psychological safety

Building a Culture of Learning So One Can Rethink of What’s Possible

Founded by one of the most prominent names in the business world, the Gates Foundation prides itself in taking part in tackling the globe’s most pressing social issues. One would think that an organization operating at this scale would have it all figured out. But a few years ago, the private foundation reached out to Adam Grant, an organizational psychologist at the Wharton School and the host of the TED podcast WorkLife, to revisit its company culture and find ways to improve it. 

Grant praised the organization’s strong culture of performance. Suffice to say, with the acquisition of world-class scientists, the foundation maintains excellence in execution. But why did one of the top foundations in the world resort to consulting experts in organizational culture? Grant responds that the Gates Foundation expressed that its main goal is to improve their learning culture. 

The moment Grant first stepped in, he noticed that leaders in the foundation were concerned that the pressure to make excellent analyses was discouraging employees from taking calculated risks that might make more impact in the foundation – quite the opposite of the culture of learning, the foundation is striving to develop.

Psychological safety

According to Grant, the cornerstone of a learning culture is psychological safety – a state where one takes risks without fear of retaliation. The Center for Creative Leadership highlights that empirical evidence states that organizations can greatly benefit from the diversity of thoughts and insights which ultimately leads to the increased ability to detect problems and determine the best suitable solution for them. 

The common approach to creating an environment of psychological safety is to model openness and inclusiveness – characteristics perhaps more established in individuals with high EQ. To test this advice, Grant compares the different effects of management from multiple companies seeking constructive feedback from their teams. As expected, the psychologist discovered many of the subjects didn’t take in criticism well and became rather reactive. Others didn’t find any use of the feedback, and others felt they didn’t possess the right resources to improve, which resulted in the discontinuation of seeking regular feedback.

When things looked rather dim, Grant took notice of another group of managers who approached things differently. Instead of asking managers to seek feedback intentionally, they were told to communicate to team members a situation where they benefited from constructive assessments and the areas they are attempting to improve as a result of these assessments. He points out the importance of normalizing vulnerability and resilience in the presence of criticisms. This way employees become more comfortable in opening up about the challenges they face in their day-to-day work. 

Gates’ method

In the Gates Foundation, Grant surmised that just having managers share their experiences on criticism and how they were able to overcome them wouldn’t suffice. He considered letting senior leaders share these experiences across the entire organization. In the end, he found an unforgettable method to channel this through.

A few years ago, MBA students in Wharton created a video for their annual comedy show. Inspired by Jimmy Kimmel’s Mean Tweets segment, Mean Reviews was created to showcase the hilarious reactions of Wharton professors to harsh student course evaluations. Thinking that something similar conducted in the foundation would yield positive results, Grant sent the video to Melinda Gates asking whether it was an experiment she was willing to undertake.

Challenge leadership

Melinda didn’t only agree to the experiment; she went beyond by challenging her executive leadership team to voluntarily participate in the grilling. As the team compiled criticisms from staff surveys and had her react to them in real-time in front of a camera, Grant thought of presenting the video to a randomly chosen group of employees. 

In addition, he wanted to determine the impact of her presentation by comparing the results with two other groups – one presented with Melinda Gates talking about the culture of learning she wanted the foundation to create and another team serving as a pure control group. The first group ended up with the strongest growth mindsets to recognize weaknesses and find ways to improve on them.

Grant asserts that in performance cultures, people tend to get too attached to best practices. But best practices imply it has reached its optimal versions, which shouldn’t be the case. A culture of learning continuously questions the quality of any aspect in the organization, and that is ultimately what Grant was after for the foundation. 

Subsequently, the employees across the foundation were no longer fearful of sending feedback to senior leaders. Furthermore, employees’ likeliness to approach frontline managers with problems and solutions was observed.