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Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth
Do you work for a company whose employees would rather keep silent about an issue than express their opinion in fear they’d face some kind of retribution? Have you ever thought that you may be the boss in such an organization?
Either way, it’s time to change that! Amy C. Edmondson is here to teach you how to turn your company into a psychologically safe workplace, or, as she would say:
Who Should Read “The Fearless Organization”? And Why?
If you don’t know Amy Edmondson, then it’s not a bad idea to get to know her via her informative TED Talk which discusses psychologically safe workplaces and how to build them.
If you’ve already watched the TED Talk, then you already know this is a great book, which should interest bosses and employees alike, hopefully even inspiring both groups (especially the former) to change their ways.
About Amy Edmondson
Amy C. Edmondson is an American scholar, the Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at the Harvard Business School.
After working as Chief Engineer for renowned architect/inventor Buckminster Fuller in the 1980s, Edmondson embarked on an exceptional academic career, specializing in concepts such as “teaming” and “psychological safety.”
She has been included in the biannual Thinkers50 list every time since 2011, and even honored with its Talent Award in 2017.
“The Fearless Organization PDF Summary”
“Today’s employees,” writes Edmondson in the “Introduction” to The Fearless Organization, “at all levels, spend 50% more time collaborating than they did 20 years ago. Hiring talented individuals is not enough,” she deduces. “They have to be able to work well together.”
Unsurprisingly, teamwork is not an under-researched phenomenon.
On the contrary: whether it is through fables (Lencioni’s The Five Dysfunctions of a Team and The Ideal Team Player) or through more rigorous interdisciplinary analogy-based studies (General Stanley McChrystal’s Team of Teams), teamwork is one of the most investigated aspects of modern work environments.
In one of the more thought-provoking and wide-ranging analyses of this subject, Daniel Coyle’s The Culture Code, the author singles out “safety” as the most crucial skill in the toolkit of a thriving work environment.
Anne Edmonson agrees and goes a step further: in her two-decade-long research of the topic, she has discovered that a factor she calls “psychological safety” “helps explain differences in performance in workplaces that include hospitals, factories, schools, and government agencies.”
What does she mean by psychological safety?
In her own words:
Psychological safety is broadly defined as a climate in which people are comfortable expressing and being themselves. More specifically, when people have psychological safety at work, they feel comfortable sharing concerns and mistakes without fear of embarrassment or retribution. They are confident that they can speak up and won’t be humiliated, ignored, or blamed. They know they can ask questions when they are unsure about something. They tend to trust and respect their colleagues. When a work environment has reasonably high psychological safety, good things happen: mistakes are reported quickly so that prompt corrective action can be taken; seamless coordination across groups or departments is enabled, and potentially game-changing ideas for innovation are shared. In short, psychological safety is a crucial source of value creation in organizations operating in a complex, changing environment.
Of course, as Amy Edmonson makes abundantly clear, psychological safety is not the only factor that needs to be taken into consideration as far as work performance is concerned. However, she has purposefully singled it out because, as she demonstrates, it is certainly one of the most important ones in today’s world—as proven by its popularity in the last few years.
A pioneer in the area, Edmondson explores every aspect of this culture of psychological safety in The Fearless Organization, and provides “a blueprint for bringing it to life.” In fact, a psychologically safe company is what a fearless organization essentially is: “one in which interpersonal fear is minimized so that team and organizational performance can be maximized in a knowledge-intensive world.”
This book is divided into three parts which are in turn divided into a total of eight chapters. Let’s have a look at each of them!
Part I: The Power of Psychological Safety
The first part of The Fearless Organization consists of two chapters “that introduce the concept of psychological safety and offer a brief history of the research on this important workplace phenomenon.”
We’ll look at why psychological safety matters, as well as why it’s not the norm in many organizations.
Chapter 1: The Underpinning
Through “a disguised true story taking place in a hospital,” Edmonson introduces the readers to the concept of psychological safety, showing “at once the ordinariness of an employee holding back at work—not sharing a concern or a question—as well as the profound implications this human reflex can have for the quality of work in almost any organization.”
Contrary to what many leaders believed in the past, fear is not an effective motivator, and this is doubly true today when most jobs require people to learn, improve, and collaborate almost constantly. Due to fear, consciously or not, people often inhibit themselves from sharing their ideas, questions, and concerns, and when people don’t speak up, the organization’s ability to innovate and grow is threatened.
So that they can stop being silent, a psychologically safe climate must be cultivated.
However, bear in mind that psychological safety is not…
• …about being nice: conflict would (and should) inevitably arise, no matter how perfect the work environment is; psychological safety is about being honest and about letting people on different sides of a conflict express their opinions;
• …a personality factor: work climate affects different people in similar ways; regardless of whether they are introverts or extroverts, most workers would speak their mind up in a psychologically safe environment;
• …just another word for trust: though similar concepts, the key difference between trust and psychological safety is that the latter is not experienced at personal, but at a group level. In addition, as Edmondson says, “trust is about giving others the benefit of the doubt, and psychological safety relates to whether others will give you the benefit of the doubt when, for instance, you have asked for help or admitted a mistake.”
• …about lowering performance standards: psychological safety is not about being “comfortable” at work or about creating “anything goes” environment. As the table below demonstrates, It is about quite the opposite:
|Low Standards||High Standards|
|High psychological safety||Comfort Zone||Learning & High-Performance Zone|
|Low psychological safety||Apathy Zone||Anxiety Zone|
Chapter 2: The Paper Trail
In the second chapter of The Fearless Organization, Edmondson presents “key findings from a systematic review of academic research on psychological safety.”
She doesn’t provide many details on the individual studies listed in the bibliography, but gives “an overview of how research on psychological safety has provided evidence supporting the central argument in this book—that no twenty-first-century organization can afford to have a culture of fear.”
The studies Edmondson overviews show that a fearless organization “is not only a better place for employees, it’s also a place where innovation, growth, and performance take hold.”
Part II: Psychological Safety at Work
The four chapters in the second part of The Fearless Organization “present real-world case studies of workplaces in both private and public-sector organizations to show how psychological safety (or its absence) shapes business results and human safety performance.”
Chapter 3: Avoidable Failure
In the third chapter, Edmondson digs into a few cases in which “workplace fear allowed an illusion of business success, postponing inevitable discoveries of underlying problems that had gone unreported and unaddressed for a period of time.”
The chapter covers the rise and demise of a few iconic companies (Volkswagen, Nokia, Wells Fargo, Goldman Sachs) led and managed by way of fear, possibly best illustrated in the two quotations used as epigraphs to this chapter:
• “I feel misused by my own company.” — Oliver Schmidt, Volkswagen engineer
• “Until I know what my boss thinks, I don’t want to tell you.” — Regulator, Federal Reserve Bank of New York (FRBNY)
The main takeaways from these studies (and this chapter) are the following:
• If you are a leader and you only want to hear good news, you create fear which blocks you from learning the truth—until it is too late;
• Consequently, a lack of psychological safety—aka a work environment in which people can voice their opinions—only creates an illusion of success, which, in the long run, can turn into serious business failure;
• A psychologically safe environment is not that fragile since shortcomings become known early and the size and the impact of the future failure can nearly always be mitigated.
Chapter 4: Dangerous Silence
The fourth chapter starts where the third leaves off and “highlights workplaces where employees, customers, or communities suffered avoidable physical or emotional harm because employees, living in a culture of fear, were reluctant to speak up, ask questions, or get help.”
“A culture of silence is a dangerous culture,” warns Edmondson, demonstrating how in many places (say, hospitals or nuclear reactors: remember Chernobyl?), not creating a psychologically safe environment is not a luxury one has, because it can lead to a tragic loss of life.
“Excessive confidence in authority is a risk factor in psychological and physical safety,” concludes Edmondson, advising leaders to be more open to criticism and willing to learn from their subordinates.
Chapter 5: The Fearless Workplace
After showing the dangers of the old-style fear-based management, in the fifth chapter Edmondson finally shows us the other side of the coin, introducing us to the psychologically safe environment of a few organizations she is not afraid to describe as “fearless.”
“Barry Wehmiller, Google X, Eileen Fisher, Bridgewater, and Pixar,” she writes in the conclusion of this chapter, “have little in common on the surface. Yet they have managed to create work environments characterized by unusual levels of candor, engagement, collaboration, and risk-taking, all of which have contributed to the creation of successful businesses—in strikingly varied ways.”
The three crucial takeaways from Chapter 5:
• If the employees are encouraged to be honest, the company is more creative and more innovative;
• If you are a leader, be willing to say “I don’t know” when you don’t have an answer: these three simple words are so powerful in engaging the hearts and minds of employees that, without too much exaggeration, can be described as the basis of a psychologically safe environment.
• all in all, “creating an environment that values employees yields benefits in engagement, problem-solving, and performance.”
Chapter 6: Safe and Sound
Chapter 6 examines a few more psychologically safe companies, “where psychological safety helps to ensure employee and client safety and dignity.”
The cases covered here show that “clear, direct, candid communication is an important aspect of reducing accidents” and that “worker safety starts with encouraging and reinforcing employees’ speaking up about hazards and other concerns.”
That is why a good company is one which motivates its workers to do whatever is necessary to ensure safe-work practices and employee dignity, even at the cost of immediate losses.
History has repeatedly shown that this pays dividends—in the long run.
Part III: Creating a Fearless Organization
In the third part of The Fearless Organization, Edmondson includes two chapters which “focus on the question of what leaders must do to create a fearless organization—an organization where everyone can bring his or her full self to work, contribute, grow, thrive, and team up to produce remarkable results.”
Chapter 7: Making It Happen
Chapter 7 is one of the most essential chapters in Edmondson’s book since it contains the leader’s tool kit, aka a simple three-step framework of activities which leaders—at the top and throughout an organization—can use to create a more engaged and vital workforce.
The three interrelated practices which help in creating psychological safety are: setting the stage, inviting participation, and responding productively.
As shown on the table below, each of these practices encompasses sub-steps that “must be repeatedly used, in interactive, learning-oriented ways, to create and restore a climate of candor in an ongoing way.”
The Leader’s Tool Kit for Building Psychological Safety
|Category||Setting the Stage||Inviting Participation||Responding Productively|
|Leadership tasks||Frame the Work|
Set expectations about failure, uncertainty, and interdependence to clarify the need for voice
Identify what’s at stake, why it matters, and for whom
|Demonstrate Situational Humility|
• Ask good questions
• Model intense listening
Set up Structures and Processes
• Create forums for input• Provide guidelines for discussion
• Acknowledge and thank
• 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|
Chapter 8: What’s Next
The final chapter updates a few stories and offers answers to some of the questions the author is most frequently asked by people in companies regarding psychological safety.
Here are the three that seemed most interesting to us:
#1. Can you have too much psychological safety?
The short answer is “no” and the long answer that even if there is such a thing as “too much psychological safety,” the risks of being a fear-based company far exceed those of going beyond the limit of optimal psychological safety.
#2. Is psychological safety about whistle-blowing?
On the contrary: whistle-blowing is “not a reflection of psychological safety but rather an indication of its absence.”
#3. What about those successful companies run by arrogant top-down dictators who don’t listen to anyone and sometimes reduce people to tears?
Well, there are exceptions. Steve Jobs is a famous example, just as is Henry Ford who is reported to have once complained, “why is it every time I ask for a pair of hands, they come with a brain attached?” Edmondson suggests that there are rare geniuses who, indeed, have all the answers, but for the majority of companies, this approach is simply wrong and comes with too many risks.
Key Lessons from “The Fearless Organization”
1. Psychological Safety Is All About Being an Employee Comfortable Expressing Yourself
2. Psychological Safety Is Not About Lowering Performance Standards
3. The Leader’s Tool Kit for Building Psychological Safety
Psychological Safety Is All About Being an Employee Comfortable Expressing Yourself
Until just a while ago, companies were led by arrogant top-down dictators and managed by fear.
However, through two decades of research, Amy Edmondson has discovered that not only has this changed, but it has also changed for a reason: companies do not have the luxury of being psychologically unsafe.
Working for a company where you cannot express yourself, and you are in constant fear that the things you’d say may be met with ridicule and contempt is not only bad for you—it is bad for the company as well.
Numerous studies and case studies prove that, in these kinds of environments, success is only a short-term concept.
Psychological Safety Is Not About Lowering Performance Standards
Many managers and leaders think that allowing their subordinates to express their opinion freely is a recipe for disaster—at least in terms of performance standards.
However, Edmondson says that creating a psychologically safe environment doesn’t mean creating a comfort zone—it means replacing the anxiety zone for a “Learning & High-Performance Zone” where ideas are constantly pitted against each other, and creativity blooms out of conflict.
The Leader’s Tool Kit for Building Psychological Safety
In essence, the leader’s tool kit is a three-step blueprint which aims to structure the actions and activities of someone who is in charge of a company with the final goal of creating a fearless psychologically safe organization.
First, a leader must set the stage by framing the work (setting the expectations and clarifying the need for voice) and emphasizing the purpose (identifying what’s at stake, why it matters and for whom) so that he accomplishes an atmosphere of shared expectations and meaning.
Next, he must invite participation by demonstrating situational humility (admitting gaps), practicing inquiry (asking good questions) and setting up structures and processes (creating forums and providing guidelines for discussion).
This results in confidence in the employees that every voice is welcome and sets the stage for the final step: responding productively. This encompasses expressing appreciation, destigmatizing failure, and sanctioning clear violations which, in turn, should achieve company-wide orientation toward continuous learning.
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“The Fearless Organization Quotes”Cheating and covering up are natural by-products of a top-down culture that does not accept ‘no’ or ‘it can't be done’ for an answer. Click To Tweet Hierarchy (or, more specifically, the fear it creates when not handled well) reduces psychological safety. Click To Tweet High standards in a context where there is uncertainty or interdependence (or both) combined with a lack of psychological safety comprise a recipe for suboptimal performance. Click To Tweet Low levels of psychological safety can create a culture of silence. They can also create a Cassandra culture—an environment in which speaking up is belittled and warnings go unheeded. Click To Tweet For jobs where learning or collaboration is required for success, fear is not an effective motivator. Click To Tweet
Our Critical Review
The Fearless Organization is just the perfect combination of academic eruditeness and down-to-earth “nuts and bolts” approach that we’ve come to expect from HBR professors and associates.
As such, it is undoubtedly a book that is not only helpful as a theoretical framework but extremely effective as a practical manual as well.
If you are a boss or a leader of a team, ignore its bits of advice at your peril.