The Fearless Organization by Amy C. Edmondson

2 Mar 2021 2:21 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

In her book 'The Fearless Organization,' Amy C. Edmondson, Harvard Business School's Professor of Leadership and Management, gives leaders and managers new ideas and practices to create the optimal environments needed for knowledge-intensive organizations to work better. In today's volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA) world of business and our ever-increasing reliance on creativity, imagination, and innovation to agilely respond to market needs, psychologically safe workplaces are more necessary than ever before. 

Both individual and collective talents must be harnessed and directed for our businesses' good and maintain organizational relevance. For talents to be unleashed, a psychologically safe environment – one that welcomes questions, new ideas and doesn't shy away from failure – needs to be established and nurtured. Then, and only then, will people take the risk of speaking up, sharing their thoughts and opinions, and risking failure to enhance a business' productivity or innovate new products and systems. 

Edmondson's book shows us the importance of psychological safety at work, provides examples of what psychologically unsafe workplaces can lead to, and details a map for creating and nurturing psychological safety within any business. 


Both consciously and unconsciously, we avoid interpersonal risks. Nowhere outside the workplace is this more true. No-one wants to look ignorant, incompetent, or unnecessarily rock the boat. At work, doing so could put our very livelihoods on the line, or at the very least, reduce our social standing in the groups that are hugely important to our view of self. While keeping quiet may protect us from these judgments, it isn't good for business, innovation, and customer experiences.  

When workplaces lack psychological safety, errors go unreported, opportunities for innovation are missed, and awkward situations can quickly develop. Fear of appearing inept, reprimanded, humiliated, or even penalized often holds people back from sharing essential business insights and ideas. While their self-protection is natural and often subconscious, the impact on an organization can be devastating. 

Edmondson argues that regardless of the talent a business has employed, without the right conditions – conditions that support psychological safety – that talent will never blossom enough to produce the fruit a company needs to achieve unrivaled success. Psychological safety is integral for speaking openly, suggesting new ideas, questioning current practices, and effectively coordinating with others. These reasons make psychological safety imperative for business success now and in the future. 

Teams with high levels of psychological safety outperform their less safe counterparts in process improvements, creativity, innovation, and research and development. While not a cure-all, psychological safety is foundational for other important workplace behaviors – clear goal setting, dependable colleagues, personally meaningful work, and a belief that your work has impact are all reliant on the level of psychological safety within a working group. 

Edmondson details stories from more than 20 organizations that illustrate the consequences of workplace fear and the undeniable benefits of psychological safety. From Volkswagen and their fall from grace with the diesel emissions scandal to Nokia's disappearance from the mobile phone market – each of the businesses described can trace their public failures back to a culture of fear and psychologically unsafe working environments. 

Conversely, many outrageously successful organizations - Pixar, Barry-Wehmiller, and others - attribute much of their success to creating a psychologically safe work environment that supports employees to speak their minds and bring their whole selves to work, and actively participate in building a better business for all. 

Psychologically unsafe workplaces, ones led by fear of stepping out of line or being caught on the wrong side of failure, may work for a while. But this kind of environment sows the seeds of failure. Deception, silence, and withholding relevant data combine to create an organizational timebomb. A timebomb set to go off and cause painful, sometimes public, damage to the organization that allowed it to develop. 

Building workplace confidence and psychological safety 

Creating a psychologically safe workplace is a journey that takes patience, consistency, and continued nurturing of the right behaviors. It's not just leaders who have the power to bring about psychological safety at work – although they do hold the sway of power in this arena. Managers at all levels, across all departments of an organization, play a part in creating and keeping psychological safety within their workplaces. 

Two of the critical ways leaders and managers can sow the seeds of psychological safety are framing silence as an unethical choice and actively ensuring people know that it is safe to fail. People should understand that their colleagues and the larger business deserve and expect their candor. If failure is not overtly allowed, spoken about positively, and responded to correctly, people will avoid it wherever possible. 

Psychologically safe workplaces invite participation, ideas, and opinions from all levels of the organization. They seek to fail fast and learn from their mistakes to grow and become better at what they do. More often than not, psychologically safe companies are led by leaders who aren't afraid to admit they don't have all the answers and speak candidly about the goals the business seeks and the challenges they will face along the way. 

Psychologically safe workplaces are not reliant on a single person. They are co-created with the help of strong yet humble leaders. These workplaces give people the license to thrive and grow, they encourage openness and innovation, and they provide the tools and policies that teams need to achieve greatness. 

A blueprint for psychological safety at work 

The author finishes the book with a straightforward process for building and sustaining a psychologically safe workplace environment. 

Beginning with Setting the Stage, leaders can help people start thinking about their work differently, particularly when things go wrong. Framing failures as opportunities for learning is critical at this initial stage of building psychologically safe workplace cultures. Setting expectations about failure, uncertainty, and the interdependent nature of various organizations' jobs are also crucial at this stage. 

Supporting this early framing is behavior that emphasizes the purpose of the business—identifying what's at stake and why the work matters are also vital for stage setting in terms of psychological safety. The shared purpose is motivating and pulls teams together to form the strong supportive bonds that are integral to a psychologically safe work environment. 

After setting the stage, leaders need to invite participation from all levels of their organization. This is most effectively achieved by asking concrete, direct, respectful, and curious questions that lead people to think deeply and aspirationally. 

Powerful questions stimulate reflective conversations, provoke thought and evoke even more questions. They also allow leaders to display situational humility, demonstrating that they don't know everything and value the input from the people within their organization. The work should invite participation with formal structures and processes that seek information and provide guidelines for respectful discussions. 

Finally, it is not enough to set the stage and invite participation if leaders are not open and welcoming to the responses they request. Actively listening to the answers sought after should include expressions of appreciation – even when the answers are not as productive as managers may have hoped for!  The very act of speaking up and offering an opinion should be acknowledged and thanked. In doing so, leaders give others the message that their views, thoughts, and ideas are both welcomed and valued. 

Failure must also be destigmatized. Rather than providing an opportunity to blame and shame, failures need to be looked at and thought of as growth and learning opportunities. These conversations allow those involved to discuss, consider and work together to find newer and better ways of working. 

Psychologically safe workplaces are not a destination to be arrived at; rather, they are a continual process of small and large corrections that move a company toward inspired innovation, greater clarity, and deeper insights. If businesses want to remain relevant and viable in the VUCA environment of today and tomorrow, psychological safety at work is not merely a 'nice-to-have'; it is key for enabling the growth of people's talents and pushing organizations to achieve tremendous success. 


About the Talent Transformation Guild

The Talent Transformation Guild provides resources for professionals that are preparing for upskilling being triggered by 4th industrial revolution and accelerated by Covid-19. Members include c-level executives, human resource professionals, consultants, and coaches. As a member-driven organization it promotes best practices via webcasts, webinars, podcasts, articles, white papers, research and conversations to improve and make the best of the talents of individuals for the benefit of themselves and the organisations they work for.

The Guild enable stimulating and meaningful discussions to help professionals prepare for talent transformations at individual, team and organizational levels. The Guild supports the Talent Transformation Pyramid, an open source model, designed specifically to recognize the widest possible range of talent influencers and skills. To date many decision-makers are caught in traditional, linear thinking and immediate concerns to consider this. The Talent Transformation Pyramid enables you to address the challenge by promoting more strategic thinking with a focus on an organization’s readiness to perform.

About the Future of Work

According to the World Economic Forum, new and emerging technologies are affecting our lives in ways that indicate we are at the beginning of a Fourth Industrial Revolution. This new era will build and extend the impact of digitization in new and unimaginable ways. The Fourth Industrial Revolution can be described as the advent of “cyber-physical systems” involving new capabilities for people and machines. This will see new ways for technology to become embedded within societies and even our bodies.

With process automation, robotic automation, the internet of things the nature of work will change. Some analysts predict that more than 40% of tasks currently performed by humans will be delegated to machines. This does not mean that 40% of people will be put out of work but it does mean that most workers will have to upskill. HR experts are predicting this will dramatically change the landscape of our workforce.

About the Guild's Founders

Eric Shepherd an accomplished leader of international businesses and associations focused on talent, assessments, and success. Eric recently stepped away from a CEO role where he worked to build a SaaS company into a multi-million-dollar international assessment software business. Eric has also led industry and standards initiatives to promote best practices for assessments, learning, and interoperability. He currently serves as Chair of the IEEE P1484.20.2 working group developing Recommended Practice for Defining Competencies. Eric has previously served on Boards and working groups for:

  • HR Open Standards that defines interoperability standards for HR technology.
  • Association of Test Publishers and the European Association of Test Publishers that represents providers of tests and assessment tools.
  • The IEEE P1484.20.1 Standard for Learning Technology—Data Model for Reusable Competency Definitions working group.
  • IMS which defines interoperability standards for educational technology. 

Eric was instrumental in developing the IMS QTI interoperability standard and assisted with the US Department of Defense Advanced Distributed Learning (ADL) initiative to define the Sharable Content Object Reference Model (SCORM) and the Aviation Industry Computer-Based Training Committee (AICC) to define launch and track standards for Learning Management Systems.

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