How To Build a Fearless Organization
Interview by Martha Lagace
“Psychological safety at work takes effort. It’s not the norm. But it’s worth the effort,” says Professor Amy Edmondson. She explains how and why a culture of open candor—and the willingness and courage to speak up—is a strategic asset and can be developed in companies of all sizes, in her new book The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth.
“These are not things that happen routinely in most organizations, but they are mission critical to doing well in a complex, fast changing world,” she says. In our Q&A we asked her guidance for managers and leaders.
Martha Lagace: What makes a workplace psychologically safe or not?
Amy Edmondson: Individuals feel they can speak up, express their concerns, and be heard. This is not to say that people are “nice.” A psychologically safe workplace is one where people are not full of fear, and not trying to cover their tracks to avoid being embarrassed or punished.
What I am advocating is candor. Being open. And sometimes that might mean being direct to a fault, knowing that you have a right and a responsibility to ask hard questions about the work: “Is this the right decision? Are we collecting the right data? Do we know the impact this might have on others?”
When we are psychologically safe at work we’re willing to accept that we can be ignorant about some things and very smart about others. Psychologically safe employees are more interested in learning, excellence, and genuinely connecting with others than in looking good.
That sounds like what everyone wants, but as human beings we’re hardwired and socialized to care what others think of us. This is not bad or good, it’s just true. And it is sometimes unhelpful in knowledge-intensive work. We may need to override some of our very human instincts, the instinct to look good instead of being truthful, to avoid hurting someone’s feelings instead of truthful. Or the instinct to agree with the boss instead of saying, “Hmm, I’m not sure that’s going to work.”
I care about psychological safety and the impact it can have on business risk and human safety. Without psychological safety, there’s greater risk of cutting corners and people getting hurt, whether employees, customers, or patients. Product launches might fail because we didn’t listen when colleagues asked hard questions about how the product would work. Without psychological safety, if the boss says, ‘You must hit this target’ but the target is impossible, you can end up with cheating and scandal, which obviously nobody wanted.
Lagace: How do organizations help or hurt psychological safety?
Edmondson: Organizations are usually designed in ways that exacerbate rather than ameliorate our natural tendencies for self-protection. Most organizations are hierarchical, but in some more than others employees are acutely aware of status differences. In those organizations, people are overly careful and cautious around those higher up in the hierarchy.
That’s a psychologically unsafe situation and ultimately it is a risky situation for the company. At hospitals and NASA test sites, for example, psychological safety matters for human safety and sometimes even life and death. Well-run, high-risk organizations have nailed this by creating a climate of directness. They make clear that anyone can voice a good observation or idea independent of his or her position in the hierarchy.
Lagace: How can managers create psychological safety among people they lead?
Edmondson: Managers in any role—whether at the top or front line of an organization—can do this. On one level it is so simple. But simple doesn’t mean easy. And simple doesn’t mean it will occur to someone in the moment to do it.
First, set the stage. Create a shared understanding of the nature of the work we do and why everyone’s input matters. If I am a physician running an intensive care unit, for example, I need to frequently set the stage by reminding people what is at stake, how fragile our patients are, and how complex and error-prone our systems are. This is not about calling out potential incompetence. It means acknowledging out loud that by their nature our systems can compound mistakes, and unless we do everything with interpersonal awareness and focus, things can go wrong.
Having set the stage, it’s also important to proactively invite input. Asking is the simplest and best way to get people to offer their ideas. Even if a leader has explained how error-prone the work is, people still have a threshold to overcome in speaking up with concerns or mistakes. To help them, simply ask questions. Questions like: “What do you see in this situation?” Most of us feel awkward not answering a question addressed to us.
Third, respond appreciatively. Having explained the nature of the work and asked for input, if you bite someone’s head off the first time they bring bad news, that will kill the psychological safety pretty quickly. Managers need to say things like, “Thanks for that clear line of sight.” And, “What can we do to help you out?” Responding appreciatively does not mean that you’re thrilled with everything that was said; it means that you recognize the courage it takes to come forward with bad news, or to ask a question when you’re unsure about something.
It’s important to note that psychological safety is a necessary not sufficient condition for organizational learning, innovation, or excellence. Other drivers of success include the willingness to have challenging conversations thoughtfully, the willingness to be wrong, and such things as good experimental design. There are many factors that affect an organization’s success in the 21st century. This is just one of them.
Lagace: You write that psychological safety varies a lot even in one company.
Edmondson: Yes. In most organizations of any size that I’ve studied or that others have studied, we find significant differences across work groups, regions, or branches; a lot of that is because of local leadership: the team leader, the branch manager, or whoever leads the local unit.
Psychological safety also has an important relationship with diversity, inclusion, and belonging. As the experts note, diversity can be directly altered. It is a lever that managers can pull, so to speak, given the power and resources to do so. Specifically, they can decide to design hiring to achieve greater diversity—whether gender, race, geography, or national culture. But simply hiring a diverse talent pool is not enough, of course. Inclusion is the next level, when people of different backgrounds feel that their voice matters and that they are included in the important meetings. Then, belonging can be seen as a higher level still. It’s possible for people to be at important meetings even to be speaking up, and still to not feel that people like them belong there. Belonging means this is a place where I can thrive; I feel that I am truly a member of the community.
As organizations seek to convert diversity into inclusion and belonging, psychological safety is increasingly important. Without psychological safety, diversity does not automatically mean people can bring their full selves to the work.
Originally posted by Harvard Business School, Working Knowledge.