The Fearless Organization is one of those books that you simply wonder why it wasn’t written decades ago. The concept of Psychological Safety that Amy Edmondson studied as a researcher is the focus of this book. I have already spoken in detail about this topic in a specific post, and I’ve also added a great Ted Talk by Amy on this topic in the Inspiration Video section of this blog. I would recommend you first to watch the video, then read the book.
The subtitle of this book, Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth, states immediately the domains that the author wants to touch. She does so with skilful mastery and several case studies that are genuinely well representative of the concepts she wants to express. Moreover, the book is very well grounded in behavioural research, an essential element when touching subjects that have become so “mainstream”.
One of the key learnings out of this book is where the concept of Psychological Safety comes from. As I wrote before, it is merely too “simple” as an idea to have been discovered just recently. And it dates back to a 1965 book titled Personal and Organizational Change Through Group Methods by Edgar Schein and Warren Bennis, which investigated the need for psychological safety in the context of organisational change. The basic idea in that work was that Psychological Safety was necessary to help people coping with uncertainty and anxiety change. Schein later noted that psychological safety was vital for helping people overcoming the defensiveness and “learning anxiety” they face at work, especially when something doesn’t go as expected.
The first time that Amy Edmondson encountered Psychological Safety was when she studied the different performance of medical units in hospitals. She found out that the best performing teams were reporting more errors, almost a counterintuitive fact. It had a logic, though: in those teams, people could be candid and report errors more freely because of the higher levels of Psychological Safety. A facto she has then studied since. From that initial discovery also comes one of the main consequences of this concept. In the same organisation, there can be very different levels of Psychological Safety, varying by the team.
Amy Edmondson takes quite some time to define what Psychological Safety is. And probably even more time to specify what it is not.
I have defined psychological safety as the belief that the work environment is safe for interpersonal risk taking. The concept refers to the experience of feeling able to speak up with relevant ideas, questions, or concerns. Psychological safety is present when colleagues trust and respect each other and feel able – even obligated – to be candid.Amy Edmondson, The Fearless Organization, Page 11
The link with performance is an element that also recurs in other articles by the author.
Edmondson cites several questions she has statistically validated that help measures the levels of Psychological Safety in a team or organisation. In the appendix, she provides more detail, also about existing translations. But these questions are useful. She normally uses a 1-7 Likert scale and notes that some of these questions (marked by R) are reverse as they are expressed negatively.
In any challenging industry setting, leaders have two vital tasks. One, they must build psychological safety to spur learning and avoid preventable failures; two, they must set high standards and inspire and enable people to reach them. Setting high standards remains a crucial management task. So does sharing, sharpening, and continually emphasizing a worthy purpose.Amy Edmondson, The Fearless Organization, Page 22
This is one of the most interesting questions that Amy Edmondson tries to answer through the book. An Epidemic of Silence is a chapter that focuses specifically on the reasons that push many people not to “speak up”. People at work are vulnerable to a kind of implicit logic in which safe is simply better than sorry she states. There are many fears that people can at individual levels that push them against speaking up. They can fear being labelled negatively, or fear damaging working relationship. Research has shown that these fears are spread, and ultimately no one was ever fired for silence.
Chapter 2 goes in-depth in showing how much the absence of psychological safety can lead to what the author calls “Avoidable Failures”. She uses four examples: Volkswagen and the Dieselgate, Wells Fargo, Nokia and the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. In each of these cases, a psychologically unsafe culture appeared to be working for some period of time, but, like a ticking bomb, it eventually exploded from within, decimating reputations of once-venerated companies. In most cases, the problem was a traditional hierarchical organisation that pushed people not to be transparent and candid about things that didn’t work well.
This is also what the author describes as feeling unable to speak up when hierarchy is made salient. And this inability is real for many people. Reasons can be different; the most important one is the confusion between authority and competence. The issue is that mechanisms of power and silence can perpetuate a psychologically unsafe culture. And it is on this cultural aspect that we need to intervene.
Perhaps the truly fearless workplace is an impossibility.Amy Edmondson, The Fearless Organization
The second part of The Fearless Organization is focused on what can be done to achieve real Psychological Safety. But the chapters are very pragmatic and do not underestimate the adventure. As pointed out before, even in the best culture, there are going to be teams where Psychological Safety will be low. And people will normally revert back to silence for many reasons.
Edmondson, however, identifies a number of elements that can foster Psychological Safety, and mare organisation fearless. The first one is Making Candour Real. A concept we have already seen in two books (Ed Catmull’s Creativity Inc and Radical Candor by Kim Scott), that needs to be made explicit by ensuring that failures are not “punished” in the company. Make it safe to fail becomes an essential element for any culture that wants to prosper. Plus, authentic Leadership also plays a vital role here, with its capability to listen and say “I don’t know”, a fundamental way to open up for people to speak up.
Chapter six concentrates on a powerful enabler for Psychological Safety: communication. The way we use our words, and the way we interact is a crucial component of fighting fear. A lot can be achieved by embedding communication elements in learning, and sometimes also in indeed formalized training. The formal aspect alone doesn’t suffice, though, it’s crucial that fearless communication is practised.
Creating a psychologically safe workplace takes Leadership. And this is the focus of the last chapter of the book. What are the characteristics that a leader needs to have to really create a Psychological Safe environment? The most important one is reframing. Only by altering the frames that people impose on themselves, we can genuinely fight fear.
Speaking up is only the first step. The true test is how leaders respond when people actually do speak up.Amy Edmondson, The Fearless Organization
The author has built a toolkit for leaders to be able to really nurture Psychological Safety, through three steps, as seen in the below table.
|Category||Setting the Stage||Inviting Participation||Responding Productively|
|Leadership tasks||Frame the work — Set expectations about failure, and interdependence to clarify the need for voice.|
Emphasise the purpose — Identify what’s at stake, why it matters, and for whom.
|Demonstrate situational humility — Acknowledge gaps.|
Practice inquiry — Ask good questions and model intense listening.
Set up structures and processes — Create forums for input and provide guidelines for discussion.
|Express appreciation — Listen, acknowledge and thank.|
Destigmatise failure — Look forward, offer help. Discuss, consider and brainstorm next steps.
Sanction clear violations.
|Accomplishes||Shared expectations and meaning.||Confidence that voice is welcome.||Orientation toward continuous learning.|
I think that one of the most interesting aspects is the concept of reframing failure, and understanding what types of errors are ok. A self-assessment is also provided.
The Fearless Organization is definitely a milestone book on the topic of Psychological Safety, much value can also be derived from the very last chapter and the “FAQ Section” where she provides the answers to the questions that she more frequently gets in conferences and seminars. There’s a passage that struck me most:
I am sometimes struck by the anxiety people seem to feel about creating psychologically safe organizations; perhaps we’re naturally comfortable living with the devil we know – organizations where self-protection quietly crowds out much of the creativity, learning, or belonging that lies under the surface without our noticing. And the devil we don’t know – unusual workplaces where people can be and express themselves, confronting greater conflict and challenge but greater fulfillment as well – awaits.
It summarizes pretty the well the key issue that is at stake here: we are not “wired” to experiment psychological safety, because much of our lives we have been punished for errors and mistakes, we have been taught to respect authority and keep silent when things don’t look ok. However, this is not an excuse not to start changing, and begin untapping that potential we have in teams through transparency and focus.
A great read that every manager should undertake, possibly early on in her career.
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