The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth (My 3 Takeaways)

It is easy to look at psychological safety through the lens of corporate scandals and groupthink-tinged tragedies, from Enron to Uber, and NASA to the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. However, psychological safety is an every day threat to the innovation and performance of people in organizations in every industry in every part of the world.

In a world where the pace of change continues to accelerate, and where it is essential to leverage people’s emotional, intellectual, and relational talents, organizations must position people in every level of an organization to bring the best of those talents to the table.

Despite this dire need, far too many organizations are stifling those talents by creating, fostering, and protecting cultures of insecurity and interpersonal fear. One of the most basic, and indeed one of the strongest, impulses of the human brain is the “fight or flight,” or survival instinct. As highly social and tribe-oriented creatures, we are hard-wired to avoid things that may separate us from the rest of our tribe.

Therein lies the problem for today’s organizations. In the Industrial Revolution, the knowledge at the top of the hierarchy was the only perspective that mattered; in that era, it was the role of the workers to accept and implement the leader’s vision as efficiently as possible.

Today, where intellectual and interpersonal talents have become more valuable than physical talents, the insights and perspectives at every level of the organization must be quickly and thoroughly disseminated throughout the organization to operate at the highest level.

For individuals to bring their best talents to any organization, they cannot lose any of their valuable emotional, intellectual, or relational capacity to doubts, fears, or worries.

Therefore, psychological safety may be the single biggest determinant of an organization’s success.

“The Fearless Organization,” by Amy C. Edmondson, is a thorough and well-researched guide to fostering psychological safety in any organization, combining Edmondson’s 20 years of research on the topic with illuminating examples of leaders and organizations that have demonstrated psychological safety, as well as those who have destroyed it. At the beginning of the book, Edmondson also makes a robust business case for psychological safety, removing any concerns that the idea itself is fluffy, feel good nonsense.

Each of the book’s eight chapters ends with specific, tangible takeaways, making it easy for any leader to digest key points and to implement principles in order to create a better environment for an organization’s people. Although the book is addressed to leaders, Edmondson encourages all of us to look up, look down, and look across in our organizations because it is possible-even necessary-for every one of us to create pockets of excellence.

Here are my three biggest takeaways.

Takeaway #1: Psychological Safety Precedes Physical Safety

Although the first two chapters explicitly make the case for psychological safety, one of the most powerful illustrations of that need came from Chapter 6, “Safe and Sound,” where Edmondson tells the story of Cynthia Carroll’s ascension to the top of Anglo American, where she become the first female CEO of any international mining company, which was even more stunning given that women were not allowed to even visit underground mines in the not-too-distant past.

One of Carroll’s first and most pressing priorities was improving worker safety. Despite a number of costly, large-scale, top-down initiatives to improve worker safety, including closing one of the most dangerous (yet most profitable) mines, problems persisted and none of the workers spoke up. Carroll said, “I wondered how much authority someone who is underground for hours on end, with a shift supervisor right behind him, really has. I questioned whether a line worker had the power to put up his hand and say, ‘I’m not going to do this, because it is unsafe.’”

Edmondson summarized, “In other words, the workers had to feel psychologically safe in order to speak up about their physical safety,” proving that psychological safety must form the foundation of any organization to allow its people to not only perform at a high level, but even to protect their basic safety.

In any hierarchy, speaking up is an unnatural behavior because individuals look to leaders in ambiguous situations, which makes it critical for leaders to constantly and purposefully cultivate psychologically safe cultures. Absent psychological safety, too much of the responsibility for speaking up falls on individuals, who must then confront and overcome a combination of internal and external forces to speak up in any given situation.

Likewise, many hierarchies are organized around protecting individuals at the top of the organizations, such as “at will” employment policies that can remove a lower level employee with ease, whereas “high performers” are more often than not “given the benefit of the doubt,” as Susan Fowler shared from her experience at Uber in Chapter 4. Such mechanisms of power and silence obliterate any semblance of psychological safety, forcing people to go along to get along, thereby negating any notion that most people’s voices offer significant value to the organization.

Psychological safety, on the other hand, unleashes uncommon levels of collaboration, embracing diverse viewpoints, innovation, performance, and problem-solving.

Takeaway #2: F.A.I.L. - First Attempt In Learning

One of Edmondson’s strongest calls to action is that, unless a leader continually, explicitly, and specifically makes it safe for people to fail, those people will always default to behaviors whereby they can avoid failure. Thus, in a complex and rapidly changing world, the only way to get people to dedicate themselves to taking on hard problems is by making it safe for them to do so, which necessitates embracing failure as not only a beneficial part of the process, but a necessary one. In this way, people don’t fail, they make a First Attempt In Learning (F.A.I.L.).

Ray Dalio, who founded Bridgewater Associates, developed a document titled, “Principles,” for the organization, which has since become an Amazon and New York Times best-selling book. In the book, Dalio said that leaders must “create an environment in which… no one has the right to hold a critical opinion without speaking up about it.” In this way, the exchange of information is not only invited, it is required.

In learning-centric, psychologically safe cultures, conflict is not a contest to be won, but a process that serves the purpose of discovering what is true. In these environments, Learning only happens when there is sufficient psychological safety to fully excavate issues without defensiveness or pre-determined destinations.

When learning leads the way, camaraderie, creativity, engagement, innovation, and performance explode as people see how their contributions and perspectives are valued in real time.

Takeaway #3: Three Behaviors of Leadership Inclusivity

I could easily extend this post to seven or eight, or maybe even 20 takeaways, because the entire book is full of brilliant insights. But, I would be remiss if I didn’t end with a takeaway from the final chapter, “Making it Happen,” which offers “The Leader’s Tool Kit.” This tool kit is divided into three categories anybody can use for creating a psychologically safe culture in any organization.

  1. Setting the Stage

    Framing the Work - Every one of us brings our our frame to every situation, oftentimes without consciously choosing that frame, reflecting the quote often attributed to Anaïs Nin, “We don’t see things as they are; we see them as we are.” By offering an explicit shift in perspective, leaders can help others feel safe in speaking up, thereby increasing awareness of potential problems, as well as providing opportunities for collaborative learning.

    Motivating Effort - It is the job of all leaders at all levels to continually reinforce how and why people work matters (“the bigger picture”), which then reinforces psychological safety.

  2. Inviting Participation

    Situational Humility - A learning mindset, which combines curiosity and humility, is important for leaders to create environments where others’ participation is not only valued, but welcomed. Edmondson reminds us that confidence and humility are not opposites, pointing out, “Humility is the simple recognition that you don’t have all the answers, and you certainly don’t have a crystal ball. Research shows that when leaders express humility, teams engage in more learning behavior.”

    Proactive Inquiry - Edmondson cautions leaders about a cognitive bias called “naive realism,” which is a failure to recognize that the “reality” any of us sees is, in fact, a subjective view of that reality. The danger inherent in this bias is that it causes us to assume others are seeing things the same way that we see them, which prevents us from becoming curious and seeking additional insights and perspectives. Edmondson offers a list of “Powerful Questions” as an antidote to naive realism.

    Designing Structures for Input - A third approach for inviting participation and reinforcing psychological safety is by designing systems for that purpose. For example, Google introduced a “g2g” (Googler-to-Googler) network, which provides opportunities for peer mentoring and peer-led learning. The g2g network provides opportunities for everybody to be both learners and teachers.

  3. Responding Productively

    Express Appreciation - There is a profound power in a simple “thank you.” As Edmondson writes, “the courage to speak up must receive the mini-reward of thanks,” which is even more important in ambiguous and uncertain environments, where it can be more difficult for people to speak up. “When people believe their performance is an indication of their ability or intelligence, they are less likely to take risks - for fear of a result that would disconfirm their ability. But when people believe that performance reflects effort and good strategy, they are eager to try new things and willing to persevere despite adversity and failure.”

    Destigmatize Failure - Edmondson draws a sharp distinction between failures that result from the violation of a rule or value and failures that result from a hypothesis or plan not working out. The first clearly warrants blame, whereas the second presents an opportunity for learning. Edmondson offers an example from Eli Lilly, where “failure parties” honor those well-designed experiments that don’t work out for whatever reason. In environments where people are punished when honest, sincere efforts don’t work out, it becomes natural for those people and others to hide failures and to not take risks in order to protect themselves.

    Sanction Clear Violations - One of the criticisms (inaccurately) levied at proponents of psychological safety is that sometimes punishment is necessary. Edmondson states that it is necessary to sanction, even dismiss, people who repeatedly violate rules or put themselves, their colleagues, or their organization at risk. But, she also cautions, “If policies are unclear, however, a productive response is one that turns the unfortunate event into a different kind of learning opportunity - for the company and sometimes for the interested public,” and also adds, “It is equally vital not to inadvertently send a message that says, ‘diverse opinions simply won’t be tolerated here,’ or ‘one strike and you’re out.” These types of messages can be catastrophic for morale and psychological safety in the organization.