In the ‘90s, a young researcher named Amy Edmondson was tasked with assessing the rate of human-related drug errors in a particular group of hospitals. She wondered: Do better hospital patient care teams make fewer mistakes? When the data came in, the results astounded her—it appeared that better teams made more mistakes, not fewer.
Puzzled, she did some more research and realized that the better teams were not, in fact, making more mistakes—they were just more likely to talk about mistakes. These teams had an atmosphere of openness and good working relationships that empowered nurses to report errors.
The advantage? A nurse at one hospital, for example, was able to thwart a medication error by reporting a dosage that seemed too high to the on-call doctor who confirmed she was right.
Much later, Edmondson would coin this phenomenon as “psychological safety.” And as it turns out, it’s crucial to the performance of an organization. Psychological safety is what empowers Pixar to churn out blockbuster movies and Google to innovate on new ideas—because each team knows that the company views failure as a natural part of the process.
But what about the opposite? What about those hospitals where reported errors were lower because the team feared punishment? In one such hospital, called University 2, the nurse manager was authoritarian, and her nurses described their team as being rife with cliques.
University 2’s climate demonstrates the enemy of psychological safety and the death of creativity and innovation: pack mentality.
What Is Pack Mentality And Why Is It Harmful?
Humans are inherently social; we crave community and belonging. This is natural and can be healthy. That need for belonging can go haywire, however, when it morphs into pack mentality.
Pack mentality (also known as herd mentality, mob mentality, or gang mentality), unlike community-building, is defined by elements of hostility and fear: If you’re within the pack, you better play by the rules or risk getting kicked out.
If you’re outside of the pack, you’re the enemy and not to be trusted. Think of wolves, which run in packs that have a clear pecking order established via growls, snarls, and outright fighting. The “alpha” in the pack is authoritarian and commands the group, and outsiders are perceived as a threat.
In the same vein is something just as dangerous and often found mingling with pack mentality: groupthink. Groupthink, according to Irving Janis is defined as:
“A mode of thinking that people engage in when they are deeply involved in a cohesive in-group, when the members' strivings for unanimity override their motivation to realistically appraise alternative courses of action.”
In other words, groupthink makes individuals ignore their instinct or moral compass and acquiesce to the decisions of the group at large. You can see how this is harmful to creativity and innovation, right?
Let’s illustrate the problems of groupthink with a video from a scientific study by Solomon Asch on conformity in groups.
A subject was asked to look at a series of different lines and say aloud which line matched the first one in length. Unwittingly, he was in a room with confederates of the researcher, all of whom had been instructed to give the same wrong answer at some point. In the first two trials, all the confederates gave the correct answer, and the subject did too. But on the third one, when the confederates unanimously chose the line that was clearly the wrong answer, the subject gave in and picked the wrong answer too.
What’s more, when another confederate was placed in the room as an “ally” who would be the lone dissenter, conformity decreased by as much as 80%. It seems that having just one person who is willing to go against the group empowers others to do so as well.
If pack mentality excludes new people and groupthink ignores alternatives, then both are harmful to creativity and innovation in the workplace. Thankfully, both can be combated with a dose of psychological safety.
What Is Psychological Safety And Why Is It Helpful In Combating Pack Mentality?
In an interview on the Let’s Fix Work podcast, Edmondson defined psychological safety as “a belief that I will not be humiliated or punished in any way for speaking up with work-relevant stuff—work-relevant ideas, concerns, questions, even mistakes.”
It runs directly counter to pack mentality, which punishes members for not conforming to the rules or obeying the authoritarian.
And Edmondson is quick to point out that psychological safety is not being nice all the time or coddling your teammates. “Working in a psychologically safe environment does not mean that people always agree with one another for the sake of being nice,” she writes for Quartz. “It also does not mean that people offer unequivocal praise or unconditional support for everything you have to say.”
How To Foster Psychological Safety In The Workplace: A Three-Step Framework by Amy Edmondson
In her book The Fearless Organization, Edmondson seeks to provide a blueprint for bringing psychological safety to the workplace. Her three-step framework, which she calls The Leader’s Tool Kit for Building Psychological Safety, includes:
1. Setting The Stage
The goal of setting the stage is to get everyone to a place of shared expectations and meaning. To do this, Edmondson says, you must “frame the work” by looking at failure in new ways and clarifying the need for voice.
If your team fears failure, they’ll be shy to take worthy risks and less likely to speak up when they see something wrong. To show your team that failures will be met with kindness and support—instead of retribution—leaders must step up and reframe failure for the rest of the team. In her book, Edmondson points to Pixar’s Ed Catmull, who has created a culture at his company that famously embraces failure.
"Failure is a necessary consequence of doing something new," Catmull said at a True North Conference. "You have to be open to the things that don't work in order to make progress."
2. Inviting Participation
Edmondson recommends inviting participation by designing structures for input. An excellent real-life example of this is when Michael Dearing worked at eBay and instituted the Orange Box, which was a cardboard box wrapped in orange paper into which people could drop their completely anonymous questions. At every all-hands meeting, he would read each question verbatim and respond.
“Instituting anonymous Q&A helps build a workplace where leaders mean it when they ask for questions,” he writes. “And where leaders are expected to answer colleagues honestly and publicly.”
3. Responding Productively
A psychologically safe workplace doesn’t condone demeaning remarks or attacks. Edmondson says productive responses include three things:
- Expressions of appreciation
- Destigmatizing failure
- Sanctioning clear violations.
So how do you express appreciation, even when you vehemently disagree with someone?
Well, let’s say a coworker calls you on the weekend because they think one of the slides in the presentation due on Monday contains incorrect information. Irritated by the intrusion, you check your notes and confirm that the information is indeed correct. Instead of reacting with irritation— even though your coworker is wrong—you could say, “Thank you for caring enough to check on this. I looked at my notes, though, and the information is right.”
By doing something as simple as showing gratitude, you’re conveying to your teammate that their input is welcome, even if it turns out to be wrong. This is what it means to foster psychological safety. Encourage your team to take risks—even if sometimes they’ll miss the mark—because most of the time, they’ll make a meaningful contribution.
Other Things To Keep In Mind As You Promote Psychological Safety
Don’t be surprised if it seems like your team starts making more mistakes.
Call to mind Edmondson’s findings in the medication error study. While it appeared that the better teams were making more mistakes, in reality, it was simply that they were more willing to report those mistakes.
As you cultivate psychological safety in your workplace, that openness will allow others to come forward with their concerns, doubts, and even failures. This is beneficial because it lets the entire team come together and address any issues, rather than leaving problems to fester in the dark.
This is what it means to foster psychological safety. Encourage your team to take risks—even if sometimes they’ll miss the mark—because most of the time, they’ll make a meaningful contribution.
If everyone is in agreement—get curious.
Remember the Asch conformity experiment? The subject only chose the wrong answer because the confederates all chose it too. He went against what he knew to be right because of social pressure.
The same can happen in a workplace where no one wants to be the lone dissenter. So if your organization is about to move forward on a major project or initiative, and everyone seems to be in agreement without a hint of concern, that’s the time to pause and get an accurate read of the room.
This could be as simple as asking the person who hasn’t said a peep the entire meeting, “What do you think?” It might be best to do that privately, though, to reduce the social pressure.
If pack mentality is characterized by hiding flaws, suppressing doubts, and concealing mistakes, then its antithesis is transparency—and it’s good for your organization. A study of 51 teams and 199 employees in China found that when leaders acted with transparency, their employees felt a sense of psychological safety, which in turn, helped them to be more creative.
If you’re worried that being transparent about mistakes will undermine your authority, consider this quote from Rand Fishkin, the founder of Moz. The SaaS company became known for its radical transparency, including sharing its financials online and writing openly about struggles and failures. In his book Lost and Founder, Fishkin writes:
"You'd be surprised at how people rise to a challenge once they know that there is a challenge. And don't kid yourself—you may think you're keeping them safe by keeping them in the dark, but some distorted version of the truth always leaks. Misinformation stokes fear and resentment in your team. That's never good for business—or for anyone's well-being."
When you’re transparent with your team, they don’t have to suspect you of hiding anything. They’ll feel psychologically safe enough to be transparent with you, too.
Make Your Workplace A Psychologically Safe Place
Pack mentality is all about protecting your own group and fearing anyone on the outside. It also tends to inspire groupthink, where new ideas are rejected and individuals go against their values in order to align with the majority. Both of these things stifle creativity and innovation.
If you want to create a thriving workplace and collaborative team, then you need to have a culture of psychological safety. With the pursuit of great achievements comes the risk of failure, and your team needs to know they’ll have a soft place to land.
By following Edmondson’s framework of setting the stage, inviting participation, and responding productively, you’ll increase trust in your organization. And by being transparent and staying curious, you’ll model the behavior that you want the rest of your team to aim for.
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Next: Huddle Up: The New Way To Create A Safe ‘Critique’ Space For Your Team