To thrive in complex, dynamic environments, organizations must stay agile and learn continuously. This book by Amy C. Edmondson explains how you can improve organizational learning, growth and innovation by creating psychological safety. In this free version of The Fearless Organization summary, you’ll learn how to cultivate a psychologically-safe environment where people can speak up and contribute freely.
What’s The Fearless Organization About?
We live in an increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) world, where no individual can know or do everything on his/her own. To thrive, organizations must hire great people and help them to collaborate effectively. This in turn requires people to feel free and safe to speak up, contribute their expertise, share information, and take risks.
In 1999, Amy Edmondson coined the term “psychological safety” to describe the lack of interpersonal fear. It’s about creating a space where people feel comfortable being themselves—where they can express themselves honestly, and make mistakes without fear of being shamed or blamed. This allows ideas and information to be exchanged freely, and mistakes to be flagged out asap for corrective action.
In this book, Edmondson presents dozens of case studies and decades of research, to explain what psychological safety is and isn’t, how it affects people and organizations, and how you can remove interpersonal fear to build fearless organizations. In The Fearless Organization summary, we’ve distilled and organized the insights into 2 parts:
• What is psychological safety and why it matters; and
• How to build the Fearless Organization
What is Psychological Safety & Why It Matters
What Psychological Safety Is and Is Not
Psychological safety refers to an environment where people feel safe enough to take interpersonal risks. In short, they can speak up, ask for help, or admit mistakes, without fear of blame or humiliation. Psychological safety is not about being lenient or free from accountability.
• Psychological safety is not about being agreeable or nice. It’s about being candid, to freely exchange ideas and address differences/conflicts without fear of repercussions.
• Psychological safety is not about individual personality. It’s about the group or organizational culture/climate, which affects all types of people, regardless of their personality.
• Psychological safety is not the same as trust, although they are correlated. Trust applies to interactions between 2 individuals, and it’s about whether you believe others would do what they should. Psychological safety is experienced at a group level, and it’s about whether you believe others would give you the benefit of the doubt if you speak up, ask for help, or admit to a mistake.
• Psychological safety is not about reducing performance standards. In fact, both dimensions jointly affect team and organizational results. Teams learn, collaborate, innovate, and deliver strong results when there are high standards and high levels of psychological safety.
A fearless organization is one where interpersonal fear is minimized, allowing a freer flow of knowledge and ideas. Psychological safety can be measured using 7 survey questions on a Likert scale, to evaluate if your team members:
- Hold your mistakes against you;
- Are able to raise difficult issues and problems;
- Reject others due to their differences;
- Make it safe to take risks;
- Make it easy to ask for help;
- May intentionally obstruct your work/effort; and
- Value and use your unique talents and skills.
Why Build The Fearless Organization?
Amy Edmondson discovered psychological safety by accident when she was researching teamwork for her doctoral studies. Since then, research over the last 20 years (across various teams, organizations and industries) has found psychological safety to positively affect employees’ ability to contribute, collaborate, learn and grow. These are vital for innovation, diversity, inclusion, and a sense of belonging.
Psychological safety supports learning and problem-solving. Teams with higher psychological safety tend to report errors and discuss problems openly, making it possible to identify and address underlying issues. They share knowledge, exchange ideas, and brainstorm solutions to achieve team-based learning.
• Psychological safety is positively related to employee engagement, i.e. the extent to which an employee feels passionate and committed to a job/organization. This is in turn related to job satisfaction and motivation.
• Psychological safety is also positively related to performance and innovation. In a VUCA world, no single person can see all the moving parts. To succeed, we must exercise judgment and collaborate/communicate with others.
• Having said that, psychological safety isn’t a magic elixir for performance. Team success also requires other ingredients, such as clear goals, shared values, skills and experience. What psychological safety does is to moderate or amplify other variables, such as team communication, conflict management, and leveraging diversity.
In our full summary of The Fearless Organization, we elaborate more on:
• Why psychological safety is so rare in organizations;
• The risks and costs of a Culture of Silence where people hide or ignore problems to hurt business results, cause emotional/physical harm, and even the tragic loss of lives.
• The benefits and advantages of a Culture of Psychological Safety in fearless organizations, and what we can learn from various real-world organizations like Pixar, Google X, Palo Alto, and DaVita Kidney Care
How to Build the Fearless Organization
It’s not easy to change a culture. If people are used to keeping silent, you can’t just tell them to start speaking up. This is where strong leadership comes in to shape the culture and environment.
To build or rebuild psychological safety, leaders need 3 inter-related strategies:
- Set the stage for psychological safety, by reframing work, failures, authority and the organization’s purpose in a way that would encourage people to speak up and contribute.
- Invite participation, by assuring people that their voices are welcome, and by making it easier for people to speak up.
- Respond productively, by being appreciative, encouraging, yet firm.
In our compete version of The Fearless Organization summary, we elaborate on each of these strategies, and illustrate how the principles come together in a detailed case study about a mining company.
Other Details in “The Fearless Organization”
If you’re ready to learn more about psychological safety and what it takes to build a fearless workplace, do check out the our full book summary bundle which includes an infographic, 15-page text summary, and a 24-minute audio summary!
In the book, Amy Edmondson reinforces the importance of psychological safety through research studies and numerous case studies (ranging from banks to aviation, technology companies, and hospitals). She also includes an appendix to explain variations in survey measures for psychological safety. You can purchase the book here, or visit amycedmondson.com for more information.
About the Author of The Fearless Organization
The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth was written by Amy C. Edmondson–an American scholar, author and a Professor of Leadership at the Harvard Business School. She was previously a Director of Research at Pecos River Learning Centers, and a Chief Engineer for Buckminster Fuller. She is best known for pioneering the work on psychological safety, and has received numerous awards for her work. Amy Edmondson received her PhD in organizational behavior, AM in psychology, and AB in engineering and design from Harvard University.
The Fearless Organization Quotes
“The Fearless Organization is not only a better place for employees, it’s also a place where innovation, growth, and performance take hold.”
“A culture of silence is a dangerous culture.”
“When people speak up, ask questions, debate vigorously, and commit themselves to continuous learning and improvement, good things happen.”
“Speaking up is easier said than done. There’s no switch to flip that will instantaneously turn an organization accustomed to silence and fear into one where people speak candidly.”
“Speaking up is not a natural act in hierarchies. It must be nurtured.”
“A leader can be the driving force and catalyst for others to speak up; but ultimately, the practice must be co-created–and continuously nurtured–by multiple stakeholders.”
“Some failures are genuinely good news; some are not, but no matter what type they are, our primary goal is to learn from them.”
“Building and reinforcing the work environment where people can learn, innovate, and grow is a never-ending job, but a deeply meaningful one.”
Build the ideal environment for learning, growth and innovation!