The secret of success: authentic leadership or psychological safety?

As we look forward to welcoming Professor Amy Edmondson to our campus next month, I have dug again into the details of her recent book, Right Kind of Wrong. Winner of the Financial Times Business Book of the Year Award, it aims to help us master failing; that is, how important it is to report and learn from every failure, but also how to try and only make intelligent mistakes. 

The power of psychological safety

Edmondson links the idea of intelligent failure to her earlier research on psychological safety, defined as "a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking" (Edmondson 1999, p350). The concept gained prominence in the 1990s thanks to Edmondson, who demonstrated that teams and organisations where individuals feel safe to speak up and take risks are more likely to engage in learning behaviors, ultimately leading to improved team performance (1999, 2003).

She also argues that a psychologically safe environment is crucial for fostering intelligent failure because it allows team members to take risks, admit mistakes, and engage in experimentation without fear of blame or punishment. Such an environment encourages employees to share their failures and the valuable lessons learned, thereby promoting organisational improvement (2011, 2012) and creating the right environment for innovation.

Discussion about the book "Right Kind of Wrong"

The evidence for authentic leadership

Reading Edmondson’s book, the overlap between the idea of psychological safety, and that of “authentic leadership”, became obvious. The latter is a particular focus at NEWTON, both in terms of research (e.g. Kolenakova et al. 2023) and as a set of qualities we aim to foster in our students, for example through our Authentic Leadership Bootcamps.

Authentic leadership is defined by self-awareness, transparent communication, ethical conduct, and consultative decision-making (Walumbwa et al. 2008). Evidence indicates that these qualities are positively associated with work-related attitudes, behaviors, and supervisor-rated performance (Walumbwa et al. 2008), as well as job satisfaction and engagement (Lindsay & Mathieson 2022).

Leadership or safety?

Some aspects of authentic leadership – transparent communication and consultative decision-making in particular – have a clear link to creating psychological safety. This is backed up by evidence which shows that when leaders actively seek and reward feedback, they create an environment where employees feel encouraged to voice their thoughts and opinions freely (Edmondson 1999; McClintock et al. 2022).

However, the relationship may be more complicated than simple cause and effect. A recent study suggests that psychological safety may act as a mediator in the relationship between authentic leadership and various positive organizational outcomes, including work engagement (Maximo et al. 2019). In other words, without a psychologically safe environment, the benefits of authentic leadership might be more limited.

Looking ahead

So how to implement these insights into our leadership and team dynamics? Authentic leadership stresses the importance of learning what you’re naturally good at, while Edmondson’s work suggests that the skills to foster psychological safety in teams can be learned.  And actually none of us are naturally good at admitting failure! 

For leaders seeking immediate action points, a first step is to consider the perception of psychological safety from your team's perspective. While many leaders believe their teams feel trusted and empowered, the reality may differ. A study by EY and Said Business School highlights this discrepancy, showing that although 81% of leaders think their employees feel empowered, only 64% of employees agree. Edmondson’s four-step guide to creating psychological safety  – solicit feedback, give praise, give criticism, gauge your feedback – would be my recommended first step (Edmondson & Kim 2021).

As we anticipate Professor Amy Edmondson's visit, I am excited to delve deeper into the intersection of psychological safety and authenticity in leadership, to foster a culture that celebrates learning from failure and drives innovation.

Resources

  • Avolio, B. J., Gardner, W., & Walumbwa, F. O. (2007). Authentic Leadership Questionnaire for Researchers (ALQ) 
  • Billeter, K., Glindemann, C., Canwell, A. L., (2024). How can the moments that threaten your transformation define its success? EY. Retrieved from: https://www.ey.com/en_gl/consulting/threats-to-a-business-transformation-can-define-its-success 
  • Edmondson, A. (1999). Psychological Safety and Learning Behavior in Work Teams. Administrative Science Quarterly, 44(2), 350-383.
  • Edmondson, A. C. (2003). Speaking up in the operating room: How team leaders promote learning in interdisciplinary action teams. Journal of Management Studies, 40(6), 1419-1452.
  • Edmondson, A. C. (2011). Strategies for learning from failure. Harvard Business Review, 89(4), 48-55.
  • Edmondson, A. C. (2012). Teaming: How organizations learn, innovate, and compete in the knowledge economy. Jossey-Bass
  • Edmondson, A. C., Scott, K. (2021). “Follow these 4 steps to create psychological safety in your teams”. Fast Company
  • Edmondson, A. (2023) “Intelligent Failures vs. Costly Mistakes: Navigating the Innovation Paradox”. Corporate Rebels. 
  • Kolenakova, Veronika, Frantisek Milichovsky, Jiri Kolenak, and Vratislav Pokorny. (2023) "The leader's conscious authenticity index as a benchmark for leadership style preference and the nature of the organizational environment." Journal of Interdisciplinary Research 13(1), 153-160
  • Lindsay S. L., Mathieson K. M. (2002). Authentic leadership: Does it relate to job satisfaction and engagement? Nursing Management, 53(6), 24-30.
  • Maximo, N., Stander, M. W., Coxen, L.. (2019). Authentic leadership and work engagement: The indirect effects of psychological safety and trust in supervisors. SA Journal of Industrial Psychology, 45(1), 1-11.
  • McClintock A. H., Fainstad T. L., Jauregui J. (2022). Clinician Teacher as Leader: Creating Psychological Safety in the Clinical Learning Environment for Medical Students. Academic Medicine, 97(11S), 46-53.
  • Walumbwa, F. O., Avolio, B. J., Gardner, W. L., Wernsing, T. S., & Peterson, S. (2008). Authentic leadership: development and validation of a theory-based measure. Journal of Management, 34(1), 89–126.

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