You should fight your natural impulse to avoid being wrong – it could save lives.
The tiny newborn twins seemed healthy enough, but their early arrival at only 27 weeks’ gestation meant they were considered “high risk.”
Fortunately, the medical team at the busy urban hospital where the babies were delivered included staff from the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU): a young Neonatal Nurse Practitioner named Christina Price∗ and a silver-haired neonatologist named Dr. Drake. As Christina looked at the babies, she was concerned.
Her recent training had included, as newly established best practice, administering a medicine that promoted lung development as soon as possible for a high-risk baby.
Babies born very prematurely often arrive with lungs not quite ready for fully independent breathing outside the womb. But the neonatologist had not issued an order for the medicine, called a prophylactic surfactant.
Christina stepped forward to remind Dr. Drake about the surfactant and then caught herself. Last week she’d overheard him publicly berate another nurse for questioning one of his orders.
She told herself that the twins would probably be fine – after all, the doctor probably had a reason for avoiding the surfactant, still considered a judgement call – and she dismissed the idea of bringing it up. Besides, he’d already turned on his heel, off for his morning rounds, white coat billowing.
In hesitating and then choosing not to speak up, Christina was making a quick, not entirely conscious, risk calculation – the kind of micro-assessment most of us make numerous times a day.
Most likely she was not even aware that she had weighed the risk of being belittled or berated against the risk that the babies might in fact need the medication to thrive.
She told herself the doctor knew better than she did, and she was not confident he would welcome her input.
Inadvertently, she had done something psychologists call discounting the future – under-weighting the more important issue of the patients’ health, which would take some time to play out, and over-weighting the importance of the doctor’s possible response, which would happen immediately.
Our spontaneous tendency to discount the future explains the prevalence of many unhelpful or unhealthy behaviours – whether eating that extra piece of chocolate cake or procrastinating on a challenging assignment – and the failure to speak up at work is an important and often overlooked example of this problematic tendency.
Like most people, Christina was spontaneously managing her image at work.
As noted sociologist Erving Goffman argued in his seminal 1957 book, The Presentation of the Self in Everyday Life, as humans, we are constantly attempting to influence others’ perceptions of us by regulating and controlling information in social interactions.1 We do this both consciously and subconsciously.
Put another way, no one wakes up in the morning excited to go to work and look ignorant, incompetent, or disruptive. These are called interpersonal risks, and they are what nearly everyone seeks to avoid, not always consciously.2 In fact, most of us want to look smart, capable, or helpful in the eyes of others.
No matter what our line of work, status, or gender, all of us learn how to manage interpersonal risk relatively early in life.
At some point during elementary school, children start to recognise that what others think of them matters, and they learn how to lower the risk of rejection or scorn. By the time we’re adults, we’re usually really good at it! So good, we do it without conscious thought.
Don’t want to look ignorant? Don’t ask questions. Don’t want to look incompetent? Don’t admit to mistakes or weaknesses. Don’t want to be called disruptive? Don’t make suggestions.
While it might be acceptable at a social event to privilege looking good over making a difference, at work this tendency can lead to significant problems – ranging from thwarted innovation to poor service to, at the extreme, loss of human life.
Yet avoiding behaviours that might lead others to think less of us is pretty much second nature in most workplaces.
As influential management thinker Nilofer Merchant said about her early days as an administrator at Apple, “I used to go to meetings and see the problem so clearly, when others could not.”
But worrying about being “wrong,” she “kept quiet and learned to sit on my hands lest they rise up and betray me. I would rather keep my job by staying within the lines than say something and risk looking stupid.”3
In one study investigating employee experiences with speaking up, 85% of respondents reported at least one occasion when they felt unable to raise a concern with their bosses, even though they believed the issue was important.4
If you think this behaviour is limited to those lower in the organisation, consider the chief financial officer recruited to join the senior team of a large electronics company. Despite grave reservations about a planned acquisition of another company, the new executive said nothing.
His colleagues seemed uniformly enthusiastic, and he went along with the decision. Later, when the takeover had clearly failed, the executives gathered with a consultant for a post-mortem. Each was asked to reflect on what he or she might have done to contribute to or avert the failure.
The CFO, now less of an outsider, shared his earlier concerns, acknowledging that he had let the team down by not speaking up. Openly apologetic and emotional, he lamented that the others’ enthusiasm had left him afraid to be “the skunk at the picnic.”
The problem with sitting on our hands and staying within the lines rather than speaking up is that although these behaviours keep us personally safe, they can make us under-perform and become dissatisfied.
They can also put the organisation at risk. In the case of Christina and the newborns, fortunately, no immediate damage was done but the fear of speaking up can lead to accidents that were in fact avoidable.
Remaining silent due to fear of interpersonal risk can make the difference between life and death. Aeroplanes have crashed, financial institutions have fallen, and hospital patients have died unnecessarily because individuals were, for reasons having to do with the climate in which they worked, afraid to speak up. Fortunately, it doesn’t have to happen.
∗Names in this story are pseudonyms.
This is an edited extract from The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth, by Amy C. Edmondson (published by Wiley, January 2019).
Amy C. Edmondson is the Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at the Harvard Business School.
She has written numerous articles for Harvard Business Review and California Management Review, as well as academic journals, and is the author of four previous books for business leaders, most recently Extreme Teaming (2017).
Her contributions to management research have been recognized with the 2018 Sumantra Ghoshal Award for Rigor and Relevance in the Study of Management and the 2017 Thinkers50 Talent Award, among other honors.
She received her PhD in organizational behavior, her Master’s in psychology, and her Bachelor’s in engineering and design from Harvard University. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.