How to Get People to REALLY Share Knowledge in Groups

Carla O'Dell's picture

One of the biggest problems in organizations is that people are afraid to speak up. This fear leads to bad decisions, bad feelings, lost opportunities, and disengaged employees. It’s an epidemic. It is especially poignant for those of us who are so passionately committed to knowledge sharing.

How can we help people feel safe to share opinions and information?

This will be the focus of Nancy Dixon’s workshop, Conversation that Unleashes Organizational Knowledge, at APQC’s 2018 KM Conference. Nancy Dixon is an expert in KM and founder of Common Knowledge Associates, a firm that helps organizations create conversations where knowledge transfer and sharing happens, new knowledge is created, and innovation arises.

Nancy says when people get into situations that are potentially embarrassing to themselves, their boss, or to other people, or when the situation reveals a lack of knowledge or competency, fear sets in. People want to belong, they want to be polite, and they don’t want to embarrass others. They want to be a team player, even though by not sharing they are letting the team down.

So what is the solution?  Create group psychological safety. 

I asked Nancy, “What is group psychological safety, and why does it matter to KM?” 

“Amy Edmonson of Harvard explained psychological safety: ‘It’s a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking and that team members have a sense of confidence that others will not embarrass, reject, or punish someone for speaking up.’ It is a group rather than an individual competency. Everybody in the group has to believe that the group is psychologically safe for this to be true.

“How it ties to KM and to learning, is that many of the practices that we need in a group in order to learn are those same practices that are threatening and embarrassing.  I’m fearful that I’ll lose my job; others will think less of me; I won’t get good assignments.”

In any good lessons learned exercise or after action review, whether it’s still in the context of the project or after it, people have to be absolutely willing to say what they wish they had done differently.

One of the people I interviewed a couple of years ago, Dr. Alex Pentland at MIT, says the most productive and creative teams are those that have high psychological safety, but that every member is connected to others outside of the team so they’re bringing in new information. The psychological safety of the team allows them to say, “That’s a good idea, but not a great idea” or “No, that isn’t going to work” and it doesn’t impede the group’s ability to take the information and use it in the best way.

Another way we impede sharing is by being too darn sure of our opinions. Nancy wrote a blog, Stopping the Flow of Information By Speaking With Conviction, that says if we say it so certainly nobody will challenge it. Bosses are especially guilty of this. Nancy worked with a company in China, and that’s exactly the situation they faced. If asked a question in a group, they would wait until the senior person spoke and it would not be contradicted.

In her workshop, Nancy will focus on techniques that KM professionals and team leaders use to create these safe environments so people with relevant information will speak up and share. Come to the workshop to learn and experiment with techniques for helping people connect–virtually or face to face—to create a safe space to share.

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