Olympic bronze medallists appear “happier and less likely to feel the sting of failure” than athletes who come second and win silver, according to a classic study Amy Edmondson cites in her book Right Kind of Wrong.
Armed with that knowledge about how to “reframe” failure, the Harvard Business School professor was braced to be a runner-up at the Financial Times and Schroders Business Book of the Year ceremony on Monday. “Even as the winner was being announced . . . I was just telling myself, ‘It’s so exciting to be here.’ I was trying to not feel upset because it really makes no sense to be upset,” she says in an interview the next day. Instead, Edmondson came away with the gold — author of the first management book to win the FT prize in its 19-year history.
Right Kind of Wrong is, in the words of chair of judges and FT editor Roula Khalaf, a “highly readable and relevant” book about learning from “intelligent failure” and being able to take more calculated risks. It is born of Edmondson’s research on how to foster workplaces where team members own up to mistakes and improve, known as psychological safety.
The term is often misinterpreted. In Elon Musk, biographer Walter Isaacson, one of the book award’s silver medallists, reports how the tech entrepreneur “let loose a bitter laugh” on hearing the phrase bandied around at his social media company X. Musk considered psychological safety the “enemy of urgency, progress, orbital velocity . . . Discomfort, he believed, was a good thing”, wrote Isaacson.
“From that, I come to the conclusion that neither Isaacson nor Musk have actually read the work on psychological safety,” Edmondson says. “Because psychological safety is in fact explicitly about being uncomfortable, doing things that are uncomfortable in service of the goals . . . of the innovation project. Being able to disagree with the boss. Being able to talk about failures and mistakes. To ask for help when you’re in over your head.”
Her latest book was also fuelled by Edmondson’s annoyance with the casual “fail fast, fail often” approach that the likes of Musk sometimes promote. “It’s sloppy,” she says of celebrate-failure mantras. “That’s good advice for entrepreneurs, assuming they’re thinking through what they’re trying [to achieve] as carefully as possible, for scientists, for inventors. It’s not good advice for air traffic controllers [or] surgeons.”
Edmondson recognises that acknowledging failure, let alone learning from it, is extremely hard. “We’re fallible human beings in fallible systems,” she says.
For instance, she has written admiringly of Ray Dalio’s attempt to instil “radical transparency” at his hedge fund group Bridgewater. Yet subsequent allegations (dismissed by Dalio) suggest the goal of candour was polluted by partiality and paranoia.
Edmondson admits it is always risky to “[put] any organisation on a pedestal for good practice because you can be sure there’s going to be headlines down the road at some point”. But she points out that if Dalio fell short of the goal of giving and receiving candid feedback, it was probably because human beings are “hard-wired and socialised for face-saving and for wanting to protect our image in the eyes of others. [Radical candour] takes skill. It takes genuine commitment to learning and it’s very hard to be committed to learning because it’s so much easier to relish our knowing.”
She retells the story — with which she opens Right Kind of Wrong — of how her work on psychological safety was ignited by a “devastating, scary” failure, when her PhD study of medical errors in two hospitals returned a result that seemed diametrically opposed to her expectation. Counter-intuitively, the best-performing teams were recording more medical errors than underperforming counterparts. “Then came the moments, even hours of despair”, she recalls. She considered dropping out. Instead, she paused and asked herself, “What could this mean?” The answer, after much more research, was that the better-performing teams were working in a climate that made them “more able and willing to report mistakes”, which in turn encouraged them to improve.
Edmondson’s own discipline is under unprecedented scrutiny for alleged failings. Harvard Business School behavioural scientist Francesca Gino has brought a defamation suit against the university and against a group of bloggers who accused her of fraud in papers she had co-authored. Edmondson declines to comment on the specifics of the case, but she lays out some possible paths for improvement, such as reducing pressure for academics to publish more studies.
“The mean number of publications on résumés has gone way up” during her 19 years as a tenured professor, she says. At the same time, the proportion of experimental studies — “lab” work, rather than her preferred field work — has increased, as has the number of authors on each paper. “We need to figure out how to dial back expectations [of] the number of papers you should be having now to get tenure at a top, or any, business school,” she says.
Edmondson also worries about the tendency of journalists to extrapolate from thinly evidenced conclusions. But she remains a strong believer that management research should not be confined to an ivory tower. The work needs both to “pass muster in peer review” and be accessible to managers, “kind of a bilingualism, if you will”.
Right Kind of Wrong shows Edmondson to be a skilled interpreter of both languages at a time when there is a receptive audience for stories about how to recover from failure. She suggests that, partly as a result of the pandemic, “we’re becoming more aware of uncertainty . . . because if you asked yourself [if] in December of 2019 you had any clue what was about to happen, you would have to say no”. As a result, there is a need for “frameworks or ideas that can help us navigate” the unpredictable landscape ahead.
Asked to recommend parts of her book that busy executives could focus on, she singles out the chapter describing what constitutes an intelligent failure, and a second section “about the importance of . . . being perpetually aware of the fact that you’re missing something”.
Of two “fundamental human states”, she explains, “the more common one is [the state] of knowing, of face-saving, of wanting to win, not lose. The more productive, useful one is . . . wanting to learn, wanting to fully understand the broader situation, other people’s views, and come to the best possible hypothesis or decision.”
Source: Financial Times