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Episode 5: How to Talk to Co-Workers, and Learn from Mistakes (transcript)

Chris:                                  One day I came in and I was doing a trade in the morning and something didn’t feel quite right about it.

Sonia Kang:                       This is Chris Clearfield. He used to work for a financial firm on Wall Street.

Chris:                                  It turned out I was making a mistake and I had lost on the order of tens of thousands of dollars, which was not a huge amount of money for this firm, but is not a small amount of money.

Sonia Kang:                       So this happened early in Chris’s career when he was still trying to establish himself. The thing [00:00:30] is, it’s something only he knew about. What would you do next? Pretend nothing happened and hope no one noticed? Blame someone else.

Chris:                                  I, after a little while, went to my manager and brought his attention to it.

Sonia Kang:                       Chris owned up to his mistake and then he waited for the other shoe to drop.

Chris:                                  I got feedback from a number of different super senior people in the firm who obviously had talked about the mistake and then come back and said, “Hey, [00:01:00] you really did a great job of bringing that up and thank you.”

Sonia Kang:                       And it’s not only that he didn’t get in trouble.

Chris:                                  I have never gotten more praise for something that I have ever done in my life as coming and saying, “Hey, I think I’m messing this up.”

Sonia Kang:                       Welcome to For The Love of Work, an original podcast about the employee experience made possible by Rogers. My name is Sonia Kang. I’m a professor of [00:01:30] organizational behavior, and I study the psychology of people at work. In this episode, we’re going to talk about how we talk to each other at work in a psychologically safe way.

                                             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.

Chris:                                  It totally cemented my [00:02:00] relationship with that form of culture.

Sonia Kang:                       Cementing that safe relationship was also good for business, and we’ll explore why in a bit. But as I’m sure many of us know from personal experience, this isn’t always how things play out.

Chris:                                  The very fact that you’re making an episode about this sort of implies that it’s something that is out of the ordinary.

Sonia Kang:                       See, making an experience like Chris is the norm. It’s not just about changing the way we all view mistakes. There’s a larger challenge for workplaces. How do you create a culture [00:02:30] for employees that’s psychologically safe?

Amy Edmondson:            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 and questions and concerns, and you can ask for help and people won’t sort of reject or embarrass you for that.

Sonia Kang:                       Amy Edmondson is a professor at Harvard business school and author of the Fearless [00:03:00] Organization.

Amy Edmondson:            The key components of psychological safety are two, respect and trust. Trust is of course the belief that someone else has your back, that they won’t act in a way that harms you. And respect is the appreciation for who someone is. And perhaps, it’s helpful to say that psychological safety describes a climate. It’s not an individual personality issue.

Sonia Kang:                       Amy is famous for researching the effects of psychological safety [00:03:30] on teamwork, specifically in hospitals. She wanted to know the core elements of successful medical teams. At first, she assumed that the best teams, the one where people felt the most safe to speak up with ideas, questions, or concerns would be the ones making fewer mistakes.

Amy Edmondson:            Initially the data were that the better teams had more mistakes, not fewer. And the more I thought about it, the more it occurred to me, the possibility that maybe better teams don’t make more mistakes. Maybe [00:04:00] they’re more open about them. Maybe they’re more able and willing to talk about them for the express purpose of catching and correcting them before anyone’s harmed.

Sonia Kang:                       So it’s not that the safer teams were objectively messing up more. People just felt safer admitting their mistakes and felt that they could work together with their team to correct them instead of keeping them quiet for fear of judgment or punishment. With actual lives at risk, the importance of fostering this kind [00:04:30] of safety and open communication may seem obvious, but how vital is psychological safety in say, the corporate offices of a tech company? This was something Google tried to figure out a few years ago when they launched project Aristotle, a massive study of 180 of their own teams to find out what was the key to really successful teams.

Geoff Ho:                           One of the reasons this project was even started was because many people would expect that it’s kind of who’s on the team is really [00:05:00] important, the team composition.

Sonia Kang:                       Geoff Ho is a people scientist who worked at Google during project Aristotle.

Geoff Ho:                           An algorithm for the perfect team, get an engineer on there, a PhD, gets some diversity of gender, race, and voila, You kind of have this perfect team and we kind of searched for that algorithm. But it was really surprising that that didn’t matter as much as kind of how the team operated. And so psychological safety was the thing that [00:05:30] floated to the top, and it’s really about having a culture where folks feel comfortable making mistakes and don’t feel like they’re going to be punished if they speak up and say something that might be a little bit dumb.

Sonia Kang:                       It’s not just about catching or correcting the mistake.

Geoff Ho:                           How it really works is that when you’re not afraid to make that mistake, you as a team can learn. And when you learn, that’s what ultimately leads to increase performance over time.

Sonia Kang:                       [00:06:00] Learning is key for successful companies because that’s what leads to innovation. And learning is often fueled by mistakes, like the one made by Chris Clearfield at the beginning of this episode.

Chris:                                  If the response had been, “I can’t believe you made that mistake, don’t ever do that again,” I never would have shared a mistake again. I never would have shared a concern again.

Sonia Kang:                       Well, Chris is no longer a trader on wall street, that early positive experience really stuck with him. He wrote a book called Meltdown, about [00:06:30] how complex systems and organizations can benefit from diverse opinions and open communication.

Chris:                                  It’s not just a question of, do you share something and someone thank you for sharing it? It’s really a question of, do you share something and then see some kind of tangible action on it?

Sonia Kang:                       So 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?

Geoff Ho:                           [00:07:00] I think as human beings that have evolved over time, we’re very quick to pick up on things that are going wrong so that we can correct for them. That’s how we evolved. Creatures that didn’t pick up on problems, they probably died out.

Sonia Kang:                       Geoff Ho, the former Google people scientist is talking about the fundamental human need to belong and the associated fear of social rejection.

                                             [00:07:30] For prehistoric humans, survival depended on developing strong social bonds and sticking together in groups for safety and for sharing resources like food and shelter. It motivates us to behave in line with what the group expects and to maintain high 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. We don’t want to risk looking stupid and being abandoned in the wilderness and that fear hasn’t gone away even [00:08:00] in our drastically different modern environments.

Geoff Ho:                           So it’s something we, I think have to constantly battle, especially if we’re to learn from our mistakes.

Sonia Kang:                       Amy Edmondson says, this fear goes beyond not just being able to deal with mistakes.

Amy Edmondson:            It turns out that interpersonal fear has essentially the same effect on your brain as the saber tooth tiger fear. Some scientists call this the amygdala hijack, when the amygdala gets [00:08:30] triggered, we freeze where we’re not as creative. I’m not going to say, “Oh, look, I made a mistake over here. Oh, I need help.” We’ll hide those things because we’re afraid. And it literally narrows the ability of the brain to engage in analytic thinking, problem solving.

Sonia Kang:                       Fight or flight, fear and secrets. This is what Chris says they can do to organizations.

Chris:                                  Teams that have low psych safety, [00:09:00] they’re much less able to learn complex new technologies. They’re much less able to do tasks that require coordination across people.

Sonia Kang:                       And this is what fear can do to our careers when we’re not willing to be vulnerable at work.

Chris:                                  That stance, I know what I’m doing even if I don’t, you can get away with that for a while in your career. And then you get to a point when the problem is hard enough and it involves other people leading and managing them in a way [00:09:30] that means you can just no longer make stuff up.

Sonia Kang:                       For a lot of us, especially at the beginning of our careers and in a super competitive economy, doing our best can lead to a case of imposter syndrome. But you can’t operate the way Chris is describing for too long. So the stakes are high when it comes to a lack of psychological safety, but so are the roadblocks to overcoming it. Because it isn’t just our own fears that we need to address, we also have to navigate the threat and fear responses of [00:10:00] every other person on our team. Let’s see what that can look like.

                                             Individual employees aren’t exactly sitting around discussing how to up their own psychological safety game. That’s more of an organizational level thing and most experts agree the responsibility for cultivating psychological safety sits mainly with your bosses. But there are things you can do to help lay the groundwork for a culture of healthy communication.

Amy Edmondson:            The power of any given individual in helping alter the work environment, I [00:10:30] think is very great. One of the simple things that anyone can do is ask their colleague or colleagues a genuine question. So it would be, what thoughts do you have about this project? That would be a good question.

Sonia Kang:                       Psychological safety starts with an invitation to talk in the form of a question.

Amy Edmondson:            That’s focused on something. It’s not a yes, no question. It gives you room to respond. The beauty of asking someone or asking your whole team and even asking a manager a good [00:11:00] question is that in that moment, you are automatically giving them a small, safe space to respond. You have explicitly said, “I’m interested in what you have to say.”

Sonia Kang:                       It also requires humility.

Amy Edmondson:            Anytime any one of us genuinely says, I don’t know, it just makes the world a little tiny bit more psychologically safe for others, because we often have this feeling that we’re supposed to know everything, or I need help, or I’m sorry. Each one of those phrases is an expression of vulnerability. [00:11:30] And then by doing that, you’re just inherently giving other people permission to do it as well.

Sonia Kang:                       The need for good psychological safety immediately ramped up at the beginning of 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic began to unfold. All of a sudden, many of us found ourselves communicating with colleagues and bosses exclusively online. Even though they’re super stressful, Amy Edmondson says big shake ups can be an opportunity to practice psychological safety.

Amy Edmondson:            [00:12:00] When you go into your office, you take in so much information with a glance, you just look around, you can see if someone’s busy or upset or excited, and you are able to adjust without even having to think very much about it. You’re missing all of that information you normally get. And so you have to be sort of just conscious of your ignorance. And then that means being even more explicit than when you normally would [00:12:30] be to just inquire, never just dive right in “can you get this piece of work to me by 4:00 PM?” You always have to stop and say, “Hey, is this a good time? What are you up against right now?” Could be a screaming three-year-old it could be, you’re doing two other projects. It’s not as visible to us. So being explicit to stop, to check, to find out where people are, to listen very closely, to tone and to responses, and also to share where you are and what you’re up against and why [00:13:00] this 4:00 PM deadline might matter, but you’re being more sort of overtly proactive and interested and thoughtful about other people’s needs and perspectives.

Sonia Kang:                       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.

Chris:                                  I do think being in a psychologically unsafe environment really is a form of trauma and gaslighting. And [00:13:30] I think it can be devastating from a mental health perspective. And so one of the things that we know about trauma is that when you’ve suffered trauma, your kind of radar is less well calibrated. Your kind of assessment of, “Oh, is this a threatening situation or not?” You will sometimes miss situations that aren’t safe and sometimes be overly paranoid in situations that actually are safe.

Courtney:                           Oh my gosh, yeah. People were having breakdowns and crying all the time. [00:14:00] People were getting fired left and right. People were quitting left and right.

Sonia Kang:                       A few years ago, Courtney was working as a manager at a marketing company, but the place was toxic.

Courtney:                           The people who were kind of already a part of the culture, they were like, “Oh, well, you just need to try harder.” To my brain, my perfectionist brain, I was like, yes, makes total sense. I’m just not good enough. Perfect.

Sonia Kang:                       But something about the job appealed to something dysfunctional in Courtney.

Courtney:                           I was in the place to attract [00:14:30] that kind of workplace. I was already not really caring about other people, because I didn’t know how.

Sonia Kang:                       This is where work becomes about more than just work. The unresolved personal stuff that we bring to the office can add to our own lack of psychological safety. It’s not just a problem with the culture, it starts with how you talk to other people.

Kim Scott:                          When you have good relationships with your boss and with your peers, and if you are a [00:15:00] boss with your employees, then that’s what creates a culture.

Sonia Kang:                       Kim Scott explains how to build healthy work relationships in her book, Radical Candor. The subtitle of the book is how to get what you want by saying what you mean.

Kim Scott:                          I want to acknowledge the fear in this. It’s very difficult to share Radical Candor with someone who has the power to not pay you a bonus or to fire you or to put you on a lousy project.

Sonia Kang:                       But she [00:15:30] still says you should push through the fear to say what you mean and get what you want. So what exactly is radical candor?

Kim Scott:                          When you show this person 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.

Sonia Kang:                       So radical candor is communicating honestly, in an empathetic way. Kim says it’s about challenging directly, which is the honesty part and caring personally, which is the empathy part.

Kim Scott:                          [00:16:00] So the tricky thing about when you’re offering radical candor, you really need to take time to gauge how it’s landing for the other person and to adjust.

Sonia Kang:                       This requires active listening and 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.

                                             But let’s say you get a little too heavy on the challenging directly and drop off on the caring personality [00:16:30] part.

Kim Scott:                          Sometimes people are going to be really upset. They think you’re being mean. That is your cue to move higher up on the care personally dimension to say, “I can see that this project is really important to you,” to sort of state your intention to be helpful. You don’t have to back off your challenge if you think you’re right, but you do have to show some humility and to offer up the possibility, I may be wrong.

Sonia Kang:                       But [00:17:00] you also can’t get too wrapped up in the care personally direction that you’re focused on challenging directly gets lost.

Kim Scott:                          I would argue that 85% of us make 85% of our mistakes in this last category, where you do show that you care personally, but you’re so concerned about not hurting someone’s feelings, you fail to tell them something they’d be better off knowing. And that I call ruinous empathy.

Sonia Kang:                       Ruinous empathy happens when your desire not to hurt the other person’s [00:17:30] feelings stops you from speaking up about things that need to change, and your colleague or whoever it was that needed to get that feedback misses out on the opportunity to learn something. So say what you mean, be aware of how they’re taking it and adjust.

                                             We already mentioned the fundamental human need to belong, which is satisfied by Kim’s care personally dimension. But we also need to challenge directly to meet another fundamental [00:18:00] human need. The need for esteem. Esteem needs are met when we feel like we’re getting respect and recognition, and when we feel like we’re contributing to the greater good and that we’re valued by others. Together, fulfilling the need to belong and the need for esteem, work hand in hand to cultivate a strong foundation of psychological safety from where we can all work towards achieving our full potential, something that experts call self actualization.

                                             [00:18:30] Now let’s go a little further into radical candor. What if someone gives you feedback, but you don’t agree with it. How do you respond to that without alienating your coworker or boss?

Kim Scott:                          First of all, whatever, the person said, 5% of what they said you can agree with. So focus on that 5% and say, “I really agree with that. I’m going to think about what I can do to fix it,” and then say, “As for the rest of it, I need to think more about it. Is it okay if I get back to you?” [00:19:00] And then you must get back to them within a day or two. And then offer them a full sort of reasonable explanation of why you disagree, especially if this is someone you work with a lot or someone you live with.

Sonia Kang:                       Because if it seems like you’re ignoring feedback, people might stop giving it to you altogether, which could prevent opportunities for growth and development. It’s much better to say what you disagree with and why you disagree with it, and to keep those channels of [00:19:30] communication open than to shut them down altogether.

                                             Psychological safety is a game of give and take, and you have to do your part to cultivate it, even if that means having some challenging conversations. But there’s one relationship we still need to discuss, and it’s the big one. Your relationship with your boss.

                                             At the beginning of the show, we heard Chris’s story about how admitting a mistake led to some unexpected rewards. That corporate attitude is very much a characteristic [00:20:00] of the modern employee experience, which is all about creating psychological safety and soliciting and prioritizing employee feedback.

Ben Granger:                    They want to be more focused on understanding and improving the experiences of their employees because they inherently see that there’s going to be value, not only for their workforce, but for their bottom line, for their customers.

Sonia Kang:                       Ben Granger helps organizations build out that type of employee experience, and employees want to give their organizations feedback.

Ben Granger:                    What we have heard from employees is that they actually want [00:20:30] their companies to ask them for their feedback more often than once a year.

Sonia Kang:                       That’s because we live in more of a feedback culture now than in previous generations.

Ben Granger:                    Our experiences as consumers start to color our expectations as employees. Every time I do an interaction on Amazon or in a physical retail store, I get asked for feedback. And hey, well, why does my company only care about my feedback once a year and then I don’t hear [00:21:00] back for six months?

Sonia Kang:                       But Ben says there’s only one way for that voice to make a solid difference.

Ben Granger:                    Whether it’s a poor or a positive experience that they have, any experience that they have, we want them to feel very comfortable being honest and open about it. If you are forcing people to respond or forcing people to give feedback in a certain way, then your data means nothing. And by default, your decisions based on that data are faulty.

Sonia Kang:                       So more and more companies are starting to [00:21:30] realize the value of employee feedback. That’s a start. But it might not always make it easier to navigate the also valuable one-to-one feedback that you might want to give to your boss.

Kim Scott:                          It’s easy to feel like you can have no impact on your relationship with your boss, because it’s easy to feel like your boss is holding all the cards.

Sonia Kang:                       This is Kim Scott, the Radical Candor author again.

Kim Scott:                          But one of the things that I’ve learned is how many bosses are afraid of their employees. [00:22:00] They’re afraid to say what they really think, because they’re afraid they’ll demoralize their colleagues, or they’re afraid that their employees will quit.

Sonia Kang:                       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, they may not understand your identities or your lived experiences, and you might not understand theirs. That lack of understanding can lead to a [00:22:30] lot of silence on both ends. So the need for psychological safety and open, caring communication rises, as does the need to find common ground because the rewards are so big on the other side.

Kim Scott:                          And so I think realizing that the fear goes both ways and realizing when you feel there’s a power imbalance, either way, that is so damaging to the relationships that we have at work.

Sonia Kang:                       Right. Relationships [00:23:00] of any kind work best when there are no power dynamics.

Kim Scott:                          It starts in an ideal world with the boss soliciting feedback from the employee. But if your boss is not doing that, you can start. You want to make sure that you understand your boss’s perspective on you and your work and your contributions to the team. And then you want to act on it.

                                             Next, you want to make sure that you think about the things you appreciate about your boss [00:23:30] and maybe give them voice, not in an ass kissing way. It’s so easy to start to treat your boss like a tyrant.

Sonia Kang:                       So it’s helpful to go back to Kim’s radical candor framework, caring personally and challenging directly.

Kim Scott:                          The thing I want to leave you with is, make sure that you offer feedback very gently and pay attention to how your boss responds. If your boss responds badly, or isn’t ready for [00:24:00] the feedback, if they say no, and they say it in a way like never is a good time, then it’s time for you to start looking for a new boss.

Sonia Kang:                       Back at the toxic marketing company, one year, Courtney was in charge of producing some holiday season flyers.

Courtney:                           One of my bosses yelled at me and was like throwing his fists on his desk because I think I made a mistake on one of the flyers. I actually had the courage to say, “This is kind of unprofessional right [00:24:30] now.” She’s like, “What do you mean? No one’s ever called me professional. You’re unprofessional.”

Sonia Kang:                       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.

Amy Edmondson:            How much do you value the opportunity cost of not having a workplace where you feel you can bring your full self to work and [00:25:00] make a contribution without always second guessing yourself? If you come to the conclusion that this is something you can live without, then you can live without it.

Sonia Kang:                       But for Courtney, something else had to change before her job could.

Courtney:                           When things really started to change for me was when I started going to counseling. And seeing how much the company was affecting me, that’s when I started to change internally. And once I changed internally, my internal state didn’t match [00:25:30] the company’s culture anymore. So it was like, “Okay, I just don’t belong here anymore.”

Sonia Kang:                       If you have to leave and you’re looking elsewhere, this is how Amy Edmondson says you can do it.

Amy Edmondson:            One can, and should ask things like how able will I be to contribute to the project? Are you interested in my bringing in new ideas? You could ask for stories of where people in this job have made a positive difference adding [00:26:00] to, or changing how things unfolded in some way. And if there’s no such thing as any stories like that, you might want to run the other way.

Sonia Kang:                       Over time, Courtney realized she wanted to help others find the same psychological safety.

Courtney:                           I decided that I wanted to be a coach because the difference between me being in that job that was really unhealthy to now, that was all thanks [00:26:30] to having a counselor and then eventually having a coach and I want to help other people.

Sonia Kang:                       And hopefully what we’ve talked about can help you to identify psychologically safe workplaces or personal relationships, where you can bring your authentic self, where you can speak and listen with radical candor, where you can share mistakes and learn from them and where you can realize that essential human need to belong.

                                             Thanks for listening. [00:27:00] I’m Sonia Kang. And this is For The Love of Work, an original podcast made possible by Rogers. Find us at…for the love of work dot c-a. Talk soon