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How loyalty can hold back innovation

I'm an innovator first, and a loyalist second. For the past few years I've been studying loyalty and wondering why it's such an under-esteemed trait among innovators. Now the work of Charles Duhhig and Amy Edmondson have made it clear to me. 

Loyal behavior tends to depress the natural friction required in making changes. This realization has brought it home to me that I see loyalty in a different way than most people. For me, loyalty is about a commitment to support someone or some institution, but not about following. I can imagine trusting someone enough to do something their way, especially if I didn't have enough experience and information to disagree. But I would still question them. On the other hand, without some loyalty in my life, all the choices and opportunities overwhelm me and create chaos. Loyalty allows me to make some decisions less often and have more continuity in my life. 

Amy Edmondson, now a professor of leadership at Harvard Business School, was a Harvard PhD student in 1991, studying health workers in hospitals to understand the interplay between teamwork and medical outcomes. She found that the more highly prized loyalty was among the team members, the less likely they were to catch each others' errors. Since then she has been studying how great teams drive innovation and developed the concept of 'psychological safety' to explain how they can work together with confidence and still critique each others' ideas.  She's done two short TED talks, has a new book called The Fearless Organization, and was recently interviewed here

I was introduced to this idea by the second chapter in Charles Duhhig's book Smarter Better Faster, and I wished I had known about it many teams ago. 

How to turn a group of strangers into a team, TED talk on October 2017 (13 minutes) by Amy Edmondson: 

Abraham Lincoln said once, "I don't like that man very much. I must get to know him better." Think about that -- I don't like him, that means I don't know him well enough. It's extraordinary. This is the mindset, I have to say, this is the mindset you need for effective teaming. In our silos, we can get things done. But when we step back and reach out and reach across, miracles can happen. Miners can be rescued, patients can be saved, beautiful films can be created.

To get there, I think there's no better advice than this: look to your left, look to your right. How quickly can you find the unique talents, skills and hopes of your neighbor, and how quickly, in turn, can you convey what you bring? Because for us to team up to build the future we know we can create that none of us can do alone, that's the mindset we need.

Building a psychologically safe workspace at TEDxHGSE on May 4, 2014, by Amy Edmondson

Smarter Faster Better: "Teams -- Psychological Safety at Google and Saturday Night Live," 2016-Mar-8 by Charles Duhigg

When Edmondson started working on her dissertation, she visited technology companies and factory floors, and asked people about the unwritten rules that shaped how their teammates behaved. “People would say things like, ‘This is one of the best teams I’ve ever been on, because I don’t have to wear a work face here,’ or ‘We aren’t afraid to share crazy ideas,’ ” Edmondson told me. On those teams, norms of enthusiasm and support had taken hold and everyone felt empowered to voice opinions and take risks. “And other teams would tell me, ‘My group is really dedicated to each other and so I try not to go outside my department without checking with my supervisor first’ or ‘We’re all in this together, so I don’t like to bring up an idea unless I know it will work.’ ” Within those teams, a norm of loyalty held sway—and it undermined people’s willingness to make suggestions or take chances.

Both enthusiasm and loyalty are admirable norms. It wasn’t clear to managers that they would have such different impacts on people’s behaviors. And yet they did. In that setting, enthusiastic norms made teams better. Loyalty norms made them less effective. “Managers never intend to create unhealthy norms,” Edmondson said. “Sometimes, though, they make choices that seem logical, like encouraging people to flesh out their ideas before presenting them, that ultimately undermine a team’s ability to work together.” 

As her research continued, Edmondson found a handful of good norms that seemed to be consistently associated with higher productivity. On the best teams, for instance, leaders encouraged people to speak up; teammates felt like they could expose their vulnerabilities to one another; people said they could suggest ideas without fear of retribution; the culture discouraged people from making harsh judgments. As Edmondson’s list of good norms grew, she began to notice that everything shared a common attribute: They were all behaviors that created a sense of togetherness while also encouraging people to take a chance.

“We call it ‘psychological safety,’ ” she said. Psychological safety is a “shared belief, held by members of a team, that the group is a safe place for taking risks.” It is “a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject, or punish someone for speaking up,” Edmondson wrote in a 1999 paper. “It describes a team climate characterized by interpersonal trust and mutual respect in which people are comfortable being themselves."