Perspectives on Leadership in Early Education: "Separating Intention and Impact"

An interview with Amy Edmondson on creating psychological safety within organizations
Blog Post
Feb. 4, 2020

New America's Early & Elementary Education Policy team is partnering with the Saul Zaentz Early Education Initiative at the Harvard Graduate School of Education on the blog series: Perspectives on Leadership in Early Education. We interviewed experts on leadership, management, and organizations for a cross-disciplinary conversation about cultivating great leaders in early childhood education.

In this interview, we talk with Amy Edmondson, Novartis Professor of Leadership at Harvard Business School and scholar of leadership, teaming, and organizational learning. Thinking adult learning and best practices in early childhood center-based settings, and even systems and policy-focused organizations, we talked with Amy about fostering psychological safety, engagement in the daily work, and co-teaching and teaming. Key excerpts from the interview follow here.

Nonie: You’ve written extensively about psychological safety and its role in getting to high levels of performance. What does psychological safety look and feel like in organizations?

Amy: You can recognize psychological safety in a workplace by hearing people asking a lot of questions and speaking up, even when they’re unsure about something. If they're not quite sure what to do, they'll ask. If they think they've made a mistake, they'll say so. If they think someone else has made a mistake, they'll say so. And they’ll offer ideas that might be considered crazy. All of those behaviors fall under the category of taking interpersonal risks, micro-risks that we are finely tuned to avoid in social hierarchies.

When people are not taking these types of risks, they are not being open and candid, nor are they offering ideas, asking for help, or asking questions. And the problem is—and this is what makes it so tricky—it's very hard to notice the absence of these behaviors. Their absence is utterly normal in the workplace! But in psychologically safe environments, the threshold for speaking is lower. This often comes along with some humor and laughter.

Nonie: Because people are more at ease.

Amy: Yes, they're more at ease. We're not taking ourselves so seriously and we're taking us more seriously. We’re taking the work more seriously.

Nonie: This visibility dilemma is interesting. People might be going through the motions, like everything looks and feels fine, but they are not really that engaged.

Amy: Yes. So, engagement is exactly the right word, and it’s also an abstract word. If I gave you a video camera and said, “Go capture engagement at work,” you'd really have to think about it. Think about it this way: most cartoons have thought bubbles, but in real life we don't see the thought bubbles. If we did, we would hope to see relatively high alignment between what's actually being said for that hypothetical video camera and what the thought bubbles say. That’s psychological safety. It’s candor. And it’s hard to manifest the abstract concept of engagement, if you are holding back your real observations and ideas.

Nonie: You’ve written extensively about teaming. Early educators often work in co-teaching arrangements in fairly high-stress, under-resourced settings. These conditions can add strain to relationships between educators, making it difficult to get along. And we don’t really focus on and unpack what it means to be a good colleague. I’d love to talk a little about this.

Amy: Yes. My favorite description of a particular organization’s culture I've ever heard is this: “We're a culture of teachers and learners.” What a great aspiration that is! I think that's what being a good colleague is all about. It’s about feeling a sense of responsibility for teaching others what you know and also a sense of responsibility for learning from others. It’s a very flat notion. It doesn't mean the organization is flat, it isn't. Most organizations have a hierarchy.

Nonie: But the stance is flat.

Amy: Yes, at all levels. The stance is, I have a lot I can teach, and I have a lot I can learn.

Nonie: And I need perspective-taking skills to better understand why that person may be behaving in a certain way.

Amy: Right, so there's two big ideas there. One is, if I understand that I have a lot to teach and a lot to learn, I'll be willing to offer, to listen, and to keep being curious. And, if I get to a position where I really am the local expert or authority, I still have a lot to learn about the impact I'm having on others when I explain my ideas, because the chances are, I'm blind to that impact. It’s not easy for me to know if I’m being clear or not.

Nonie: Yes. I'm working on myself all the time. Working on myself and my craft.

Amy: Yes, and it’s so important to separate intention and impact because most of us, and I think it's especially likely in early ed, believe our intentions are good. And, they are! That's an authentic belief. I believe I'm trying to do the right thing. I am trying to be effective. I'm trying to help kids or colleagues. That's genuine and true. But, I am reasonably blind to the impact I am having. And the chances are good that the impact is not exactly what I want it to be. So, part of a healthy culture is that people know that. There will always be stuff that you do that rubs me the wrong way, and I need to get past the fact that my brain will spontaneously assume that you're being annoying on purpose.

Nonie: Yes. The attribution is that you are doing that to me, right?

Amy: Right. Exactly. So, we automatically equate impact with intention. It’s a mind bug. It’s a cognitive error that we make. Being a good colleague requires each of us to know about the need to deliberately separate impact and intention.

Nonie: So, when you think about working with leaders to create the conditions for adults to grow and team more effectively, what are some of the ways you suggest to get people to work together better?

Amy: I often describe three practices: manage self, manage conversations, manage relationships. Manage self is the hardest. Manage conversations is the second hardest. Manage relationships is pretty easy, in a way, because it's about reaching out across silos, in advance, before things gets hot, before we disagree on some issue about which we each feel deeply.

Amy: Manage self – the hardest one – is about building two learning capabilities: reflect and reframe.

Nonie: In our Zaentz Academy, we try to promote a lot of reflection, to encourage that step back.

Amy: That’s great–and then reframing is slightly more challenging but still doable. This is about asking yourself, “What other way might I look at this? What other possibilities are there?” It’s about decoupling your immediate reaction and getting creative. It requires a bit of imagination. You actually have to trigger your imagination muscle in order to reframe.

Nonie: Right, that’s so key. Thank you, Amy. Your work on psychological safety and teaming is so relevant for the early education field. We especially appreciate your insights about individuals recognizing themselves as learners and educators and reframing their challenging situations to build stronger relationships with colleagues.

Please join us for our next blog, where we’ll hear from Ron Heifetz about listening across differences and working through feelings of incompetence to understand and bolster children’s ecosystems of education and care.

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