Why I read it
Ever since I ran a staff wellbeing research project, I’ve been on a journey to find evidence-informed strategies to help staff be the best versions of themselves. Often I’ve found that books go on a merry quest to countless high-performing organisations, in the pursuit of nirvana culture. However, I’d heard that The Fearless Organisation coupled this style with more practical strategies and ideas for the reader, and it delivered.
In the Fearless Organisation, Amy Edmondson explores the term psychological safety, and what features might create a psychologically safe workplace. It is probably no surprise to you that workers who feel safe to contribute, challenge, and create tend to be more productive and enjoy their work more; but The Fearless Organisation covers so much more. Edmondson points out that we can still be realistic about circumstances at work, for example a project failing, or the economy leading to redundancies at a company, while maintaining our sense of psychological safety. She is adamant that psychological safety is not being too nice or avoiding conflict, but rather it is about having safe, open dialogue in an organisation. It’s trust but at a group level.
The book, then, is dedicated to the discussion of examples of psychological safety from a variety of case studies and research, followed by practical strategies to make your own workplace psychologically safe for your workers.
- Interpersonal risks and how to overcome them – As social beings, we tend to conform and desire acceptance; we work out early in life how to avoid interpersonal risks. We may avoid asking questions in order to look more competent, or not challenge a colleague because we want to avoid being a troublemaker. Edmondson finds that the best teams create cultures of openness and curiosity, where staff are encouraged to question, report errors, and discuss the risks of failure – failure as an inevitable step in the journey, not as terminal.
- Psychological safety raises standards – Edmondson’s studies have found that psychological safety in the workplace increases candour, mutual respect, and trust. It is a conducive environment to setting ambitious goals and working towards them together. Put simply, having high standards and high psychological safety is the winning ticket.
- How to create a winning team – a study by Julia Rozovsky looked at which teams at Google performed best, and analysed the teams’ hobbies, backgrounds, friends, traits and more – no trends emerged as to why some teams performed better than others. And then they looked at psychological safety, and everything fell into place. Even Google’s brightest, sharpest performers needed to be within a psychologically safe team in order to thrive.
- How to create PS: 1. Candour – create genuine candour and openness. Pixar and their ‘Brain Trust’ process are cited, in which groups evaluate projects at early stages, and give constructive, impersonal feedback. The expectation is that all projects will need a lot of work and feedback to begin with – it is natural, anticipated, and celebrated.
- How to create PS: 2. Freedom to fail – create an environment in which failure and fear are uncoupled. Where the emphasis is on failure not being something to avoid or fear, but as a natural part of learning and exploration.
- How to create PS: 3. Be a don’t knower – leaders need humility – they should admit what they don’t know, ask questions, and trust those around them. ‘Leaders who are willing to say ‘I don’t know’, play a surprisingly powerful role in engaging the hearts and minds of employees.’
- Making it happen – Edmondson finishes by creating her own model to create a psychologically safe, thriving work place. It comprises 3 parts: Setting the Scene, Inviting Participation, Responding Productively. I’d encourage you to read the book to find out more, but it is a transferable and easy to follow model that I’ve already tried to use. In essence, we are encouraged to ‘set the scene’ with a project or idea, clarifying the nature of the work, and acknowledging how failures along the way will be currency for growth. Secondly, we should ‘invite participation’ by admitting we don’t know all the answers, encourage the team to learn more about it, ask open questions of those around us, and create systems and safe places for others to give open feedback. Finally, we must ‘respond productively’, by listening carefully, acknowledging those who flag up errors or ideas, and destigmatise failure throughout.
‘A culture of silence is a dangerous culture’
Edmondson cites many examples, which may be familiar to you, of healthcare, aviation, and other industries in which staff were afraid to speak up in the face of an error or miscalculation. Their fear of reporting lead to lives being lost, accidents occurring, or financial loss.
Reading the quote above fills me with dread – if there is one thing I want to avoid in my career, family, or social circles, it is a culture of silence in which people cannot express themselves. We’d all like to think we are open to feedback, but it is vital that we take action to make sure this is a certainty, and not a desire.
In the early part of the book, Edmondson shares a survey that you can use with staff to understand the level of psychological safety in the workplace. It’s a 7-question survey that I will certainly use in my workplace. This is one of the many aspects of this book, such as the model to ‘make it happen’, in which the author challenges us to move beyond our sage nodding along with her wisdom, and to actually take some action in our own workplace.
We might aspire to psychological safety. We might believe it already exists in our workplace. But do we have the courage to survey that feeling among others? This is a great starting point.
Question and reflect
Is your workplace psychologically safe? How do you know? How will you find out?
Do your staff feel safe to express themselves, to try things out and make mistakes? Is it a safe workplace in which to fail?
How does your workplace combine high expectations and psychological safety?
Read this if…
You want to understand how people typically feel in the workplace
You want to explore concepts of psychological safety, across a range of industries
You want tangible, practical strategies to improve the psychological safety in your workplace
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