Why learning at work starts with psychological safety

“This is going to be awkward.”

The first time I was assigned a Peer Review task, I panicked. At Asana, peer review means scheduling sessions with your coworkers to exchange one-on-one feedback. Now, I’m all for putting my work up for scrutiny. As a writer, I’m used to it. But getting feedback about me—and so directly? That scares the hell out of me.

Fortunately for my ego, my first session was with Reigan Combs. She leads lifecycle marketing here and happens to be The Nicest Person At Asana. I remember being struck by how she opened the conversation: “I always preface these reviews by acknowledging that this is going to be awkward.”

It is an incredibly disarming thing to say. And for me, it was a reminder that so many of the institutions and interactions relating to work are just… awkward.

From applying to a job to asking for a raise (to that moment when you have to say “I quit”), the layer of abstraction separating “work life” from “life life” can make us feel uneasy, as though we are supposed to be different people when we reach the other side of our morning commute.

Reigan’s disclaimer sprang to my mind after Charles Duhigg’s recent article about the quest to build the perfect team made the rounds at Asana. In it, he explores the question of what elevates a team from a group of individuals to a collective that possesses an “intelligence” that exceeds the sum of its parts.

To me the article took me back to that meeting room with Reigan, and gave a name to that subtle change of state that occurred when she openly acknowledged the strangeness of face-to-face verbal feedback: Psychological Safety.

“Psychological safety is only the first step in creating the perfect team.”

Anxiety parties and choosing your team

If peer reviews are scary, then Anxiety Parties are my nightmare. At Google Ventures, Daniel Burka and his team have raised the stakes on interdepartmental feedback. They come together as a group and articulate their “anxieties” to their coworkers. This kind of emotional confrontation requires a team that feels psychologically safe and is comfortable being open about their fears. But does this actually contribute to better teams?

To understand the fruits of Google’s research on teams, Duhigg offers a thought experiment: two hypothetical work teams and the option to choose one over the other. He frames the experiment using the long-tested arbiter of a team’s mettle: the workplace meeting.

Team A’s meeting exudes efficiency. They never veer from the agenda, and when they do they easily get back on track. They never engage in distracting chit-chat. Team B on the other hand is:

“…evenly divided between successful executives and middle managers with few professional accomplishments. Teammates jump in and out of discussions. People interject and complete one another’s thoughts. When a team member abruptly changes the topic, the rest of the group follows him off the agenda. At the end of the meeting, the meeting doesn’t actually end: Everyone sits around to gossip and talk about their lives.”

On first glance, this doesn’t seem like a dilemma. I’ve fantasized about that first kind of meeting before–usually when a coworker is bogarting the floor with an off-topic anecdote. But I should probably snap out of this daydream because Team B gets better results.

The difference doesn’t come down to team composition or process. How groups treat one another and make each other feel, however, is crucial. Norms are the factor in making teams work better together. “The wrong norms,” explains Duhigg, “could hobble a team, even if, individually, all the members were exceptionally bright.”

And though it seems like a no-brainer that employees should feel safe and willing to express themselves at work, not all teams value these kinds of interactions, nor do they provide a forum or framework to have them. And this is important because psychological safety is only the first step in creating the perfect team.

“The rate at which individuals and organizations learn may become the only sustainable competitive advantage…”

Psychological safety, so what

Though you’ll find a tidy definition of psychological safety in a 1999 paper by Amy Edmondson: “a team climate characterized by interpersonal trust and mutual respect in which people are comfortable being themselves,” the same author’s later research posits that psychological safety is really a component of a larger framework.

“The wrong norms, could hobble a team, even if, individually, all the members were exceptionally bright.”

In the Harvard Business Review, Amy Edmondson, David Garvin, and Francesca Gino explain that psychological safety is the principal building block in what’s called a learning organization. It’s not exactly a new concept: the fundamentals of learning organizations are spelled out in the seminal book by Peter Senge, The Fifth Discipline, but it is a concept that is becoming increasingly relevant. Ray Stata, CEO of Analog Devices, perhaps makes the point most clearly: “I would argue that the rate at which individuals and organizations learn may become the only sustainable competitive advantage, especially in knowledge intensive industries.”

While designs, intellectual property, and even management technique can be copied, as long as you’re learning more rapidly—and synthesizing the results of those learnings—you can stay ahead of the competition. Here are the three components of a learning organization.

A supportive learning environment

It all starts with psychological safety, and this is manifested in a lot of different ways.

Peer Feedback is an effective way to bring individuals together for face-to-face dialogue, particularly when people work cross-functionally. Though it can seem daunting, consider the alternative of no communication. In that case, employees only connect when there is a breakdown of communication, or when they experience friction that prevents work from moving forward.

It’s also important to provide a climate that tolerates mistakes and lets people take chances. This means being mindful about the kind of feedback you provide. This is particularly relevant for creative feedback, since the best output often requires extra experimentation or taking risks.

Also crucial to a supportive learning environment is the ability to appreciate and celebrate differences between individuals. This contributes to a culture that rejects groupthink or needless adherence to orthodoxy. At Asana, one of our company values is Balancing or Integrating Opposites:

Though it is sometimes tempting to pick an extreme point of view or compromise between two poles, the best outcomes often require incorporating elements of each extreme or, better yet, transcending them altogether through synthesis.

Individuals become empowered when their feedback is sought out, even if it is contrary to established norms in your workplace. A true learning organization finds ways to incorporate all viewpoints.

One way of collecting more points of view can be by actively seeking out more of them. Having a diverse workplace not only helps surface more differences, it also has the benefit of creating an inclusive workplace where all individuals feel more comfortable being themselves.

Finally, take time to reflect. Whether through habits like No Meeting Wednesdays or Make Time, it’s important that employees have time in which to synthesize their learnings. Often this is as simple scheduling in moments of reflection and celebration.

Concrete learning processes and practices

So you’re open to ideas and are producing them like crazy. But how are you tracking that work? According to Edmondson et. al, the second building block for learning organizations is concrete processes and practices to capture your work in a way that can be freely shared throughout an organization, where everyone can see it.

At Asana our process is to make sure steps are clearly laid out and assigned. We also have a robust framework for prioritization. We begin each episode with Road Map Week and codify the work we’re going to do that episode. We close our episodes by looking back. Did we achieve what we wanted to? What actually happened?

And if we fail at an objective, there is a transparent process to address that too. We hold a five whys to get to the root of the problem. Like peer reviews, I thought these would be more awkward than they actually are, but five whys really do help us understand why something went wrong so we can prevent similar mistakes in the future.

Leadership that reinforces learning

Less a building block than the icing on top, learning organizations must have leadership that supports and reinforces learning. At a startup, the leaders help establish the culture that newer employees imprint upon. As new employees are socialized, strong leadership must foster a culture that promotes learning and gives employees the freedom to bring their strengths to the table.

One of the most important ideas implemented early on at Asana is the Areas of Responsibility framework. Providing a domain of responsibility (rather than a rote job description) promotes a feeling of ownership and helps individuals reach both their professional and personal goals. It allows people to contribute to their full potential, and moreover, ensures that teammates are heard and that their opinion matters. Coming full circle, it’s the responsibility of leadership to plant the seeds of a supportive learning environment so that psychological safety can blossom throughout an organization.

Putting it all together

It’s fortunate that the product we use every day to track our work helps us be a learning organization, and we’re thrilled if we’re able to help other teams be learning organizations too. Transparency and ownership are baked into Asana, and our values encourage a diversity of opinion and viewpoints at our workplace.

While I might still occasionally daydream about that meeting that doesn’t devolve into a tangent about whether we should build a sauna at Asana (aside to management: we should), it’s comforting to know that the simple act of being ourselves at work helps us be the best possible team we could be.

Would you consider your company a learning organization? Why or why not? Let us know in the comments.

More Issues