The Bregman Leadership Podcast
Episode 123

Amy Edmondson


How do organizations evolve? You have to have the right structures in place, says Amy Edmondson, author of Teaming and the forthcoming The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth. Discover the difference between extroverts and introverts, individual skill vs. orchestrated dynamic, and why leaders have to go first.


People aren’t ineffective on purpose. Discover how you can make your team work better together @AmyCEdmondson



Peter: Welcome to the Bregman Leadership Podcast. I’m Peter Bregman, your host and CEO of Bregman Partners. This podcast is part of my mission to help you get massive traction on the things that matter most.

With us today is Amy Edmondson. She wrote a terrific book called Teaming: How Organizations Learn, Innovate, and Compete in the Knowledge Economy. Amy is both a fantastic, thoughtful, disciplined researcher and writer. She is the Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at the Harvard Business School where she teaches courses in leadership, organizational learnings, and operations management in the MBA and executive ed programs. I’m delighted to have Amy with us today. The book, Teaming, is filled with really interesting stories and research, which is a sort of perfecta or a double perfecta. I don’t know exactly, now, what the title is, but anyway, Amy, welcome to the Bregman Leadership Podcast.

Amy: Thank you for having me.

Peter: Amy, let’s jump in with teaming. What do you mean by teaming? You’ve made a verb out of a noun.

Amy: Well, what I mean is that in more and more organizations, the nature of the teamwork is not just in intact teams. It’s across boundaries of all kind. If I just take a step back, a great deal of research and very good advice on team effectiveness says, first and foremost, get the structures right. If you have the right people on the team, and it’s a kind of clearly composed, bounded group of people with a shared goal and the right resources and the right coaching and so on, they’ll tend to perform better than if they don’t have the right structures.

Absolutely agree with that perspective, and more and more, the teams I see in healthcare organizations in high-tech and so many fast-paced global organizations today are not able to be really stable and bounded. In other words, they don’t have the luxury of getting the structures right before they must perform. Somehow-

Peter: It’s actually interesting because even the idea of an intact team is betrayed by the matrix networky kind of environment that we’re all operating in.

Amy: Exactly. In fact, life in the matrix, it’s a whole different game. It’s like, yes, I’ve got my team or the people most closely with, and more often than not, I have to be teaming with people in other regions, other functions, other disciplines. It’s challenging. Right? That’s this dynamic perspective.

Peter: How much is teaming really about individual skill versus orchestrated dynamic?

Amy: I like to say, there is skill, and there is individual skill here that needs to be, I think, developed and nourished, but it’s part mindset and part skill and part just context. I always just want to be clear. I’m not saying, “Here is this brand new thing I’ve thought of. It’s teaming. Go do it. It’s going to be good for you.” I’m saying, “Like it or not, you’re doing it, and we help you do it better.”

Peter: Yeah, you’re doing it, and maybe poorly, maybe well, maybe periodically, maybe uncontrollably.

Amy: Right.

Peter: Maybe there could be a discipline around it.

Amy: Exactly. Exactly. The mindset is one of curiosity and situational humility. I know I have a valid point of view, I have expertise, I know a lot, and I’m missing something.

Peter: I love that, and I talk a lot about the combination of confidence and humility.

Amy: Yeah.

Peter: I find it’s very tricky because people who are too confident are actually insecure, not actually confident. They come off as arrogant, and people who have too much humility often don’t stand for themselves. I’m curious about the gender element of that because I was just reading some research that if a man is going up for a job and has four of the 10 needed characteristics, he’ll raise his hand and say, “I can make it.”

Amy: Yeah.

Peter: If a woman looks at the same job, if she doesn’t have 10 of the 10 characteristics, she’ll say, “I’m not ready.” I wonder whether there’s that, you know what, the confidence or the humility, or the … I’m forgetting the words that you used, but they are more elegant than that.

Amy: Yeah.

Peter: This challenge of really being in a team and being able to put yourself out there, and at the same time, being really open and curious to other people’s perspectives.

Amy: I read that study too, and I think it’s such an interesting point, and it rings true. I sometimes wish I could reinvent myself as a gender expert because there’s so much interesting work there and it’s not mine, but as I said, it rings true.

Peter: Yeah.

Amy: Gender differences tend to be … Wherever we are, we’re on some curve, some distribution, and the differences between the gender distributions tend to be real but small, which means there’s plenty of people in both genders-

Peter: Right. It makes a lot of sense.

Amy: … overly confident or overly humble.

Peter: Right, and we all know them.

Amy: Right, we all know them.

Peter: I have great friends who are living in red states, and great friends who are living in blue states.

Amy: Right, and we don’t want to say, “Yeah, if you’re a woman, forget it, you’re in trouble, you’re going to be …” It’s not true. If you’re a man, you can’t get this right, not true. That’s why I like the term situational humility because I don’t have to be a complete wimp. I don’t have to say, “Oh, I don’t know anything,” and roll over and play dead. What I’m saying is in some situations more than others, it is only wise to say, “Wow, look out, look ahead, recognize we don’t know very much about how to get this right, and so I’m all ears.” Right? I’ve got to understand what you think and-

Peter: Right.

Amy: That’s situational humility. Right?

Peter: I love it, and then, actually, it references or speaks to or connects me to Carol Dweck’s work, right, on growth versus fixed mindset and this idea that if you really have a fixed mindset, which for listeners, I’ve interviewed Carol and you listen to that podcast, but if you don’t know, fixed mindset means I think my IQ and how intelligent I am, and my capability is fixed, and so when I hit up against failure or something I don’t know, rather than be curious, I get defensive because it will represent a limitation to me that I don’t want to face.

If I have a growth mindset, which means that I could grow in my IQ and my intelligence and my capability, then I look at those walls that I hit as opportunities to expand my capacity to act in the world. I wonder whether you found that … If you’ve looked at that at all and whether there’s like, the growth mindset is critical to being able to be situationally confident and humility.

Amy: I couldn’t agree more, and I love Carol Dweck’s work, and I love the idea of mindset and talking about a mindset. I’m also always grateful and pleased that she says this can be learned. Right? When you first read about it, you think, “Well, wait a minute, I’m screwed because I’m a fixed mindset person.” No, we can all learn to be more of a growth mindset person, which means we can learn to recognize, like, “Ooh, I don’t “know everything, and that’s okay,” and learn to not equate something bad happening with it being an indication that I’m just not good enough. Right? I’m not smart enough.

No, I’m standing in a new position that I’ve never been in before, ergo, things will go right, things will go wrong, so humility, curiosity, and I think it’s helped by passion. Right? If I really care about what we’re trying to do, if I can help myself care more about what we’re trying to do than about how I look, I’m off and running.

Peter: Yeah. Learning, and you’ve talked a lot in this conversation about learning, and I was surprised, pleasantly surprised to see how much learning was the core of this book and how critical it is to teaming, right, to being effective at teaming.

Amy: Right, it really is learning … I mean, in fact, that was my … I came into all this work from the perspective of wanting to know … I mean, this almost sounds naïve now, but I wanted to know how do you create learning organization. I went in, and why is it that organizations can get so stuck and then be producing the wrong products, or alienating customers in ways because they’ve gotten stuck in the past. Then the more time I spent in organizations, the more I realize that the learning engines were teams and teaming, right, that that’s where we innovate. That’s where we problem-solve, and so teaming and learning and intertwined in very deep ways.

Peter: I’m curious. I don’t know if your research covered this, but I’m curious about, I don’t why I’m thinking of all these different people and the work that they’ve done, but I’m thinking about Susan Cain right now, who I don’t know and haven’t met, but this idea of introversion. For me, I agree with you 100% that teams and teaming is critical to learning because I’m out there, and I’m engaging with people, and they push back, and then they push back. I think, “I hadn’t thought about that perspective.” I wonder whether it’s different for people who don’t learn by verbalizing things, or who tend to learn more reading a book and quietly … I’m just curious whether you’ve seen any distinction in that?

Amy: Well, I think we all have to do both. We all have to do some book learning where we have to read. We have to get ourselves up to speed on the latest information, and we have to work together with other people to solve problems that are new, that are real-time, that are experiential. What we know about introverts and extroverts is not that introverts don’t have interpersonal skill or can’t be out there teaming and learning real time, but that it takes more energy. Right?

I’m an introvert, so I get my energy … I recharge my energy by curling up with a book, but it doesn’t make me unable to interact, and I actually … I enjoy it. Right? I enjoy interacting with you right here, and it feels so real. Extroverts, the difference for extroverts is that this is how they get their energy. This is how they get their ideas. They might have a slight advantage. However, it doesn’t make the world, it doesn’t make them more or less psychologically safe.

Peter: Right.

Amy: It just makes them more energized.

Peter: I love what you just said around psychological safety too because we know from a lot of research how important that is. What are some of the ways in which people create that kind of psychological safety that predisposes a learning environment to support the teaming?

Amy: Right. Right. Well, I’m increasingly thinking, this is pretty simple. Right? By the way, simple doesn’t mean easy. Right? First and foremost, this relates to mindset, but it’s framing the work. Right? We are launching a new product. No one has ever been here before, or we are solving a tough problem, or we are trying to get our cost down to a level that we never had before.

Whatever the challenge is, it’s novel. It’s going to take all of us using our heads, listening. In a sense, framing the work is the kind of work for which uncertainty exists. We’re going to get it wrong before we get it right. We’re making the case, creating the rationale for why psychological safety is needed, why your voice is needed, so framing the work.

The second bit is being proactive in inviting other’s input. Right? I can sit there. I can think, “Oh, yeah, Peter has something to say, he’ll say it,” or I can say, “Hey, Peter, what do you think about this? What do you bring?” If I say, “Peter, what do you bring,” you’ll feel awkward not answering. Right? I’ve taken away the need for you to be courageous by giving you the platform.

Then the third thing is, no matter what you say, whether I like it or not, I’m going to respond appreciatively. That doesn’t mean I won’t push back. It doesn’t mean I won’t try to make it better, but I will be, “Oh, thank you so much for that perspective. Now, here are some other things I’d like us to consider. I mean, let’s put them out there, right, but I’m always being grateful that you’re here and that you took that risk.”

Peter: It’s interesting because saying as the leader or whoever it is to say, “Hey, Peter, hey, Amy, what do you think about this?” It doesn’t necessarily remove courage as a concept from the table, but it shifts who has to show it, meaning the leader at that point has to be the one to say I’m going to actually show the courage to reach out to you and say, “Hey, Amy, what do you think?”

Amy: That’s true, and I think that’s right because leaders have to go first.

Peter: Right.

Amy: Why should I expect you to be courageous? Why should I require you to have the courage when I’m not willing to do that myself?

Peter: Right. I love it.

Amy: I like that. I think that’s a really good point that there’s still courage, but I’m going first. I’m-

Peter: You’re putting it where it belongs in that case, and so where it should be strongest.

Amy: Yeah.

Peter: We talked very briefly before the call about this, before this conversation about this challenge that I’ve often found, which is there’s a tremendous amount of research that looks at teams, for example, or let’s just take psychological safety because it’s a great example and we’re talking about where one of the best practices for creating psychological safety. Then you go into a team, and you see a leader who is insecure or feels vulnerable, doesn’t create psychological safety, has the false confidence that bleeds into arrogance, lacking humility, does it because they’re, for whatever reasons, they’re unsure themselves.

I’m curious if you’ve seen stories or have a perspective on not just here are the best practices of creating safety, psychological safety in a team, but here’s what people have done to shift from being that, maybe, arrogant, maybe unconscious leader who doesn’t create … Who just blows through, who has their perspective, and was able to then create a psychologically safe environment, and what had to happen for that transformation to occur.

Amy: Yeah. I think there’s probably as many different ways to help … As there are people who have made those transitions, but one obvious one is, of course, a coaching of some kind. Quite often, people … I think what we have to accept is that most people are not being ineffective on purse. Right? They’re being ineffective because that’s how they learned to be, or that was the model they were exposed to, or whatever. I think our first responsibility, whether as researchers or interventionist in any way, is to help people see impact. Right? Then, of course, to be very careful about separating impact from intention.

Peter: Right.

Amy: Just because someone has a really negative impact on their team doesn’t mean that they’re a bad person, that they’re trying to harm people. In fact, I think most people are blind. Right? I mean, we are, in a sense, we’re born blind to the impact we are having with others at any given time. It’s something we need to … All leaders need to remind themselves, I’m blind. Right? Then if I recognize that I’m blind, then that’s not fun. I’m going to be asking questions. I’m going to be looking to you to give me feedback, to help me understand what you heard or what …

Peter: Right.

Amy: I think you’re trying to enlighten, and most of us want to be enlightened, although we don’t … We might kick and scream along the way, but as to impact. Then once I’m more aware of the impact I’m having and how it’s not really what I want. I mean, I want to get these results. I want this project to be a smashing success, then I’m more open to learning and practicing some of the skills that I need to practice.

The funny thing is, is none of the skills that I talk about are hard. They’re not like going to the Olympics and doing something that’s just absolutely superhuman. They’re only hard because our brains are structured in such a way that we forget to do them. For example, [crosstalk 00:18:03]-

Peter: Well, let me push back on that for a second. I’m coming out with a new book in July called Leading with Emotional Courage, and it’s this idea of emotional courage, the willingness to feel. I’m looking at all the copy editor’s changes right now. I’m in the middle of it, so it’s kind of on my mind.

Amy: Do you love that?

Peter: Yeah, right? The pushback is I don’t know if it’s that we forget.

Amy: Yeah.

Peter: When we talked about courage earlier, is that it’s hard that even listening can be hard. If I feel like I know the answer and you’re telling me something I don’t want to hear, it’s not that I forget to listen or to ask a question or to be appreciative. It’s that I’m triggered, and maybe, even I have this skill of passion, that I’m so passionate about the project, and I feel threatened that you’re going to suggest something that’s going to get in the way of the success. I get reactive.

I wonder. I wonder. I’m actually curious of your perspective as to whether it’s deeper than just forgetting, and it’s more about the psychological emotional challenge of patience, and of the courage to feel things we don’t want to feel in order to be present and take the actions that we need to take.

Amy: Absolutely. In Teaming, I talk about … Part of teaming’s power is that you work with conflicting points of view, and you get somewhere more powerful by working together, and for all of the reasons you just said, that’s not easy. I have a whole chapter in there on dealing with emotionally-laden conflict. There’s really two kinds of conflicts, and I think it’s overly simplistic to say relationship and task because if we’re doing the work and we disagree, and it’s something that I hold dear and strongly believe is right, I’m going to get emotional, and I’m going to get suddenly not like you very much.

You’re absolutely right. This is hard. There’s three skills, if you will, that I think you need to practice, but the first one is, by far, the hardest. That’s emotional self-regulation. I’m sure your book will talk a lot about that, but it’s the ability to stop, breathe, and challenge my own thinking for just a moment. Right? Sometimes, it’s the simple … My brain is saying, “He is such a jerk.” Right? Sometimes, it’s as simple as reminding myself to say, “I wonder why he’s such a jerk.” Right?

I haven’t had to go all the over the hill to, he’s probably a wonderful guy acting in ways that are frustrating me. No, that’s asking me to be saint-like. I can’t do that, but if I can just get myself over that little speed bump to be curious about your jerkiness, then I’m making it in the road into self-management. I get to stop. I get to challenge my automatic thinking, which is generally incomplete, and ask myself, “Okay, what might I have to do to come at this another way?”

I have to recognize that my tacit model is to be selling. I know I’m right, so how do get you to recognize that I’m right and you’re wrong? That’s a losing battle. Right? Instead, I’ve got to be like, “Okay, I want to advocate my point of view and I guess I better be open to learning more about yours.”

Peter: Right.

Amy: Right.

Peter: I mean, I’m listening to you, and I’m thinking about my own career trajectory and my own growth and development over 30 years. It’s amazing to me how hard those little shifts are, how long it takes. I mean, I think I’m finally kind of, sort of sometimes getting it, but how hard it is to go from selling to curiosity, and how incredibly powerful curiosity is, and how comfortable we are knowing things, and how important it is to be in that space of not knowing things if we’re going to team effectively.

Amy: I think that’s so true and so well-said. If you think back, I mean, early on, you said part of the problem we have, we think we might look weak if we’re asking questions and saying, “Oh, I need to learn,” and so on. Yet, if you think about your own experience, anytime you encounter a leader or a colleague who is kind of curious, they’ve got light in their eyes. They’re curious. You realize you find them more compelling than the know-it-alls.

Peter: Right. Right. No question. I mean, no question. Why do we still do it? Why do we still do the things we know are totally self-sabotaging, and yet, we want to be seen a certain way, and we have a story that in order to be seen that way, we have … I mean, it is, there’s some level of insecurity, and there’s all these things, and maybe even the question of why isn’t important.

Amy: Right.

Peter: Maybe the question is how do we shift?

Amy: Although I think it’s important … I mean, I think we have a little bit of insight into the why in the sense, I said before, we were blind, but Lee Ross, Stanford, calls this, we’re naïve realists. I literally believe I have the experience of thinking I see reality.

Peter: Right.

Amy: Then I’m pretty sure you see it too, and as soon as you come out with some wrong-headed view, I immediately, I don’t do it on purpose, but I immediately go to “Okay, he’s self-interested,” or “He’s stubborn,” or “He’s not smart enough,” or whatever my little attribution is generally unflattering about you. We have to understand that we do this automatically.

Peter: Right.

Amy: In fact, let me back up even further and say, “Teaming is hard because it has to overcome these natural cognitive emotional dynamics.”

Peter: Right.

Amy: If I could say to people and organizations, “Listen, you’re better off skipping teaming because it’s just really hard and you probably won’t do it very well,” but I can’t.

Peter: Right.

Amy: The reason I can’t is not because I think it’s a better way to work but because it’s a necessary-

Peter: It’s inevitable. It’s inevitable.

Amy: It’s inevitable.

Peter: Right.

Amy: You must collaborate with people because today’s work is generally interdependent and complex and uncertain, and it’s not done by individuals working alone in a vacuum.

Peter: Right. I’m curious about the academic environment in which you operate. You’re at Harvard. I think it’s so interesting how many people do research with each other because you see it all the time with grad students and with each other, and I love that, and yet, the academic environment has a reputation of being very individualistic and tough and critical of people and each other. I’m wondering how your research has shifted in any way, if it has, the way you approach teaming at Harvard and with your colleagues and with maybe others who might not be as prone to effective teaming.

Amy: Yeah. It’s funny because for a long time, in the first, say, 10 years of my career, I probably had a much higher percent of solo-authored work than most people. I don’t say that as a boast but as a … I was very happy, I said before, I was an introvert, I was very happy of it, my keyboard, doing my own thing, getting my data. In fact, I discovered the joys of collaboration along the way when I had that opportunity, and probably the first great collaboration opportunity I had was a study of surgical teams with a doctor and an economist.

We have social psychologist, a doctor, and an economist. It sounds like the beginning of a bad joke. Right? It was really fun because there was this, wait a minute, you see it like that? What a strange way to see it, but it enriched me. Right? It made my thinking bigger. It’s almost like teaming confronts all these hurdles that we’ve been talking about, and they’re worth confronting because I’m literally going to school as I do it. Right? I’m getting smarter. The rough edges are [crosstalk 00:26:58].

Peter: To keep with your theme of creating verbs out of nouns, you are being schooled, or no, being schooled would be or no, brain schooled would be …

Amy: Right.

Peter: You’re schooled, schooling.

Amy: I’m learning. I’m learning. Right?

Peter: Yeah. Right. Right.

Amy: I’m learning as I go, which is my teaming and learning are so intertwined, and that’s what’s needed in today’s complex, ambiguous uncertain world. We all have to be teaming and learning to be effective all the time, and it doesn’t come naturally. Therefore, it takes a lot of leadership, or coaching, or peer counseling, or what have you.

Peter: Amy, it is such a pleasure to have you on the show, and I want to appreciate one very particular thing. I love the book. It’s so fun to talk to you. I hope that you get lots more opportunities to do that. I had a whole list of questions. I didn’t get to any of them, but I mean, the conversation just developed organically. I want to just particularly appreciate the way you take any either/or situation I give you and connect them with an and.

I think that’s so realistic for life. I think you can’t say this or that. It’s always some combination of them, and that’s what allows us to keep our curiosity. It’s an underlying methodology for encouraging curiosity is to recognize that both are true in most situations where we think we have to choose or the other. You’ve demonstrated that behavior beautifully in this conversation, and I so appreciate you being on the Bregman Leadership Podcast. Thank you so much.

Amy: It was a delight talking with you. I mean that so sincerely, what a treat.

Peter: I feel the same way.

I hope you enjoyed this episode of the Bregman Leadership Podcast. If you did, it would really help us if you subscribe on iTunes and leave a review. A common problem that I see in companies is a lot of busyness, a lot of hard work that fails to move the organization as a whole forward. That’s the problem that we solve with our Big Arrow process. For more information about that, or to access all of my articles, videos, and podcasts, visit Thank you, Clare Marshall, for producing this episode, and thank you for listening.


  1. It seems that you have spent a lot of time and money to come with the “teaming” concept. If you had looked at any small to medium-size nonprofit organization, you would know that it is how we are able to be flexible learning organizations that make resources stretch to their utmost to help the people (and causes) we work with every day. We work across functions, break through silos, focus on “yes, and” and learn from each other–even from other organizations. What a concept!!

    And, by the way, we have been doing this for years. It may be a new concept for business, but it is how we are most effective.

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