Before you read this review of “The Fearless Organization” by Amy Edmondson, I’d encourage you to watch Amy’s Tedx Talk in which she talks about how to build psychological safety. Edmondson is a management professor at Harvard Business School and has done a tremendous amount of work in the area of psychological safety. In her Tedx Talk, she describes psychological safety as “a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking.” I believe that psychological safety is a critical yet often overlooked concept, and one which underpins Edmondson’s latest book, The Fearless Organization — Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth.
These are the things that I took away from reading The Fearless Organization:
- Starting with “Personal and Organizational Change through Group Methods” — The aforementioned concept of psychological safety dates back to a 1965 book titled “Personal and Organizational Change through Group Methods” by Edgar Schein and Warren Bennis, which addresses the need for psychological safety for to help people cope with the uncertainty and anxiety of organizational 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 they’d hoped or expected.
- Psychological safety isn’t a personality trait or difference — Based on her extensive research, Edmondson observes that psychological safety “is not a personality difference but rather a feature of the workplace that leaders can and must help create.” This observation made me think about the conditions that leaders can and must ‘enable’ to create a culture of psychological safety within the organisation, establishing a climate that supports learning. Edmondson mentions a number of other things which psychological safety is not, and which I’ve captured in Fig. 1 below.
- Measuring psychological safety — Perhaps you think of psychological safety as quite a fluffy idea, but it can actually be measured. I like the seven survey items which Edmondson introduced in her original research dissertation and which I’ve included in Fig. 3 below. She uses a seven-point Liker scale to obtain responses (from strongly agree to strongly disagree), and three out of seven items are expressed positively. Agreement with these items indicates greater psychological safety, whilst those items items expressed negatively (highlighted with an “R” for reverse), such that disagreement is consistent with higher psychological safety.
- Adopting an agile approach to strategy — I loved Edmondson’s point about viewing a company strategy as a hypothesis, to be tested continuously, rather than a plan. This perspective ties in with Edmondson’s broader theme around organisational learning. She argues that organisational learning — championed by company leaders but enacted by everyone — requires actively seeking deviations that challenge the assumptions underpinning a current strategy.
- Set the stage for psychological safety — In the book, Edmondson offers some useful tips with respect to ‘facilitating’ psychological safety, sharing a valuable toolkit (see Fig. 4 below).
- Proactive inquiry — Being able to say that you don’t know and driving participation through inquiry are two strong tenets of psychological safety. Edmondson shares some rules of thumb for asking a good question: one, you don’t know the answer; two, you ask questions that don’t limit responses to Yes or No, and three, you phrase the question in a way that helps others share their thinking in a focused way (see also Fig. 5 below).
Main learning point: In “The Fearless Organization”, Edmondson has written a valuable book about psychological safety. Even if you’re unable to create a truly fearless organisation anytime soon, Edmondson offers a number of valuable starting points with respect to critical aspects such as questioning, conflict and speaking up.
Fig. 1 — What Psychological Safety Is Not — Taken from: Amy Edmondson, The Fearless Organisation, pp. 15–19
- Psychological safety isn’t about being nice — Working in a psychologically safe environment doesn’t mean that people always agree with one another for the sake of being nice. It also doesn’t mean that people offer unequivocal praise or unconditional support for everything you have to say. Psychological safety is about candour, about making it possible for productive disagreement and free exchange of ideas. Conflict inevitably arises in any workplace. Psychological safety enables people on different sides of a conflict to speak candidly about what’s bothering them.
- Psychological safety isn’t a personality factor — Some have interpreted psychological safety as a synonym for extroversion. They might have previously concluded that people don’t speak up at work because they’re shy or lack confidence, or simply keep to themselves. Psychological safety, however, refers to the work climate, and climate affects people with different personality traits in roughly similar ways. In a psychologically safe climate, people will offer ideas and voice their concerns regardless of whether they tend to toward introversion or extroversion.
- Psychological safety isn’t just another word for trust — Although trust and psychological safety have much in common, they aren’t interchangeable concepts. A key difference is that psychological safety is experienced at a group level. Further, psychological safety describes a temporally immediate experience.
- Psychological safety isn’t about lowering performance standards — Psychological safety is not an “anything goes” environment where people aren’t expected to adhere to high standards or meet deadlines. It isn’t about becoming “comfortable” at work (see Fig. 2 below). Psychological safety enables candour and openness and, as such, thrives in an environment of mutual respect.
Fig. 2 — How psychological safety relates to performance standards — Taken from: Amy Edmondson, The Competitive Imperative of Learning, https://hbr.org/2008/07/the-competitive-imperative-of-learning
Fig. 3 — A survey measure of psychological safety — Taken from: Amy Edmondson, The Fearless Organisation, p. 20
- If you make a mistake on this team, it is often held against you. (R)
- Members of this team are able to bring up problems and tough issues.
- People on this team sometimes reject others for being different. (R)
- It is safe to take a risk on this team.
- It is difficult to ask other members of this team for help. (R)
- No one on this team would deliberately act in a way that undermines my efforts.
- Working with members of this team, my unique skills and talents are valued and utilised.
Fig. 4 — The leader’s tool kit for building psychological safety — Taken from: Amy Edmondson, The Fearless Organisation, p. 159
Setting the stage:
- 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
- Shared expectations and meaning
- 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
- Confidence that voice is welcome
- Express appreciation — Listen, acknowledge and thank
- Destigmatise failure — Look forward, offer help. Discuss, consider and brainstorm next steps
- Sanction clear violations
- Orientation toward continuous learning
Fig. 5 — Attributes of a powerful question — Taken from: Amy Edmondson, The Fearless Organisation, p. 171
- Generates curiosity in the listener
- Stimulates reflective conversation
- Is thought-provoking
- Surfaces underlying assumptions
- Invites creativity and new possibilities
- Generates energy and forward movement
- Channels attention and focuses inquiry
- Stays with participants
- Touches a deep meaning
- Evokes more questions
Related links for further learning: