Posted: 22 Oct. 2019 06 min. read

The fearless organisation: Creating psychological safety in the workplace for learning, innovation and growth

A Book Review by Dr Cate Borness

“Psychological safety” has been researched by academics for decades, but only recently has the concept taken hold among practitioners as well. Amy Edmondson, Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at Harvard Business School, has written her latest book, The Fearless Organisation: Creating psychological safety in the workplace for learning, innovation and growth (2018) to provide practitioners with a structured approach to creating psychological safety within their workplaces.

Professor Amy Edmondson has been researching psychological safety for two decades, and over that time, she has seen first-hand the impact that psychological safety (or the lack thereof) can have on performance across all industries, and at all levels of an organisation. 

In her book, Edmondson describes psychological safety as “a climate where people feel safe enough to take interpersonal risks by speaking up and sharing concerns, questions, or ideas” (p.22). In other words, they are “confident that they can speak up and won’t be humiliated, ignored, or blamed” (p.xvi). Edmondson also discusses the common reasons for not speaking up, including: a fear of being viewed or labelled negatively; fear of damaging work relationships, and; a lack of self-confidence. She refers to a “culture of silence” - in which failing to speak up, excessive confidence in authority, dismissing warnings, and “going along to get along” - can be dire for organisations, as leaders who only welcome good news inadvertently create a fear of bad news.

“Don’t want to look ignorant? Don’t ask questions…Don’t want to look incompetent? Don’t admit to mistakes or weaknesses…Don’t want to be called disruptive? Don’t make suggestions…”(p.5)  

Given this, she proposes the concept of a “fearless organisation” – as one that fosters a psychologically safe environment and ensures employees feel comfortable to contribute ideas, share information and report mistakes. In a fearless organisation, suggestions for improvement (“kaizen”) are proactively sought and implemented where they make sense.  

Ultimately, Edmondson argues that fearless organisations are more likely to succeed, as having the confidence to take risks, sharing new and different ideas (even those that are potentially “sensitive, threatening or wrong”) and being candid in sharing feedback or concerns, helps to promote continuous learning and innovation. On the flip side, fearless organisations also avoid the negative (and potentially dangerous) outcomes of silence. In sum, she posits that as organisations become increasingly global and complex, they cannot afford to have a culture of fear. 

Through academic research, a series of case studies and a practical framework, Edmondson explains why fearless organisations are higher performing, and provides a roadmap for leaders to start building the foundations for their own fearless and psychologically safe workplace. 

Aim:

The aim of the book is twofold:

1. To bring to the fore the impact that a culture of psychological safety can have on the success and sustainability of an organisation in an uncertain and constantly changing world

2. To provide leaders a practical ‘Toolkit’ for building psychologically safe workplaces.


Method:

The book is based on two decades of research. Throughout it, Edmondson summarises key findings from the academic literature (including her own research) and draws together succinct, yet informative scenario-based explanations that bring the concept of psychological safety to life. Through these case studies, which highlight both successes and failures, practitioners can see the very real impact of a “fearless” culture on business outcomes. 

The book is divided into 3 parts:

Part 1 - The Power of Psychological Safety – summarises the academic literature on the concept of psychological safety and concludes that no organisation can succeed if it has a culture of fear (i.e. an absence of psychological safety). In this section, Edmondson leverages a range of case studies highlighting the return of investing in psychological safety – and the cost when this is lacking. 

Part 2 – Psychological Safety at Work – provides real world examples of how psychological safety in the workplace shapes business results and human safety performance.

Part 3 – Creating a Fearless Organisation – provides guidance on what leaders must do to create a fearless organisation – “an organisation where everyone can bring his or her full self to work, contribute, grow, thrive and team up to produce remarkable results”.

Findings:

The book provides numerous case studies and examples (e.g. Nokia, Wells Fargo and Bridgewater Associates), which bring to life the concept of the fearless organisation through the exploration of high profile corporate collapses and successes, and the key attributes sitting behind those. Rather than profiling specific case study examples, this article will summarise the practical advice Edmondson provides for leaders, on how they can build a culture of psychological safety.

Edmondson proposes that today’s leaders need to engage in three key steps: setting the stage, inviting participation, and responding productively. 

Step 1: Set the stage

Setting the stage is about framing upfront how work should be done, and how ‘failure’ should be treated. In this step, leaders should: 

1. Frame the work: set expectations about failure, uncertainty, and interdependence to clarify the need for voice. Reframe the role of the leader from the ‘boss’ who has all the answers, to the leader who sets direction and invites others’ insights to clarify and improve excellence 

2. Emphasise purpose: identify what is at stake, why it matters and for whom.


Step 2: Invite Participation

Put simply, inviting participation is about seeking input from others and creating an environment where it is comfortable to do so. In this step leaders should: 

1. Demonstrate situational humility: acknowledge personal gaps and demonstrate a learning mindset, in order to blend humility with curiosity.

2. Practice inquiry: ask good questions and model intense listening.

3. Set up structures and processes: create forums for input and provide guidelines for discussion.


Step 3: Respond Productively

Responding productively is about ensuring that when people do take a risk or speak up, leaders respond in the right way. In this step leaders should: 

1. Express appreciation: listen, acknowledge and thank.

2. Destigmatize failure: look forward, offer help, discuss, consider, and brainstorm next steps, reframe failure as a natural by-product of experimentation.

3. Sanction clear violations: make boundaries clear with experimentation and reinforce the values of the company. For preventable failures consider training, system redesign or sanctions if repeated preventable failures occur.


In the book, each step is explained in more detail, to enable practitioners to apply the principles more easily. By following this approach, Edmondson suggests that organisations can accomplish shared expectations and meaning, confidence that voice is welcome and an orientation toward continuous learning - factors that all contribute to a sense of psychological safety.

In summary, Edmondson’s book provides a solid foundation for those organisations which want to shift their culture from one of ‘fear of failure’ to one of ‘fearlessness’ - and ultimately, innovation and growth.  

Her examples highlight how workplaces that value the voice of employees make way for greater engagement, problem solving and performance. Further, those organisations which are characterised by candor lift creativity, learning and innovation. 

Edmondson concludes, “I do not see psychological safety as a panacea. Far from it.  Psychological safety is only one of the many factors needed for success in the modern economy…..psychological safety is better thought of as an enabler that allows other factors like motivation, confidence, or diversity to have the desired effects on work outcomes” (p.197).

FULL REFERENCE: Edmondson, A.C. (2019). The fearless organisation: Creating psychological safety in the workplace for learning, innovation, and growth.  John Wiley & Sons: New Jersey, USA.

Meet our author

Dr Cate Borness

Dr Cate Borness

Director, Human Capital Consulting, Deloitte

Highly qualified organisational psychologist with over 20 years’ experience in human capital management. Passionate about improving organisational performance through the use of valid diagnostics and customised interventions that align with the organisational culture, with a particular focus on diversity, inclusion and wellbeing.