are. 


And empathy is the capacity to respond to another human being and want to respond in a way that will be okay for them. And it’s okay to want that same for you. And so, I think we have to, you know. We sort of owe it to ourselves why the work, the neuroscience work is so important. I think it is because it reminds us of the steepness of the hill we’re trying to climb. Because I think we very quickly, you know, we know this from earlier social psychology, that we are quick to assign blame and intent to things that go wrong. 


And so, the neuroscientists are telling us, you got that wrong, right? Your instincts are wrong, but your instincts that that other person was trying to hurt me or doesn’t care or guess probably they just realized they’re late for daycare pickup, right? None of us do that well, but it can be learned. We can get better.


MELINDA: Yeah. Let’s talk about the hybrid workplace a little bit because so many workplaces are kind of challenged right now by doing something different, doing something new, which is hybrid, not all remote, which many workplaces, not all, went kind of newly discovered in the last two years to now kind of finding somewhere in between a private workplace. What’s different? What should we be thinking about here?


AMY: Well, probably the most important difference is the uncertainty and potential for confusion or thwarted expectations, right? So, if I expected you to be in today, but you expected to be remote today, we’re sort of starting off already on a more challenging foot than we would be before the pandemic, right? Where I was just expecting you to be at work and you expected me to be at work, chances are pretty good we both would be at work. 


The potential for crossed expectations is very high. The obvious antidote, then, is very clear expectations and structures, right? I’m not going to say they shouldn’t be like this or they should be like that, but they should be clear. Like, we’re working these particular days this week, and people on this team are going to be meeting in person to advance the work in a thoughtful way. 


And so, setting expectations clearly, and then being, you know, really honest and careful and even scientific about what is working and what isn’t. What is largely missing in the conversation in the media writ large is the work, right? You see a lot of articles about it and a lot of writing about it. It’s people’s preferences. 


And you see also reference to some of the challenges that you’re describing. But you don’t see an awful lot about, “Well, what kinds of work need what kinds of arrangements and what kinds of work need other arrangements? How should we design and structure our place going forward to suit those needs?


MELINDA: Yeah. It does seem like, maybe, even looking at performance review is a little bit differently as a result in what, in terms of those expectations and setting those expectations up front and really going deeper on what that looks like.


AMY: Yeah. I mean, facing forward. Looking ahead as we look ahead to the next month or the next year, whatever the proper timeframe is, what kinds of things are on our collective plate? What kinds of things are we going to have to do and accomplish together? What’s that going to require? 


If I’m writing a book today, I can kind of do that anywhere. Probably the quieter, the better. If I’m brainstorming a new framework for thinking about our upcoming class structure and I’m doing that with a colleague or a couple of colleagues, there is no question at all that doing that together with a whiteboard with the opportunity to jump up and, you know, figure out what’s working and what isn’t. It’s just a very different experience doing it that way.


MELINDA: Yeah, absolutely. I think some of what you’ve just shared can also apply to other major changes in organizations, too, like thinking about mergers and acquisitions or a round of layoffs where you’re going into recession now. And already, some companies are potentially going through a recession. And already, some companies are starting to do layoffs. That creates a lot of uncertainty for folks as well.


AMY: Yes. Some uncertainty is irreducible right now, and that’s okay. Say so. Right? Be clear about those things you do know. Be transparent about what is known and be transparent about what isn’t known. And when possible, updating people and letting people know when you will update them as you learn more.


MELINDA: I was watching a TED video that you did recently. You talked about giving your power away in times of upheaval. Can you talk about that? What does that mean? What does that look like?


AMY: We’ve talked about neuroscience and instincts. There’s an instinct in times of crisis or upheaval to double down on uncertainty to hold the reins more tightly. It’s the wrong instinct, right? It’s an unhelpful instinct what you need to do because there isn’t a clear playbook. 


So you need to empower other people to go do what they need to do, whether that’s because they have a particular role that they’re closest to it, they need to do it, whether it’s because we just need a lot of experimentation before we figure out what works and what doesn’t work. If everything has to go through you, you’re going to be the bottleneck. You’re not going to be able to make decisions quickly enough. 


And by the way, you don’t have any special access to the future. You don’t have a crystal ball, right? So you’re better off authorizing those energized experiments to happen quickly and in a distributed way than in trying to hold on too tightly. 


And again, your instinct will lead you to want to hold on tightly when in fact, those are the very times it’s okay to hold on tightly when there’s real certainty or a really clear line of sight ahead. You know exactly what’s going to happen. You want to unfold just like this. Okay, but relax that situation to greater uncertainty, greater crisis, greater need for speed, agility, then you need to give the power away.


MELINDA: Is there anything we missed that’s really important for managers, for leaders, for colleagues, as well as they’re looking to improve psychological safety?


AMY: One thing that’s on my mind a lot these days because I’m writing a new book about it, these failures. And you know, failure, there’s a lot of happy talks out there about failure. It’s a lot of Silicon Valley lingo fail fast, you know, and all that good stuff. And yet, in reality, I don’t think most companies do a good enough job of distinguishing. 


My research has certainly shown this. Distinguishing between good failure and bad failure. There are plenty of failures that really are not okay. Right? I mean, it is not okay to violate a rule and end up hurting someone physically or emotionally, or otherwise, right? It’s not okay to just kind of casually take on a very serious assignment that might involve human safety. It’s not okay to not show up when you said you would unless there’s some kind of emergency, right? 


There are plenty of things that we don’t find acceptable. There are plenty of times those unacceptable behaviors would result in failure. We wouldn’t celebrate those. Of course, I know this is obvious. I think that failure to distinguish between intelligent failures in new territory, where not enough was known for sure to know what was gonna happen, and just sort of sloppy work, or the complex accidents that are multi-causal and might involve a mix of external and internal factors, that again, nobody’s really responsible for them, but they’re still not good, right?


They’re still not happy. They’re still things that we need to take very seriously and learn as much as we can from. So psychological safety is both necessary to have a healthy failure attitude and also a healthy failure attitude to build psychological safety.


MELINDA: Going a little bit deeper into failures that are important is I think about the fail fast in Silicon Valley, too, because of a lot of our workers in the tech industry. I think the getting out there is that in order to innovate, you need to try it. 


AMY: Exactly. Yeah. I think most people in tech and most people in general probably have an intuitive understanding of what an intelligent failure or a good failure is. I think by being even more explicit about it, we can be helpful. Right? 


The criteria that I write about are new territory, right? It’s not possible to just Google it and find the answer. It’s a genuine experiment. New territory. Opportunity-driven, right? You earnestly believe there’s something here, right? Something good might come out of it. 


You’ve done your homework. You’ve taken the time to articulate a hypothesis or to think through why you believe trying this might work. It might not be because you really can’t know. But it might. You’ve done your homework. It’s not just random action hoping that something works, right? 


And then finally, this is important. You do an action that is the smallest possible to get the learning you need. You don’t bet the whole farm on an uncertain outcome. You say, “How many customers do I need to engage in this trial?” And of course, this is formalized in pharmaceuticals and beta tests of new technologies all the time. But there’s a lot that goes into just big enough, right? We don’t want to waste resources. We don’t want to anger customers or potential customers. But we can’t just ask one person because that wouldn’t be a very useful data point.


MELINDA: Yeah. Is anything else that is really important that we missed? 


AMY: Sure. I mean, I guess it’s important for me to say, despite the overlap in language, that psychological safety is not the same thing as a safe space, or at least, a safe space often means a space that is trigger free, maybe even challenge-free. 


And, oddly, I conceptualize psychological safety as actually a very challenging place. Right? It’s because of all the candor, because of the debate, because of the mistakes, because of the revealing of the mistakes. These psychologically safe teams aren’t comfortable. They are energizing, right? They are there to get work done well and also, hopefully, to help you learn and grow. But they sure won’t be easy and fun the whole time.


MELINDA: Yeah. There’s some important discomfort that happens.


AMY: Yeah, important discomfort. Exactly. You can’t grow without discomfort. You can’t get better at a sport. You can’t get better at math or anything without some discomfort.


MELINDA: Absolutely. So, this show is about learning. It’s about building empathy and understanding. And then it’s also about taking action. So I want to ask you, what action would you want people to take after they’ve listened to or watched our conversation together?


AMY: I think the most important action is to do a daily reflection on your curiosity level. So just daily, like what new things did I learned today? What questions did I ask? How many questions did I ask? What did I hear in response? To me, that would seem to be a very useful practice because your curiosity and your questions are invitations to others to express their voice. And that’s an act of respect. And listening is an act of respect. And guess what? It helps you too.


MELINDA: Fantastic. Where can people learn more about you and your work? 


AMY: Well, there is a website my team put together, amycedmondson.com, I guess. The best and most concise place to learn more about psychological safety would be the fearless organization, which came about in 2019 and is widely available.


MELINDA: Awesome. We’ll put a link to both of those. And perhaps a couple of your articles are on this as well in the show notes, too, so people can learn more. 


AMY: Thank you. 


MELINDA:  Great. And do you have an update yet for your new book?


AMY: It will be coming out on September 23. So a year from now, basically.


MELINDA: Fantastic. Fantastic. Well, thank you. Thank you so much. This has been wonderful. I really deeply appreciate the work that you do, and so many of our listeners know about your work and appreciate what you share today. 


AMY: Thank you. 


MELINDA: And everyone, please take at least one action today to improve psychological safety for those around you. See you all next week. 


MELINDA: We’ll share resources and a transcript from this discussion at ally.cc. 


And please make sure to subscribe to our channel and rate this show. It makes a difference for us. Thank you for being part of our community. And remember, the more we take action, the more we grow as humans and as leaders, and the more we transform our communities. So, what action will you take today? Let us know your actions by emailing podcast@ChangeCatalyst.co or reaching out on social media. 


Leading With Empathy & Allyship is a show by Change Catalyst where we build inclusive innovation through training, consulting, and events. You can learn more about us at Change Catalyst.co. 


Let’s keep building allyship across our communities and around the world.


Thank you for listening

About the Host

Host: Melinda Briana Epler

Melinda Briana Epler has over 25 years of experience developing business innovation and inclusion strategies for startups, Fortune 500 companies, and global NGOs.

As CEO of Change Catalyst, Melinda currently works with the tech industry to solve diversity and inclusion together. Using her background in storytelling and large-scale culture change, she is a strategic advisor for tech companies, tech hubs, and governments around the world. She co-leads a series of global solutions-focused conferences called Tech Inclusion, where she has partnered with over 450 tech companies and community organizations and hosted 43 solutions-focused diversity and inclusion events around the world.

Previously, Melinda was a Marketing and Culture Executive and award-winning documentary filmmaker – her film and television work includes projects that exposed the AIDS crisis in South Africa, explored women’s rights in Turkey, and prepared communities for the effects of climate change. She has worked on several television shows, including NBC’s The West Wing.

Melinda is a TED speaker. She speaks, mentors and writes about diversity and inclusion in tech, allyship, social entrepreneurship, underrepresented entrepreneurs and investing. She has spoken on hundreds of stages around the world, including SXSW, Grace Hopper, Wisdom 2.0, the World Bank, Obama White House, Clinton Foundation, Black Enterprise, Google, Indeed, Capital One and McKinsey.

In The Press

Watch Melinda’s TED Talk

Speaking Engagements

Change Catalyst Co-Founder Melinda Briana Epler has spoken across the globe in hundreds of venues and virtual events. Empathy, Allyship, Advocacy, Microaggressions, Inclusive Leadership, and Building Inclusive Teams are just some of the topics Melinda has spoken on. Let us know about your next speaking engagement needs! Melinda has also spoken on how to build organizational capacity to advance diversity, equity, and inclusion, such as how to lead behavior change or how to build allies and advocates.


This show has given me clear opportunities to learn in the midst of 2020’s numerous social and personal challenges, including engaging remote content. I’ve learned new terms, heard new voices, diversified my interests and internalized personal narratives that have inspired me to get more active.

The show shaped my scope of reasoning on the dynamics in the corporate world, brand building, harmony across board with team mates. Your series has helped me feel less alone and less daunted by the challenges I face as a leader at a company that is used to moving fast with decisions and making swift progress across the board. I so earnestly want to grow and deepen my perspective when it comes to diversity and allyship; it’s not always clear how to do it. This series has felt like a path I can follow and revisit and draw strength and insight from. Thank you.

I watched many of your live shows in 2020, and I learned something from every discussion. They were inspiring on many levels. Early on during the pandemic (especially), the show also provided me with a sense of community that I was sorely needing. Thank you.

Virtual Training, Consulting & Coaching Solutions
If you’re looking for a way for remote teams to continue their learning and professional development, we’re now offering virtual allyship, inclusion and leadership trainings. We’ve also continued our consulting practice virtually. AND we now offer hourly coaching. Let us know if you’re interested in learning more!
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