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The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace


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.


WHY AND ENVIRONMENT OF SHARING IDEAS MATTERS

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