Nancy Dixon writes about the conditions that favour good quality conversations in organisations. She uses the term psychological safety to describe the conditions that allow people to take risks in conversations. She distinguishes that safety from cohesiveness (for which it could be mistaken). The latter may feel safe but really sets everyone up for groupthink. The safety Nancy talks about allows challenging things to be said.
The essential precondition for that kind of safety is largely to do with power differences:
In the study teams that reflected effectively and implemented resulting changes had minimal power differences. The leaders of those teams encouraged input and debate. Where power differences between leader and members were high, little learning occurred.
She goes on to explore how those power differences get increased or reduced. It makes a lot of sense to me. In my work I see a lot of theatre created around people who appear to have a lot of power, and it cuts them off from a lot potetially useful feedback.
I also like this point, which could do with being trumpeted loudly in the ears of many consultants and organisational leaders:
A very hopeful implication of Edmondson’s study is that it is possible to create a culture that supports collective sensemaking within a team or unit, even if other parts of the same organization do not have a compatible culture. This means that it is not necessary to wait on top management support in order for change to occur locally. Nor is it necessary for the whole organization to change in order for any one team to make use of effective learning behaviors.
I have seen too many conversations in which people wring hands, or adopt the physiology of Rodin’s Thinker while talking about how to change “the culture of the whole organisation”. Something on a smaller scale has more chance of success and of then spreading.