The first thing that strikes me after, finally, reading Amy Edmondson’s book “The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Growth and Innovation” is that it is, in one sense, completely anti-intuitive. The catch isn’t so much the fearless part; it’s the psychological safety part. Sadly, when I see people reference Edmondson it is around the latter concept rather than the former. For maybe too many people this idea around “safety” runs counter to what the book aims for. Let me explain.
In most workplace, we see safety translated into consensus. When you think about it, it seems natural and human. We’ve survived by grouping ourselves in families or tribes or cults where the expectation was that everyone was more or less the same and where it was important to identify and get rid of the outliers to ensure the safety and survival of the group. I’m not sure the anthropological evidence supports this, but this trope probably got a push from the misunderstanding of Darwin’s “survival of the fittest” which might be the opposite.
In the workplace this plays out far too often. People who feel different or tend to challenge the status quo tend to receive punishment rather than promotion. Far too often we experience leaders and managers who feel that questioning employees diminish their authority.
The Fearless Organization describes how we create space for diverse groups of people to feel safe taking risks. In one sense this is the opposite of “safe” — it’s safest, in the short term, to do nothing or to keep doing the same thing. In Edmondson’s telling enabling people to take the risk to speak up and speak their minds is the key to learning and innovation. This is something we hear again and again from successful innovation work — Professor Alf Rehn describes a condition of successful innovation as allowing the misfits to have a space where they can be misfits without worrying about fitting in or saying the right thing.
I especially enjoyed Edmondson’s description of what psychological safety is NOT:
“Psychological safety is not about being nice…Psychological safety is about candor.”
This is a hard one in Sweden, especially. It doesn’t mean that we should be mean toward each other but that we shouldn’t avoid disagreeing with each other if it leads to improvement and learning. Too often we reserve candor for those in the upper hierarchy and while we expect niceness from those below. Psychological safety demands the opposite, perhaps.
“Psychological safety is not a personality factor.”
That is, it’s not for extroverts where speaking out comes naturally. It’s actually the opposite — it is for the introverts, the diverse, the less powerful by leveling the playing field.
“Psychological safety is not just another word for trust.”
I think this is a fascinating differentiation. In my experience, it’s hard to deliver high level creative and innovative solutions without a significant level of trust on a team. As Edmondson describes it, trust is about you giving someone else the benefit of the doubt whereas psychological safety is about the organization giving you the benefit of the doubt. A fascinating difference.
Reading the book, I couldn’t help thinking about diversity. While I experienced the importance and need for diversity on a real level in the U.S. it seems to be completely missing in action in Sweden. There seems to be an extremely low level of diversity awareness. And where it does exist, it exists on a superficial level that the book addresses, in a limited sense.
For psychological safety, it is not enough to have a diverse workforce, hard enough as it is to achieve. Hiring multi-cultural Swedes (i.e., non-white) won’t solve a diversity challenge if the organization expects those hires to try to simply fit in seamlessly to the status-quo culture. Again, it’s the opposite — diversity hires need to feel that they have permission to be different, to see things from new perspectives and to challenge the status quo. Really that is their amazing value. Psychological safety enables that value — it’s sadly a too rare occurrence.
I also liked how Edmondson frames “courage” which seems like the same thing as “fearless.” In Edmondson’s telling, asking people to act courageously puts the onus on the individual whereas psychological safety puts the onus on the organization. I would say we need more of courageous individual acting within fearless organizations.
The key to all of this, according to the book, is to systematize psychological safety. Typically, that starts and stops with leadership — those people leading organizations. Rather than slogans, they need to lead by example. Rather than words on the walls or in employee handbooks, leaders need to walk the walk, not only being vulnerable and open but actively walking the walk to show what psychological safety looks like in meetings, individual and group interactions. The book gives several examples but, this is really, really hard work.
It reminds me of an online conference I attended where the two CEOs of Sweden’s leading public sector innovation organizations, two very talented women, by the way, each spoke about the need to de-stigmatize failure by making it okay for their employees to fail and to recognize failure as a positive. Psychological safety, in a sense. In the QA I asked both CEOs to give an example to the audience of when they failed and shared it. I learned later that the question pissed off one of the CEOs, — she felt the question was an attack. The other gave a very typical non-answer of failure that was success. I thought this would be a great example for other leaders to model behaviors. But it points to how hard it is for leaders to change their own behavior instead of asking everyone else to change theirs.
Toward the end of the book Edmondson starts to describe some necessary steps for leaders to take to start building a fearless culture, including setting the stage, inviting participation, responding productively. I found that the concepts of demonstrating situational humility and expressing appreciation resonated especially with me.
And like every other culture change, it’s easier to go through the steps than to change the behavior of the organization. One of the things that I’ve experienced that enables success is to make sure there is some type of a brain trust, with some gifted personal coaches, as a sounding board and filter for leadership. They too need a psychological safety and support to make sure that people take the necessary risks for this important change and that they are open to exploring areas where they can do better.
This is lifelong work — it’s never done, and we love “done.” Creating fearless organizations with psychological safety is hard to create and easy to dismantle, especially where personnel changes are the norm rather than the exception.
My last observation is this: leaders who “think” that they are creating a psychologically safe workplace are usually not — they are creating a culture where people will follow their lead. It may feel “nice” or “inclusive” or “consensus driven” but at the end of the day it serves simply to keep diverse or questioning employees quiet. And I’m not sure what you can do about them, except to find another job or to suck it up. Bad choices all around.
From a human standpoint, creating psychological safety seems like a no-brainer. From an organizational standpoint, it can seem like a utopian fantasy. It’s hard to create a fearless organization without a high level of emotional maturity, something that often seems like its in very short supply sometimes.