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
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.